The stability of our celebrations has been disturbed
Joe and Mary have started seeing things from a completely different angle. As churches return to ‘normal’, Kevin McGinnell asks which bits of 'normal' are worth returning to.
The American writer Dave Hollis said: “In the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.”
This wise saying has kept coming back to me as we have begun to think about how we celebrate Mass together again in our churches. I don’t think there is a normal to return to, but rather we need to see what is our new way ahead, and decide what we bring with us from what we thought was normal, and perhaps what we need to leave behind.
Just take ‘Mary and Joe’. They’ve been coming to the same Mass here since the church opened in 1965, and always sat in the same seat. Covid changed all that. While we have a large church so there was no need to book, not only was their bench cordoned off but the friendly steward would take them to the next seat available.
‘Mary and Joe’ began to see the altar from all sorts of new vantage points, and actually notice people they hardly knew. Since a simple nod has replaced the sign of peace they had to look a bit further then before too.
Things changed for me as a priest. I used to look out and would expect probably half the assembly to be in the same place. You knew who was missing! Now it’s quite different especially when you’re preaching. At least those who used to covertly read the newsletter before, now find it difficult if they have been put in the front row.
All this highlights the amazing contribution of stewards to the liturgy. We had welcomers before but it was a bit haphazard. The need to take people’s contact details, to clean the benches meant we had to recruit, and fortunately people, younger people, responded generously. This is something that we must foster and develop. It has made a great difference to both stewards and those they greet.
Having to use one-off liturgy sheets is advantageous too because everyone has to take them home and, hopefully, read them again.
We have been used to a certain stability in our celebrations and this has been disturbed. And that's no bad thing for, as St John Henry Newman wisely remarked many years ago: “To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect.”
There are things we did not change, such as the Prayers of the Faithful which were needed more than ever in the pandemic.
Mgr Kevin McGinnell is parish priest of Holy Ghost, Luton, and is Chair of the Society of St Gregory.
Coming to Communion in a procession, however, symbolising the Church as the Body of Christ, became much clearer. As people came out slowly, bench by bench, we asked them also to receive the Host in their hand, stand to one side, remove their mask and take time to receive. This is now what we want as the new way forward rather than what was previously a rushed queue.
Singing was much missed. A cantor or the celebrant had to watch out when they sang they did not invite a surreptitious response in a psalm or an Amen to a prayer.
As we reintroduce singing for everyone, it is good to ask just what should we sing? To replace the hymns we invited the people to pray aloud the entrance and communion psalms that are a neglected part of liturgical music.
Firstly, this exposed us to the incredible breadth of the psalms as prayer, and then asked us can we sing them more as we move forward.
There’s much more which could be said – for instance what will it mean to establish the obligation to celebrate Mass together again from Advent. How will people understand this in our new way forward? Let us take a sustained period of reflection across the board as Church in every area, but with especial care for the liturgy.
As ever Pope Francis puts it very well in his book, Let Us Dream: “We must not let the clarifying moment pass us by. Let it not be said, in years to come, that in response to the coronavirus we failed to act to restore the dignity of our peoples, to recover our memory and to remember our roots.”
• Do care about what we do at Mass? Have you ever wondered why we do what we do?
Taking Liturgy Seriously is an online course run by the Society of St Gregory, starting in September. Suitable for readers, musicians, catechists and those of us who just ask "Why?" Click here for further information.