In the middle of March I was in Liverpool for a family bereavement (how long ago that seems now!). News reports were coming in about how the virus that had begun in China had reached Europe and was also present in the UK. I was able to drive back to Norfolk on the day before the lockdown was put in place. Overnight everything changed. We were told to stay at home to protect the NHS. Our churches were closed, most parish activities stopped abruptly, and normal social contact was forbidden. It seemed like stepping into a strange, parallel world.
When familiar landmarks are removed we instinctively look to replace them. My daily routine had been shaped by these familiar events – daily Mass in one of the three churches, meetings, appointments, etc. In between there was time for meals, reading and relaxing. Suddenly everything changed. Dates in the diary disappeared. How were the long, empty hours of the day to be filled? How would it be possible to continue some kind of ministry? Like many other people I felt the need for some kind of structure.
One fixed point is daily Mass albeit in an empty church. The breviary provides regular times of prayer throughout the day. Lots of time for reading, of course. The year of Matthew has been an opportunity to explore his gospel in some depth. Books that I had previously earmarked as ‘to be read one day’ are now taken down and dusted off. Eamon Duffy’s ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ has been a long-delayed treat. ‘War and Peace’ might have to wait a bit longer. For lighter reading the novels of Patrick O’Brian are a great standby. Many clergy who live alone are now living a kind of monastic regime; a reliving of seminary days perhaps but without the all-important element of community.
This challenging time has been a reminder that the Church is made up primarily of ‘living stones’. We may have a duty of care to our buildings, but our first duty is to our people. The sacramental famine is keenly felt in our parishes, especially Sunday Mass. Many people avail themselves of the Masses streamed from churches throughout the diocese and beyond. Networks have been set up whereby parishioners can stay in touch and share items of news. Zoom and Whatsapp make meetings possible again (a mixed blessing!). Since the lockdown I have tried to contact six different parishioners each day, either by phone or email. It helps to alleviate the isolation and is reassuring both for them and for me. It also reminds me that, whatever the constraints imposed at present, we are still communities of faith that reach out in hope to the future, whatever it may bring.
Pictured above is Fr James Walsh