All is strange, but all must change

This is a really weird time we are living through. One of the biggest problems is the large numbers of people who are asymptomatic, who are carrying the virus but don’t know it themselves, who we think are therefore capable of transmitting it to others but don’t know it themselves. They may also have had the virus without realizing it, and we do not know if they can still transmit it even after their own body has, unnoticed, silently dealt with it. There is so much that the scientists have still to find out. Every day brings new discoveries about what this infection is, how it may work, and how it could be treated.

What this means for someone like me, in good general health but with a medical condition which means that catching the virus could well prove fatal, is that everyone, yes everyone, has become “The Enemy”. Everyone is a potential killer, whether they know it or not. Even the one I live with and share life with could be potentially able to kill me. I myself could be asymptomatic, could be The Enemy without knowing it.

I find it completely unnatural to be actively avoiding people when I am out exercising (a 45-minute walk each day). Normally I would wish them a good evening, but now I don’t even want to open my mouth in case I emit lethal aerosol or breathe in theirs. The scientists talk about viral load, without ever telling us what the fatal dose is or how we could measure it.

When people (and there are too many of them) come directly towards me instead of standing aside or waiting or moving away, I become irrationally angry. Why are they unthinking of others, and worse still, unthinking in general? Don’t they understand how contagious and lethal this thing is? I growl in my head at them and think highly uncharitable thoughts about them.

I don’t want to be like this. For someone who has preached participation for 55 years, it is totally abnormal to be avoiding people, shunning them, even hating them. Talking to others, especially those who are scared to return to church, I find that I am not alone. Friends tell me similar things. We agree that not only are we frightened of being close to others, we especially miss the sense of touch, the ability to hug, the possibility of a normal conversation without worrying about masks or social distancing. We need that full human contact.

Our only hope now is a viable raft of vaccines for the different strains, together with effective forms of treatment.

I am also very afraid of what this is doing to us liturgically. Already it is clear that celebration has become a highly individualized thing, whether remotely via Zoom or physically in church. Everyone is in their own little bubble. Everyone, even the priest, has become a consumer of liturgy, not a (con)celebrant. As well as being consumers, the non-ordained have returned to being spectators. We watch others doing things on our behalf, and we are detached from them, mentally and spiritually. We do not do the things that we used to take for granted. We have, in fact, become to an extent disengaged from the Body of Christ.

People are so intent on “getting” Communion that they overlook the immense risk not only to themselves but to the person who administers it. The act itself has become individualized. It is no longer Com-union but a solitary exercise. We have moved back from “We and Jesus” to “Me and Jesus”. We really need to ask ourselves why we are even doing this, especially when so many around the world do not have access to Eucharist at all or only rarely. Could we not fast in solidarity with them? Would not this help prevent us from sinking into individual eucharistic consumerism but help us to remain a part of the celebrating body, albeit one that is in a state of temporary suspension?

Because singing by our assemblies is forbidden in many places (though some are taking the risk), we are actively searching out music that will prevent the people from joining in. Musicians are looking for hymn tunes that are unfamiliar to their people so that a cantor can sing texts that we need to hear without the people being able to sing along with them. Antiphons have suddenly become more popular in certain quarters, not as a way of including the people but as a way of holding them at arm’s length. The music of virtual choirs is being inserted into Zoomed celebrations, or even into live ones.

This is the most bizarre thing. Our music has become liturgical wallpaper, just background music that may add something to the atmosphere but adds nothing to the liturgy. Everything that we worked for over a period of more than 50 years feels as if it has been undone at a stroke.

My fear is that reversing all of this is going to mean a large amount of re-education, or re-formation, to get us back to where we once were. My prayer is that when that time comes, we will have the energy and the wisdom to do it well.

In the meantime, not everything is doom and gloom. One of the great benefits of this time that we have been living through is that many have soaked themselves in the Word of God. Where participation in Eucharist has not been possible, people have found increased nourishment in reading scripture, in lectio divina, in the psalms, in online spirituality groups rooted in the Word. In England and Wales, we are nearing the end of a Year of the Word (“The God who speaks”) during which people have actually been doing far more in finding ways in which God can speak to them than might otherwise have been the case.

There has been an increase in silence and in prayerfulness. People are taking time to pray, priests are taking time to celebrate. The names of people who need our prayers are being mentioned aloud in celebrations, and people are comforted by the knowledge that Mass intentions are still being fulfilled.

And I hear many people — not just choirs but people in the pews — saying how much they miss the music that they used to sing during celebrations. That is encouraging, and shows that the picture is not quite as black as I have painted it. Organists who are playing pieces on the occasion of a “communal” celebration are being told that the atmosphere they create is appreciated.

But changing back to our previous mindset, where we are no longer afraid of being near other people, and where we understand from within what liturgical participation really means, is going to be a real effort. The longer we have to wait to start it, the harder it will be.


  1. As a “more mature” Type 2 diabetic, my doctor wants me to take extra precautions when I preside. I do not distribute Communion, I stay about 8-10 feet away from people, and I am in the sanctuary before and leave after everyone else arrives and departs.. I do not like it, but I know it has to be that way. I do not consider anyone an “enemy,” just someone I need to avoid close physical contact with during this time. I miss some of the music, but still fume inwardly while a cantor sings longer at the preparation of the gifts than necessary. I don’t like restricting my homilies to 5-7 minutes, but I do the best I can. The paroish where I supply help has taken excellent precautions for everyone’s good health and safety, and I regret that after 3 months I still haven;t seen some people, but I understand some are still hesitant to return. I do know that I hated the 3 months when we were not able to gather under even the present restrictions more. LiveStream and recorded liturgies were not doing ti for me, and still don’t.

