What will it be like going back to the churches once they reopen for private prayer and for worship? The great thing will be, obviously, that we may once again be physically in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; it has been an awfully long time since we could sit quietly on a bench in front of the altar, just in the presence of Christ. That used to be one of the defining things about a Catholic church; they were always open (and if they had to shut for fear of vandalism, it was something strange and alienating) because one consequence of believing in the Real Presence is that there’s a gravitational pull towards the tabernacle where God is present. Chapels and churches without the reserved host may be holy places but they lack that physical presence, which focuses devotion. So we’ll be able to have that again.
But not on the same terms as before. We’ll have to have regulated opening of churches so that people who drop in aren’t exposed to unnecessary risk. So, there may have to be someone present at a church to ensure that people stick to the rules, and to sanitise benches after use. I clean churches sometimes; at the back of my mind I can’t help thinking about the effect on polished benches of endless sanitiser; will it take off the varnish? And how easy will it be to get a roster of volunteers to supervise the opening? Westminster Cathedral will have far fewer problems than a less visited church, which will have to put out a call for volunteers, like churches do when there’s 48-hour devotion before the sacrament. Parishioners will have to take it in turns to stand guard in the church, if we do decide that’s what’s needed. As any parish volunteer will tell you, that means calling on the service of a small number of people to shoulder most of the burden. Usually they’re older parishioners, and therefore the more vulnerable. Perhaps it will be possible to manage without supervision eventually but at the start, someone needs to wipe down the benches after use.
Further, we’ll have to adopt the precautions that were already being taken before the church closures: so, no touching statues, no candles for lighting, no books or booklets for open access and no holy water fonts (that’s rather sad). As Mgr Mark Langham observes elsewhere on this site, Catholicism is a touchy-feely religion; denying us the chance to touch things is a privation, even if a necessary one.