In response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and United Kingdom government guidelines, public Masses were suspended across England on March 20; Catholic churches were then closed on March 24, as the nation went into lockdown.
Despite some modification, England remains in lockdown; churches remain closed, and Holy Mass is still only celebrated privately.
The question for most English Catholics is: When will their churches reopen and the sacraments once more be freely available? The U.K. government has mooted early July as a possible timeframe when churches may be allowed to reopen. However, social-distancing guidelines may still be required even then. Therefore, any possible reopening of churches around that time raises as many questions as it answers.
Speaking to the Register in this past month, Bishop Mark Davies of the Diocese of Shrewsbury, England, explained some of the challenges, and possible opportunities, facing the English Church as it prepared for a return to some form of normality.
What has been the chief lesson you feel that we have learned during this pandemic and the resultant lockdown?
I believe the vital lesson for us to learn is humility. Pope Francis observed in his urbi et orbi message from the desolate windswept steps of St. Peter’s how we had once felt powerful and able to do anything, and suddenly the global pandemic had uncovered those false and superfluous certainties around which we constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits, our priorities.
I know that, for too many, this has been a time of anxiety, isolation and personal loss. However, for us, all this has been a time when our pride and presumption have been challenged; and, in the best sense, these days have allowed us to be humbled. To the Catholic mind, humility is not being cast down and humiliated; rather, it is the discovery of our true greatness that flows from the recognition that all we have and are comes from God. This is the humility Christ taught: the humility that frees us from the terrible follies of human pride. If this time of trial, whether it be short or protracted, enables us to grow in this virtue, foundational for the spiritual life, then this will truly be a time of grace and renewal.
What has been the most unexpected aspect of this time?
The most unexpected aspect of this time has been the response to the livestreaming of Mass, Eucharistic adoration, the Divine Office and devotional prayer from our churches.
In my own experience, this has been an astonishingly large-scale response; seeing, for example, some 20,000 joining us at Shrewsbury cathedral for the Masses of Easter Sunday — a record number by any scale!
I know such virtual participation can never be a substitute for attending Mass and receiving the sacraments; and I appreciate the dangers of sacred liturgy being treated casually on the internet. However, it struck me from the outset of this crisis that the tens of thousands who are joining us via this window that the internet opened up were motivated more by faith than curiosity. Our livestreaming lacks the quality of the televisual and the episodic brevity of so much material found on the internet. Following the prayers of Holy Mass and maintaining the silence of Eucharistic adoration, therefore, requires of us not merely concentration — it also demands faith and love to so remain with the Lord. The lockdown regulations have meant the liturgy has been celebrated with noble simplicity; and the priest in the emptiness of the church is so clearly placed before the Lord alone as he prays the words of the Mass. Whilst this is a temporary and extraordinary situation, I think the experience can be a humbling one and may help to purify our participation in the liturgy in so fixing our gaze clearly upon the Lord.
How hard was it to suspend public Masses?
It was an extraordinary and deeply troubling step to take in response to government directives and clear public-health demands. In England, we had certainly known nothing like this since the interdict of 1208, which is more than eight centuries ago.
The Mass and the sacraments can never be regarded as nonessential in our lives. In the face of a threat to health and life, it is surely the last thing we would want: to be so cut off from the grace of the sacraments. However, within the urgent demands for national lockdown, these measures were quickly, if reluctantly, accepted by clergy and people. As we begin to emerge from the lockdown, people ask why the reopening of superstores and garden centers have seemed to be of greater governmental priority than the reopening of churches. None of us knows how long this global pandemic will last or whether we must learn to live indefinitely with this virus. So while we must always seek to work closely and cooperatively with the public authorities, this is a time and an opportunity to give witness to the central place of the Holy Eucharist and the sacraments in our lives, which is, of course, the central place of Jesus Christ in our lives.
What is the biggest challenge to restarting public Masses?
I think the biggest challenge will be demonstrating to wider society how the Mass is essential to the life of Catholics. This is a wonderful challenge in many ways. Yet we can only expect a very limited understanding from many who are at the center of government and decision-making. This is a moment to give clear and gentle witness, like that of the faithful of the early centuries of the Church, who declared they could not live without Sunday. We cannot live without the Holy Eucharist and the presupposition of continual recourse to the sacrament of penance. The reopening of the churches is, thereby, not merely a matter of public health; it is also a matter of spiritual health. In working with the public authorities and cooperating with all who secure the well-being of society, this is a time when we are called never to take the Mass or the sacraments for granted, and to recognize ever more deeply the need of divine grace.
The U.K. government has suggested that places of worship may be able to reopen in July, but only if they comply with social distancing. How would you see that working, in practice?
A number of European countries have already begun the process of reopening churches and celebrating Mass within stringent public-health restrictions. This requires not only measures such as social distancing; it will also require maintaining the dignity of the sacred liturgy in these extraordinary circumstances.
I am hopeful that the reopening of the churches may even provide a certain purification of liturgical practice by focusing our gaze less upon ourselves and more and more upon the Lord in his Sacrifice and Real Presence among us. I think people will return to the churches with a new seriousness, and I hope that we will see a new reverence develop in the liturgical life of our parishes, dispelling any casual practice or superficial understanding, by turning all eyes to the Lord.
So you do see positives emerging from this recent period?
While the disturbance of established patterns of practice may, sadly, lead to some falling away, I believe this testing time will lead many with renewed humility to recognize, more than ever before, the vital place of the Holy Eucharist and the sacraments in their lives. I am sure this time can also lead to a purification in how we approach the worship of the Church and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, by turning our eyes more toward him.
In other words, this trial for the Church and the world will surely lead toward what is essential, and what is essential is Christ, who says to us, as to every generation: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” I hope this will be the lesson that we can learn from these troubled days of 2020.
The pandemic could not stop England being rededicated to Our Lady as her dowry on March 29. What spiritual benefits do you see flowing from that?
Yes, the rededication of England went ahead on the Sunday after the Solemnity of the Annunciation in unforeseen circumstances, which one of my brother bishops described as “the hour of our need.” We had not foreseen this national and global crisis; however, the Lord had foreseen this moment of rededication.
In renewing England’s dedication, first made many centuries before, we were being called to return to the spiritual foundation on which this nation was built and to reset its spiritual course. One of the beautiful aspects of this was that this Marian dedication, originally made by England’s monarchs, was renewed this year in the hearts of all the faithful. I think we are already seeing how Our Lady leads us, unfailingly, to her Son in the Eucharistic hunger awakened in many souls and in the grace and opportunity of this time to reflect on the course of our lives. I hope one of the graces of this crisis will be seen in many new and generous vocations.