THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC is still so recent a memory that it is inevitable that March each year will prompt reminiscing about its grim beginning in this country, a time of so much sadness and loss of life, much of it avoidable. This is accentuated by a continuing wait for inquiries set up to look at how public bodies responded to it all, which might even involve a holding of some public figures to account (but we shouldn’t hold our breath!)
The illness, death, loneliness and despair of those days in March 2020 were real, coupled with the exhaustion and burnout experienced in particular by those working in the health service, care homes, schools and other places which bore the brunt of it all. It would be appalling to rate alongside these experiences the strange phenomenon of the complete closure of churches and other places of worship from late that month, for about two months; but we can reflect usefully on the experience. As some of you know I teach liturgy to seminarians and diaconate students and I try to get them to think back to what it was all like in terms of the worship of the Catholic Church. When we were allowed from May to reopen our church buildings for prayer (but not public worship initially) the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, in an interview pointed out something which might well not have occurred to other people. He pointed out that Christians of different denominations view their church buildings differently: our Pentecostal brothers and sisters, for example, often rent out space from others and simply use that for Sunday worship (for example, here in Beckenham); they don’t have a tradition of going into a place of worship during the week for private prayer. By contrast for Catholics it is traditionally important to be able to go into a church to pray outside the times of public worship, to pray to the Lord in the tabernacle, to light a candle at one of the six shrines/statues in our church or at the memorial board for the dead. This is why the Catholic Church campaigned to be allowed to reopen our churches for this (this required stewarding, as some of you will recall, and for this reason it didn’t happen everywhere). For us (and this isn’t a criticism of other Christians) church buildings are special, they are sacred. God enables us to use physical buildings, and his gifts of art and music, to give glory to God; they are sacred because they are the setting for the sacraments, especially the Mass, and the Reserved Sacrament (this is why Catholic churches, unlike others, cannot be used for purely secular concerts or for social events).
Some of you know that we suffered a security incident last weekend which has necessitated the changing of a lot of locks and, while this was being done, the closure of our building outside Mass times. Normally, unlike most other churches in Beckenham (and I think many other Catholic churches nearby) our building is open for a good twelve hours a day. Like ‘lockdown’ this has perhaps helped us realise how important it is to have our churches open. We do need to be conscious of security, as we are custodians of a precious building and there is a lot of crime about; but being open to anyone who wants to come in has an important message in terms of mission and evangelization, which is partly what we are thinking about in our parish renewal programme and our Lent talks focused on the teachings of Pope Francis.
Basically, our church building, because it is sacred, is too special to be closed; of course a church which often has people in it is less like to be the object of theft or burglary – enabling our building to be open as much as possible is a responsibility of all of us. We are very grateful to our site manager and the staff in the parish office for their hard work in the last week in ensuring that our building is safe and secure.
The Holy Father, shown here opening the Holy Door in St Peter’s for the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy, encourages us to have open hearts – open to those in need, open to those who need God’s mercy, open to the world; and this is even more necessary at a time when poverty in society and anxiety can close off our hearts. Here, in a homily (on Matthew chapter 19 from May 2013), he is speaking about openness in relation to people receiving the sacraments, but we can helpfully apply his words to how we try to have open hearts by having open doors:
‘Today’s mildly rebuked pharisees are the self-appointed pastoral border guards who hold up a hand in consternation instead of offering one in welcome when the less-than-perfect among us seek to gate crash at the house of the Lord….There is always a temptation to try and take possession of the Lord….We think today of Jesus, who always wants us all to be closer to Him, we think of the Holy People of God, a simple people, who want to get closer to Jesus and we think of so many Christians of goodwill who are wrong and that instead of opening a door they close the door of goodwill … So we ask the Lord that all those who come to the Church find the doors open, find the doors open, open to meet this love of Jesus.’