Long wait over as churches reopen

By Simon Hart

‘We will all have a role to play in keeping each other safe and healthy. We are not going back to normal. It is not going back to what it was like before March. We have to think differently. If you can come during the week do so to make space for those who can only come during the weekend – think about others as you decide about what to do.’ Archbishop Malcolm McMahon

It was on 6 July that churches across the Archdiocese of Liverpool began to reopen for Mass. Fully 105 days had passed since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted their doors to close. In the intervening period, streamed Masses had become the norm – and a vital connection. Yet as one parish priest, Father John Gorman, puts it, there is nothing quite like celebrating Mass in the presence of a live congregation.
 
‘At Easter I was about to start the Vigil Mass on my own,’ he begins, by way of example. ‘I did say to somebody that the words of Eleanor Rigby sprang to mind: “Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear.” There was an element of the biggest celebration of the year and I’m doing this on my own, and it didn’t feel right.’
 
With churches allowed to reopen for private prayer from 15 June and the subsequent green light for public Mass, the gradual return of congregations is something to be welcomed according to Fr John, who is parish priest at St Oswald’s and St Edmund Arrowsmith, and St Wilfrid’s in Ashton-in-Makerfield as well as Our Lady Immaculate in Bryn. ‘I thought it was very important,’ he says. ‘People were beginning to feel quite bereft in a way.’ Thanks to technology it had been possible to have access Masses online yet now people could start returning to their places of worship.
 
‘We had St Oswald’s open for private prayer and devotion for about a fortnight before we were given the go-ahead to say Mass publicly and I was very keen to get all three churches open,’ Fr John adds. ‘There was a great sense of homecoming for a lot of people. When I first let some of the ladies in to prepare the place you could see a great delight in their eyes. I’d certainly hope that what we’ve learned from this is how much the celebration of Mass actually means to us.’
 
That said, those attending Mass have encountered significant changes. It is attending church but not as any of us have known it. A video guide on the diocesan website highlights this as it spells out the guidelines laid down by the Archdiocese. It shows a woman wearing a face mask entering the church of Holy Rosary in Aintree. Once inside, she cleans her hands with sanitising gel and then is guided to a pew. Every second bench is sealed off. According to Archbishop Malcolm McMahon, speaking in the video, the aim is to create ‘a safe but reverent environment’.

Noting there remains no Sunday obligation, the Archbishop adds: ‘We will all have a role to play in keeping each other safe and healthy. We are not going back to normal. It is not going back to what it was like before March. We have to think differently. If you can come during the week do so to make space for those who can only come during the weekend – think about others as you decide about what to do.’

It is a strong message – no return to the normality of old – though it will not surprise those who have already ventured back into their churches. When the Metropolitan Cathedral held its first Mass on 11 July, for instance, 10 days after its reopening for private prayers, there was an ‘unreal’ quality according to the dean, Canon Tony O’Brien. ‘It is wonderful to have public Mass once again and to be open for prayer but it does still feel rather unreal, though necessary, to celebrate together with face masks and distancing around the Cathedral,’ he says.

Volunteer support
It is worth noting the role of volunteers in ensuring the safe reopening of the churches – first to ensure they were fully cleaned, and then to uphold safety guidelines. Fr John Gorman explains the process undertaken at St Oswald’s: ‘Before we started, we had to get the whole place cleaned and that required a small army of people. Now we’re open, we have to have people who are prepared to steward the place. We have to have people welcoming people as they come in to make sure they’re wearing face masks and that they use the hand gel. Then we have other people who show them to their places as we’ve asked people to sit in certain areas of the church to make it easier to clean up afterwards.’

In the case of Fr Chris Fallon, parish priest at St Teresa of the Child Jesus in Norris Green and Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs in Croxteth, it has not been easy finding a team of parishioners who are able to help in this way. He explains: ‘The biggest challenge is finding enough volunteers who are not in the vulnerable categories. At the moment in both churches we’re open for the Saturday night and Sunday morning Mass and a Wednesday Mass – that was as much as we could manage with the volunteers we have.’

