'I'd love for parishes to come and use the Cathedral more'

Canon Anthony O'Brien, dean of the Cathedral, looks to the future

For Canon Anthony O'Brien, there was a glimpse of the future of the Metropolitan Cathedral during the Year of Mercy celebrations that took place in 2016.

Recalling the pilgrimages made to the Cathedral by different deaneries from across the Archdiocese, he explains: "They were each given a day to come to the Cathedral on pilgrimage and during that day they had a time for devotions, a celebration of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, and a Mass. It created a lovely atmosphere and I think everyone who came found it an uplifting experience. I'd love that idea to grow, whereby the parishes felt they could come and use the Cathedral and its facilities and have a Mass and some time to spend reflecting and also a bit of a day out as well."

If that is one wish for the future, Canon O’Brien – aka Father Tony – is able to offer other insights into how life may change at the Cathedral in years to come. Dean since 2006, he has discerned some notable trends already. "There's a growing appreciation from people who want a more formal type of celebration," he says. "Even if they don't want the Mass in Latin, they like the idea of some of the plain chant being sung and choral music."

At the same time, the Cathedral provides "for a wider constituency" than it did previously, owing to the closure of inner-city churches and the amalgamation of others. "What we can offer is a facility and a choice of Masses for people living around the inner city," he says, citing the variety of services on offer, including an evening youth Mass and Sunday-morning family Mass in the crypt.

The crypt itself is not just a place of worship. Since its reopening in 2009, it has proved a vital source of revenue – estimated at around £200,000 per year. Canon O'Brien explains: "We have everything ranging from wine tasting to corporate dinners to the university using the spaces for exams or gatherings or lectures. All of that brings in an income.

"Because we are in the city centre, we also have a lot of community-run events and ecumenical events. We work in partnership with other churches, particularly with the other cathedral, and events are either hosted here or down the road. They are not necessarily income-generation but bring a lot of activity into the building. Every day there's a range of things happening. There could be something community-focused down in the crypt and we might have a school Mass upstairs."

There is also a steady flow of visitors. That number has almost doubled, he reckons, to "about half a million a year" during the past decade. "There'll always be that interest in the building. It's an example of 20th-century architecture of which there are not many, so it will always be a place that people flock to as an iconic building."

Iconic, but expensive to maintain. "We are never finished with maintenance," adds Canon O'Brien who, looking ahead, believes the Cathedral's upkeep will require £5m or more in each decade to come. "The biggest worry we have now is the lantern tower of the Cathedral," he says. "That will need ongoing maintenance and the big problem is the height and the access. Anything at that sort of height carries a huge cost because of people having to get up there and work safely."

There is a more significant challenge for the future, though – namely that "the Cathedral will always be relevant to people". He continues: "We are seeing a decline in the number of clergy and also people attending Mass. At present the Cathedral is still very buoyant and active. With every generation we need to work with people for them to see the relevance of the building and to be involved. Getting that involvement is key because the Cathedral is nothing without the people who are involved."