THIS SUNDAY we keep in this country the feast of Corpus et Sanguis Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, a feast day which began in the Middle Ages to celebrate, away from the sombre atmosphere of Holy Week, the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper. Normally, although it has been impossible last year and this, we mark this by a Procession of the Host and Benediction. (In our Newsletter you see the Holy Father giving Benediction ‘to the city and the world’ in the special act of prayer in Rome he led in March 2020, at the very beginning of the pandemic). Another thing we normally do today, which will also have to wait, is that we invite special ministers of Holy Communion to renew their commitment.

For much of the last year nearly all of you were unable to come to Mass physically and receive Holy Communion; even now the ways in which we celebrate Mass in church are curtailed. But we do have the opportunity on this feast day to reflect on what the Mass and receiving Holy Communion mean to us. As we are beginning a process of parish renewal, we have the chance to renew and deepen our experience of the Mass and of devotion to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and to think about the ways in which we celebrate these things; as we gradually, please God, return to the customary pattern of worship in this parish we will also need, for all Masses singers in our choirs (who have served us so well in the last few months), altar servers, readers, stewards and others. If we think about it there are so many ways in which how we experience the Mass has been affected by the fifteen months. Here are just some:

We were live-streaming here before the pandemic, and it was important. But it has meant so much more in the last year or so – and this has also meant that some verbal or visible aspects of the Mass matter more, such as the PA system, how people read, the appearance of the sanctuary and how people act in front of the camera. Live-streaming will remain important and is greatly valued by people all over the world; and we will need to think about how this can be extended, perhaps to acts of worship led from elsewhere.

When we have been able to celebrate Mass together, it has been unfamiliar: not receiving from the chalice, not exchanging the sign of peace, not singing, wearing masks, being guided round the building, limitations on numbers and time and so on. None of us find these things easy. Not receiving from the chalice has been particularly difficult, since it is (normally) encouraged officially in this country (the bishops made this clear in a 1998 document called One Bread, One Body) and I think St Edmund’s pioneered Communion under both kinds many decades ago. The Church believes in active participation in the Mass, and all that has happened gives us all a chance to think about what this means.

Inevitably, for safety reasons, we have had to be very careful about the church building; this could lead to a psychology of fearfulness. This is a parish where normally the doors of the church building, the setting for the celebration of Mass, are open all day, every day. Normally people can come in and go as they please without having to give their contact details, to pray before the Blessed Sacrament exposed or before the Tabernacle. We are only gradually recovering this – but having Catholic churches freely open all the time, as welcoming places where people can experience the holiness of the place, is important for our mission. During this period our stewards have done a tremendous job of welcoming people and ensuring their safety; but most of us are held back from being as welcoming as we would like if we can’t touch others or if we’re wearing a mask.

We have done new things this last year which can perhaps guide us in the future. During complete lockdown, and still now, we normally have the Blessed Sacrament exposed for most of the day, not simply for an hour after morning Mass as we used to. Perhaps we can rethink what we do when we’re able to open the church for longer. We have also had Benediction more often.

The daily evening Mass at 6pm, which we didn’t have before we reopened after the first lockdown, has become part of parish life.

The ways in which we are able to celebrate Mass with families in the parish hall on Sunday have been helpful to many people.

School Masses, a big part of the life of this parish, have not been allowed – we can perhaps think about how these and other acts of worship in school can be promoted.

There are many other issues for us to think about – and as we’re able, to talk about to each other as well. Today’s great feast of Corpus Christi celebrates a belief – about what we believe happens to the bread and wine at Mass – for which Catholics in the past in this country really suffered (for many years if you wanted to take part in public life you had to make a sworn declaration denying Transubstantiation); because today is about the Mass, the centre of the Church’s life, we can think a bit about how the Mass will be part of our renewal process.