On Wednesday I went for my regular constitutional around the Downs. I have had a few stresses this week and hoped a brisk around the would clear my mind and relieve some tension. As usual the Downs worked their magic, I love the range of life that you get to see up there as well as the beautiful scenery and the ever-changing skylines. On this walk I saw a familiar sight for the Downs, but something I have not seen in a long time; football games. Anyone who is a regular passerby of the Downs will see the Downs league football on Saturdays in normal times, so it was a strange but welcome sight seeing football being played. There seemed to be multiple groups of practice sessions being played. I wasn’t sure if it was a mirage or reality. My brain was telling me that outdoor sports were able to resume at the end of March not the end of February. It could be that local councils are able to permit different rules but it did strike me that these lads had somehow jumped the gun. Yet there they were in plain sight for world to see and not a Covid Marshall or police officer in sight. Whatever the case It was a definite sign to me that the lockdown is coming to an end, whether that’s to the Prime Minister’s timetable or just down to our desire for freedom.
When lockdown 1 was announced we were pretty quick as a parish to move online. Being online is not the be all and end all of solutions to lockdown but when it is all you have you make do. It does have some advantages too, especially for young couples who can attend events together when the children are in bed. While we provide amazing opportunities to connect as a community on Zoom and Instagram and have really good Social Media, we have to accept that digital is not for everyone. This is evident. While we have a strong community online, there are many people who do not engage with us in that way. That is why I have been so delighted that we have been allowed to open for Mass. it is impossible to deny that you cannot get the full experience of Mass online. For those who do not have access to the internet, Mass has been a life line and it is amazing to see those people at Mass week in, week out. Also, Mass is a gathering of a faith community, being in physical proximity has been at the heart of faith communities since the time of Noah! Mass is not just about the Word of God but about the Sacrament of Holy Communion too, you cannot receive our Lord online. Even so, considering those who have returned to Mass and those who attend online it is easy to notice that there are a lot of people missing from St Bon’s.
To be honest there are a lot of Catholics missing from Churches the world over. The pandemic appears to have provided a reset for Catholic communities. I do not think it is a reset that anyone would have asked for, but it has happened and we have to respond and adapt. Faith is not about having a job in Church, nor is it having a specific seat in a specific pew that you have always had. Those things are custom. Faith is having a genuine and joyful love of God and his Church. Faith is expressed by wanting to be at church to receive Jesus in word and Sacrament, not because we have always done it or because we have a particular standing in our community or because it is a chance to see our friends. While the latter is important it is not essentially Faith. I do not think it is unfair to say that many Catholics have attended Church because it is what they have always done, not necessarily out of a sense of faith but custom or tradition. Many of those Catholics seem to have vanished from our Catholic communities, leaving those who really want to be nourished or those seeking a deeper answers to their lives in God and community. As a Priest you always want those who seem to come to church out of custom to find a joyful faith, you pray for that, and while people come to Church out of habit you hope they will find a deeper sense of God’s love for them. Now many of those people have broken that custom, they did not or could not connect digitally and then did not reconnect once Churches re-opened last summer. That is really sad.
All is not lost though. We now have an amazing opportunity to reach out to those people who have felt disconnected from the Church over lockdown and share with them how God has worked in our lives over this pandemic, both individually and as a community. I believe we have so much to share. Each of us who are engaged physically or online have the amazing commission to welcome back those who have felt disconnected. It may only take a few words, a smile and a simple invitation to invite those who have been away to come back and find God’s purpose for their lives and we rebuild our lives and community in the year ahead!