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A delight to return to public Mass but the Church always open

Fr Martin Magill


Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood yesterday

Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood yesterday

Parishioners of St Philip and St James in Holywood yesterday

On Thursday of this past week, parishioners returned to public Mass in St John's. This was the first time they had done so since St Patrick's Day on March 17.

There was clear delight as they people returned to a practice which had been part of their daily lives for many years in some cases. Others, however, stayed away, unsure about venturing out when it is clear that the coronavirus is still around.

The St John's Parish team had given a lot of thought as to how to make the church as safe as possible.

In line with the directions coming from the Northern Ireland Executive, the local diocese (in this case, Down and Connor) had issued a checklist, as well as a risk assessment to ensure parishes had all the necessary measures in place for a safe return to daily worship.

In St John's, we have decided to return slowly to the routine of daily and Sunday Masses. During the months of the pandemic, I made the point again and again that, while the church building was closed, the Church was very much open.

In many ways, as a parish, we developed an outreach we didn't have beforehand.

At the end of his earthly mission, Jesus, in returning to the Father, gave what is called the "Great Commission" - the command to go out and preach the Gospel.

He sent His disciples on a mission which still continues and is taken up by the modern-day followers of Jesus.

One of my concerns about returning back to the routine we had before - granted it will be different because of the hand-sanitising on the way in and out of church, as well as social distancing - was the possibility that we would lose some of the learning and the valuable experiences of the last few months.

In thinking about the experience of online ministry, I believe that churches and dioceses need to invest in this area and I note that the Church of England clearly has done so.

Within its communications department, they have a section dedicated to digital media, where they employ a variety of people, including the head of digital, senior digital communications officer, web and insights manager, content producer, church digital social media officer and web and analytics officer - to mention only some of the posts.

Going back to the "Great Commission" given by Jesus, the message has not changed; the way it is communicated certainly has.

During these months of the ongoing restrictions in pandemic times, churches have had to develop new ways to communicate with their members.

During the week, within the Common Lectionary there was a reading from Matthew's gospel, in which Jesus encouraged His disciples/apostles to go out to the "lost sheep of the House of Israel".

One of the interesting things about these months of lockdown has been the number of people, particularly in the early days, who had turned to various faith experiences, such as night-time prayer services, as well as Sunday and daily online worship.

I was very struck by a comment recently from one man who, in talking about his daughters during the early days of lockdown, said that they were watching Clonard (a large church in west Belfast) more than they were watching EastEnders.

I am aware from various conversations, including with my co-writer of this column, Rev Steve Stockman, that some churches will not be returning back to their physical buildings until at least September. I would hope that congregations, when they do return to church buildings for worship, don't stop all the online ministry they have developed over the past few months.

Apt Bible readings

Fr Martin Magill is parish priest of St John's, Belfast

Some Scripture readings for the week ahead:

Monday: Matthew 28:19-20

Tuesday: Matthew 10:5-6

Wednesday: Romans 10:14

Thursday: Matthew 11:28-30

Friday: Isaiah 38:16

Belfast Telegraph