I feel a sadness when I enter the chapel to go to Mass. There are so many empty seats. People simply are not coming back to Mass in the way they once did. Dr Gladys Ganiel wrote last week in this newspaper about the results of a survey by the Iona Institute which showed that 54% of those who were regular Massgoers had not yet returned to church. It moved me to wonder what lay behind such a change. Of course reasons were given, but only 6% said that their faith was not as strong as it had been before Covid-19.
I think of the people I used to see every week, whom I rarely see now. They were and are part of our community. I miss them.
Coming together in church is not just a physical gathering, the Church is not just any building – our forefathers laboured mightily to gather together the money to build our churches. After the penal times, when it became possible to celebrate faith together again, there must have been such rejoicing that they could safely and freely come together in God’s house to worship as community. They achieved quite amazing things if we contemplate the number of churches which were built across Ireland during the 19th Century, in those years after the famine.
We all know that when we gather together in church or elsewhere to pray, it is different from going to a party or shopping or coffee or a drink with friends. We participate in a spiritual and sacred event, part of our life’s journey in faith. We are joined together in prayer, to worship God, to reflect on, acknowledge and be sorry for those occasions in our lives when we have failed, to thank him for all that is good in our lives and to ask him for his help.
For some, on occasion, even though they are present, prayer is not possible. Whatever is happening or has happened in their life – serious illness, bereavement, loss, unemployment, depression for example – has affected them to such an extent that prayer has become maybe almost too difficult or too distant. On those occasions, and we will all at some time suffer such moments of darkness, those for whom life is easier and those who are happy can carry those who are struggling in their prayer. I have known those moments when I could not pray, but the prayers of those around me have comforted me and carried me through until the light dawned again in the darkness. Have you ever known such a moment?
So the ability to go to church and to be the community God asks us to be, is a great blessing. In liturgy when we can be present all our senses are engaged – there is music, eventually we hope that we will be able to sing again, we see and feel the beauty and serenity of our churches, we feel the people around us, we smell the unique smell of church and we may even “taste and see that the Lord is good”, being nurtured for our onward journey. We are centred again in the Lord.
It was very hard for so many people to lose that ability, and all that it involved, because of the coronavirus. Our people and priests worked very hard in many areas to utilise the internet and broadcast Mass, benediction, adoration, novenas and prayer services. It was quite amazing to see what was achieved. Yet it was not the same, for we could not gather together as we are called to do.
Now our churches are open again and we can arise and go again to the altar, yet so many are not doing so.
Is it time to have a national initiative to call the people back, rather than just letting them go without trying to bring them back?
Loss of faith
The Iona Institute survey showed that it was not a matter of loss of faith for most people: 62% had concerns about Covid-19 and being in public places, 33% about limitations on numbers and the wearing of masks. It is right to be concerned about Covid-19 and it is right to take sensible precautions, but the reality is that there have been very few cases of coronavirus being contracted in churches: our volunteers really have led the way in cleaning, sanitising and maintaining records of those who attended. Can we reassure those who fear being in a public place?
Those who are vaccinated are now protected, they are being encouraged to become active again – shortly here in the North there will be a distribution of £100 to every person on the electoral register to be spent locally to boost the local economy. People are being encouraged to get out and about again, and they are doing so in increasing numbers. We spent a couple of days last week in Donegal and the town was buzzing with tourists and locals mixing freely in the glorious sunshine.
So perhaps we could explain this, and explain that churches are as safe or safer than other places in which we gather such as shops, pubs and cafes.
The second reason which people gave for not attending related to the restriction in numbers and the need to wear masks. The need to restrict numbers is less now – people need to be a metre apart from those with whom they do not live but that is better than the original two metre rule. So more people can come and in many cases there are empty seats in which they could be sitting. Here in the North, we are only required to wear masks when entering and leaving the church. So that is much easier. Can we help those who find the limitations on numbers and the masks a problem, by telling them that that there are places for them, that we don’t have to wear masks all the time now, and that we wish they would come back because we are journeying together and in our community of faith lies our strength, our mutual support, our joy?
One in five say that they prefer to watch Mass on TV or listen on the radio. For those who cannot leave their homes, for whatever reason, the ability to attend remotely is a huge blessing.
However, attendance at Mass is not a solitary matter – it is the time when we celebrate together as a community, when the opportunity to speak to fellow parishioners is a precious opportunity, especially for those who live alone and don’t get out often, but most of all it is the time when, gathered together as a parish family, we are nurtured in our reception of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, our saviour and redeemer.
If we care for those who are walking the same journey as us back to the Lord, surely we should try, at least, to help them to have courage to come back to pray with us in person?