Feeling the distance


A parish priest reflects on pastoral care during lockdown.

Hastily prepared and quickly advertised, the Solemnity of St Joseph was like no other. Mass on March 19th was to be our last together indefinitely and turned out to be as busy as Sunday. The air was tense. Grandparents who hadn’t seen grandchildren for a week: people fragile with age or ‘underlying conditions’. As we took leave of one another, I wondered when – if – I would see these people again. We altered the chorus of the feast-day hymn to end that Mass. Not St Joseph, ‘teach us how to die’ – but rather – ‘Teach, O teach us how to live…’ Changing the language that morning has become emblematic of these months; the need to find new languages for a new time.

Lockdown liturgy

That first surreal lockdown weekend, it quickly became apparent we would need to be creative in our own way and our own place to keep our communities together. A priority was to maintain some spiritual contact, access to prayer, worship and Eucharist. The language of livestreaming, with varying degrees of sophistication, is our new normal.

I admit an initial resistance to livestreaming, for various reasons. In the language of technology, I am illiterate and – while our church has excellent audio visual and sound equipment – it has no Wi-Fi. Our base would be the oratory in the parish house. One parishioner’s short visit gave us a rudimentary connection to livestream Mass and make video contact which she connected to social media.

I am also anxious about a situation where people are ‘watching’ Mass, like a TV ‘spectator sport,’ the antithesis of full, active and conscious participation. However, people have been generous in their attention and their gratitude.

Another parishioner, who runs the PR and Communications office of a Glasgow institution, gave excellent advice that ‘less is more’. By scanning viewing figures, she assessed numbers often dipped with routinised viewing whereas less frequent broadcasting held figures. We livestream on Sundays, once during the week, but offer daily reflection, devotions or ‘magazine’ items to keep people engaged. Live streaming liturgy is harder work that in its regular setting, but it also heightens the ‘sense of event’, people saying how much they look forward to (streamed) Sunday Mass. 1

My greatest concern, however, is that livestreamed liturgy focuses on the priest, not only because he alone receives Holy Communion. Even with sophisticated apps, there is a danger of a liturgical distortion and a ‘clericalizing’ of the liturgy. This is no vague anxiety. Tim Stanley, writing in the (Easter) Sunday Telegraph, reported his virtual participation in the Good Friday liturgy of a Scottish parish. He writes ‘again there is an element of ‘getting back to the essentials’ about this (live streaming) because an online service has a magnificent simplicity; just the priest, the sacraments ……’. ‘Just the priest’ cannot be Catholic liturgy, my anxiety, although it is in some quarters precisely what some believe.

I felt bereft, creating an eager anticipation of the Sacred Triduum but forced now to strip back its rich language to essentials. I frankly could not bear to celebrate the Easter Vigil alone, without the eight adults to be received into the Church. I opted instead to celebrate Mass on Easter Day during which we set aside Baptismal garments and candles to be kept safe until we can receive our friends. 2

Keeping in touch

Keeping a faith-community together for worship predicates extending the language of charity, keeping in touch, first, with our most vulnerable. Covid19 has highlighted economic and racial differences across society, so inevitably these will be reflected in the micro-society of a parish. Some of our people already live on the edge and many have come to Scotland as a second home. This is a disorientating time, but also an economic and practical challenge. It is not true that the schools are closed. The staffs of both our primary schools are still offering support and have been vital in sensitively identifying vulnerable families. In conjunction with our SVdP and local businesses, long-term help has been provided to many in need. Our neighbours at St Gregory’s, Wynford, operate a foodbank, some days supporting as many as 60 clients.

Mechanisms to keep in touch with the vulnerable, sick and elderly in the parish were already established and many have benefited from the ‘ministry of the telephone’. Much harder has been the support of the sick in hospital or care homes. Immediately on lockdown an NHS memo asked us not to visit, to avoid cross contamination, so only designated chaplains would be available for the Sacrament of the Sick.

