One of the great things about BBC Radio 3 is the relaying of operas on Saturday evenings from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (where of course it’s the afternoon). In one of the intervals last Saturday of The Rake’s Progress, someone from the management of the house explained their post-lockdown strategy: not to cut back their operations or go back to ‘safe’ and popular pre-covid productions of well-known operas, but to be bold and put on new productions of contemporary operas (such as Akhnaten by Philip Glass). I don’t know how successful this has been, and of course the ‘Met’ is not short of money, but it seemed to me to offer food for thought in terms of the mission of the Church post-Covid (if we are post-Covid).

If numbers or income decline it’s a natural temptation to cut back activities, to reduce what a community does. Sometimes this can be right for a church, or unavoidable, but if you look at the history of the Church it doesn’t really make sense. The best things have been achieved, with the grace of God, when people have been bold and innovative. Look at the beginnings of the great religious orders: again and again men and women of vision responded to crises not by cutting back but by expanding and starting something new. Or look at the sudden and unexpected decision by Pope St John XXIII, shortly after his election (in the year when two of your priests were born) to call the Second Vatican Council, which has renewed the life of the Catholic Church so much; closer to home, consider the Family Mass in the hall on Sunday mornings here. This started out of necessity as an ‘overflow’ when numbers in the church were restricted – one year on the Mass is an essential part of parish life and a real point of growth. Of course, sometimes innovations don’t work; but what is important for all of us is to have a bold and imaginative state of mind.

Someone who sees this clearly is Pope Francis, always encouraging us to be adventurous in our thinking and generous in our love for God and for other people. Another example of what boldness can be like: Father Steve last month wrote about the shrine at Medjugorije, and in particular of how the place, like many such shrines, is alive with the sacramental and spiritual life of the Church: hundreds of people at Mass and Exposition, and long queues for confession all day, every day. You might think, ‘Well, that’s a shrine, a holy place where Our Lady appeared, what do you expect? It’s not like an ordinary church.’ But the Holy Father has pointed out that the shrine ‘model’ can be good for all our communities – it doesn’t have to be in a holy or special place. In some Latin American cities there are urban ‘shrines’, and as cardinal in Argentina and as pope he has commended these as a model. Not only are the sacraments celebrated constantly, and with large numbers of people – the communities provide counselling and welfare services, together with refreshments and meals for those in need. This is practical evangelisation and rooted in Catholic teaching, particularly the concept of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’ Some of these possibilities should form part of the mission of the Church in this country as we seek to rebuild life after the pandemic, as we try to respond to people’s needs amid growing poverty and deprivation in this country.

This all needs boldness and an imaginative frame of mind. For any community such a vision also needs many people to share responsibility and show commitment: this is why the synodal pathway which the Holy Father launched in the autumn is so important. Only if we all realise the part we have to play in the life of the Church, only if we find new ways of being the Church by engaging with one another in dialogue and mutual respect, can we make a real difference. We certainly have a long way to go: we have found, as restrictions have been lifted, how difficult it is at the moment to find volunteers for many essential tasks in the parish. Some of the boldness we need to have will take some time to find; but we need to get the vision right, like the New York opera house.

Fr Ashley