  2. One thing that has been on my mind lately is how whenever a vaccine is available and widely distributed, churches can’t think in terms of simply resuming, but need to think in terms of rebuilding. I suspect that probably a year will have passed by the time we can really freely gather for worship and other church activities, and a year’s time is plenty to break habits and customs. We cannot simply assume that people will flock back to church or that all of what we have labored so hard to build in the past decades will still be in place.

    1. I agree that it is highly questionable whether people will return in the numbers we had pre-Covid. We are getting about a third of the number at our socially distanced Sunday Masses, and of those the overwhelming majority are elderly, many of whom (me included) have longed to see friends again and be a part of a community again. I suspect part of the equation will be the quality of particular parish communities and importantly the degree of pastoral support pastors gave during the lockdown – were they largely absent, did they phone the vulnerable or even set up phone networks so that people felt cared about?
      I am one who plays before and after Mass and at the offertory and communion. Yes its appreciated, which is lovely, and it brings a bit of a sense of normality, which is welcome, but most of all it makes for a different sound in church, a break from the spoken word. I have come to KNOW that the ideal celebration has singing at its heart.
      A final thought. The long term financial effects of this on countries and dioceses that are not wealthy can barely be imagined. There are bound to be massive retrenchments accompanied with yet more heart-ache.

  3. Paul, many of your reflections resonate with me. Having to recite rather than sing the Gloria is like experiencing a little death. As worship aids aren’t permitted in the pews, our people can’t even recite the words – the hymn text is not stored in their memory; they only know the text when it is united to one of the musical arrangements we’ve taught them over the last several years.

    For the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel Acclamation, in order to quash any habitual participation, we don’t repeat the refrain / antiphon – we go right into the verse. Another little death.

    Our choirs typically are on hiatus during the summer, and then return around the start of the academic year. But this year, there has been no returning. These small faith communities-within-the-community are not being sustained. Another little death.

    Through the course of my adult life, my involvement in music ministry has consisted of: how do we make the most of our resources, talents and gifts, and direct them toward all the wonderful ends of music ministry: sung prayer by the people; praise and thanksgiving to the Triune God; the joy, peace and fulfillment that comes to the musician from sharing her/his talents; the joy of collaborating with other musicians; the sustaining and deepening of friendships and Christian fellowship among the musicians.

    All of this seems to have been taken away. Instead of maximizing what we have been given, we’re now minimizing. Most of the musicians are positively unwelcome to share their talents, even from the pews.

    It isn’t clear to me how we emerge from this unhealthy liturgical rut we’re in. With luck, we’ll have a vaccine, or perhaps a handful of different vaccines, within a few months. Will they be appropriate for the general population? Available? Affordable? How do we know when we’ve reached critical mass of immunity? I guess it is our bishops and diocesan officials who are going to have to discern when the corner has been turned, but it doesn’t seem…

  4. /

    Maybe this is relevant. What feels like desolation is in fact a state of “difficult consolation”. Some things have disappeared and we’re left trying to discern how what remains is nevertheless a gift. Who knows, we may grow from this state of affairs.

  5. If you need to prevent people saying the Antiphon/Response for the Psalm after the first Reading, why not treat the Psalm as a reading. Use the text as in your Bible translation.
    This may not quite accord with the rubrics, but neither does inhibiting the Alleluia, which according to the Lectionary rubrics must be sung by all.

  6. “My fear is that reversing all of this is going to mean a large amount of re-education, or re-formation, to get us back to where we once were. My prayer is that when that time comes, we will have the energy and the wisdom to do it well.”
    This is my great fear as well, Paul! Congregational participation, so prized by Vatican II and something that we have labored to produce and foster, is taking a real hit as people “watch mass” from their recliners and grab another cup of coffee during the homily. It conjures for me the peasants of the Middle Ages, sitting on the floors of the churches eating their lunches and being alerted by bells that something “important” is happening. It makes me squirm….and it makes me so sad….

  7. Thank you Paul – yes, I was struck by the reality of the ‘gift’ of COVID-19 toward heightening not only the commodification of the eucharist, but of all prayer; the return to the entertainment mode and the need for re-education. At least in a couple circles though, we have had interesting re-education already (or maybe just ‘education’) for the clergy who hadn’t realy thought about eucharistic theology (‘no, you can’t do virtual consecration!), and for many lay people the reality that we have liturgy of the hours (‘I didn’t know we could do that, how do we do it?’) – I’m holding out hope!

  8. COVID has been a gift for theological reflection; a time for ressourcement, deepening and widening the good, and holding the tension of things that we now see as resistant to the change that that the ever transforming Holy Spirit creates.

    May the institutional Church NEVER return to the way it was. May the laity hold clerical priests to greater accountability in being humble, foot washing servant leaders.

    May clerical performance art be seen for what it is, a false piety of veneer Catholicism, not the depth of Eucharistic communio for which all yearn. May we the Body learn to suffer together during these times of birthing a new way of being church, so that authentic and vulnerable joy at the Church’s new life may occur. And may fear of “the other” may be discarded for Divine Freedom.

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