Keeping in touch with our younger people has been more difficult. With the postponement of the celebration of the Sacraments of Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation, our catechetical life has ceased. Short videos for each age group, including our high school and especially the S6 ‘leavers’, have become a vital lifeline on both the parish and school media platforms.

Keeping in touch with the dozen couples planning to marry has been a sad responsibility and has not received much attention. Most have had to postpone their plans to 2021; there must be thousands of couples throughout the country similarly putting their plans and lives on hold.

New language of grief

Far and away the hardest part of lockdown has been celebrating the final committal of those who have died. To date I have celebrated 17 lockdown funerals and six (from nursing homes) are pending. Most of these people I have known but in every case, I have felt like someone with no hands to hug or help, deprived of the familiar but rich symbolic language of our funeral rites. How to express the dignity of the deceased, deprived of funeral pall, baptismal water, incense, and music? Now it is a functional 20 minutes, restricted attendance and family unable to carry or touch the coffin, lowered into the grave or carried to the catafalque by strangers. Not one person has dissented – everybody understands – but it is desperately sad. I have found these services unbearably more draining that a ‘normal’ funeral liturgy.

We livestreamed funerals for family members, shielded and unable to attend and we have used social media to keep the community praying for the grieving, with obituaries and photographs. Mourners have themselves created a ‘new language’ for their grief; some examples speak for themselves. An anonymous parishioner leaves pots of forget-me-nots and a card from the parish to go to each family or grave. A hundred neighbours bent the rules and came to Pats’ graveside – respectful and distanced – and simply applauded (as for frontline workers) as his coffin was lowered. Anne loved to have the family round on a Saturday for tea and cake. Her three daughters arranged a boxed slice of cake for each mourner and a message from Anne; ‘Go home; put your feet up; enjoy the cake and remember me!’

Whatever is beyond…

As the course of the pandemic shifts, mixed messages are sounding either the loosening of restrictions or a still-strict message of ‘stay-at-home’. I t is no wonder a palpable unrest can be sensed, businesses partly re-opening, more traffic on the roads and streets. The Scottish Bishops have perhaps contributed, creating an (all male, largely clerical) group to prepare for reopening churches, too soon most think. Two weeks later the creation of a pastoral ministry working group, which did include women, was announced.

Processing this ongoing event can only be partial. Like most priests living alone, lockdown hasn’t felt as daunting as it has for some, but it has demanded a revision of priorities, a change in pace, new discipline and unexpected challenges in pastoral creativity. How do you keep your community together, planning around Pope Francis reference to vicinanza (closeness) and ‘encounter’ when our ‘new normal’ references separation, isolation, shielding?

Church leaders may want to get back to normal as soon as feasible, but others of us need to ask what ‘normal’ will look like. It will be difficult not to continue to ‘evangelise’ electronically and require more people to engage with those who have moved closer to a ‘virtual church’.

There has been an astonishing outpouring of human warmth – I have received it myself – and a sense of indignation at the lack of (ecclesial and secular) leadership (witness Thursday evenings at 8pm). The ‘new normal’ will require us to maintain and harness that goodness. It is helping us survive the moment, but already the long-term damage, socially, economically, even ecclesiastically, is assuming frightening proportions. The ‘new normal’ will make significant demands on our resources. It will also provide opportunities for our communities to grow in faith and action and challenge our current stasis and lethargy. Failure to rise to the challenge will mean this surreal time of ‘grace’ will become just another chapter in history.

Like most of Europe I have re-read Camus’ The Plague in these days and have been astonished at how prescient he is, even in details. Why is this an ‘existentialist classic’? Perhaps because he describes our existence in a society of duty, devotion, fear – a loveless, fast, hard and dead world. Plague, says Camus, loosens the deeper human (and spiritual?) desire for ‘a loved face, the warmth and wonder of the human heart’. Hopefully that will influence – even for Church – our ‘new normal’?

Fr Jim Lawlor is parish priest of the Immaculate Conception parish, Glasgow.

1 I have not touched on the economic impact around church-closure. Each parish makes the best arrangements it can.

2 Easter Mass had over 6.5k views, bearing out the advice of our PR expert

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.