With Masses still being livestreamed – as is the case across the diocese – he estimates that ‘the numbers who’ve been coming back is about a third of the people who usually come to Mass.’ The act of saying Mass, meanwhile, is suddenly less straightforward because of the new protocols in place – and tweaks to the traditional order.

Fr Chris begins: ‘You have more on your mind and you’re thinking, “Where is the visor? Where is the hand gel? If we’re having a reader, have they got a single-use sheet? Do people know what they are doing?”.
‘The biggest challenge in all this,’ he adds, ‘is as a Church we want to be welcoming and warm and inviting, and the conditions that we have at the moment militate against that – we did what we had to do when it was needed but I’m looking at an alternative to the red and white tape so we can have our church looking less like a crime scene!

‘The first Saturday evening the church was opened for Mass at Queen of Martyrs, I was driving from St Teresa’s and on Classic FM they were playing the theme from Once Upon a Time in the West and I walked into the church and was looking at a church full of people with masks on – like Wild West bandits. It’s a time of adjustment and finding the right balance between keeping people safe and the liturgy being celebrated in a fitting way.’

Altered sequence
On the alterations to the order of the Mass, the departure of the congregation immediately after receiving Holy Communion in order to facilitate social distancing is a point raised by more than one priest. ‘Giving Holy Communion at the end of Mass seems very odd, with people going straight out so we’re looking at ways of safely giving Holy Communion at the proper time,’ Fr Chris says.

It is a matter under discussion too at St Mary’s Chorley, where Fr Francis Marsden, the parish priest, has been adjusting to this new reality with the help of parish administrator and secretary Kinga Gray-Grzeczynska. Fr Francis adds that ‘a lot of people are still quite hesitant and not coming out to Mass’ as the government’s COVID-19 restrictions are eased. The full capacity of St Mary’s in normal circumstances is 500 yet even with the reduced number allowed, he has seen ‘a low take-up rate’. He elaborates: ‘Our 10 o’clock Mass had about 60 people this Sunday. A lot of people have stayed in a long time and are rather uncertain about coming out again. All you can do is reassure them it is as safe as we can make it.’

Fr John Gorman has seen the same at his parishes too. ‘There’s still a great deal of anxiety around for a lot of people,’ he says. ‘Some are still shielding anyway and others haven’t been yet because they’re still nervous about doing so.’

Pastoral support
The question of shielding leads us to an additional challenge for clergy – namely that of serving their flock when aged over 70. Fr Tim Buckley, parish priest at Our Lady of the Annunciation, Bishop Eton, and St Mary’s, Woolton, has found himself in this position and is thankful for the support of colleagues from the Woolton and Halewood pastoral area, as he explains. ‘It’s been very much part of the process and I’ve been very grateful because being over 70 I was nervous and the added problem of how vulnerable the community in Bishop Eton is.’

Prior to the reopening of churches, this meant ‘other priests in the pastoral area’ would go out and conduct funerals while Fr Tim said Masses for the repose of the soul of the deceased from inside Bishop Eton. Now, with church doors open again, he is co-ordinating Mass times with fellow priests at parishes in Belle Vale, Halewood and Speke to ensure an even spread of services throughout the day. ‘We have worked well together as a pastoral area and are trying to organise it now so we have Masses each day across the day. We’re working towards it, so that as far as possible [there’ll be] a Mass in the morning, a Mass at lunchtime and a Mass in evening so people can take their pick.’

Of course, with a sizeable question mark against what comes next for us all, our parishes are no exception. Fr Tim is cautiously optimistic about First Communions going ahead ‘probably in the early autumn’ but warns this will be in ‘small groups’. Moreover, he offers a concluding message very much in tune with Archbishop Malcolm’s words about the need to ‘think differently’ henceforth. He reflects: ‘I keep reiterating to try to be patient and understand what is happening and not imagine we’re going back to normal any time soon.’

Carry on streaming
The online streaming of Masses will carry on, despite the reopening of churches in the Archdiocese. Even after the reopening of the Metropolitan Cathedral, more than 4,000 people watched Mass on each of the following two Sundays, 12 and 19 July.