Lockdown Reflection - Fr Cecil Rogerson

Parish Priest at Our Lady and St Brigid, Northfield, and St John Fisher, West Heath

I have found this a very blessed time - the first such experience in 39 years of ordained ministry. The strangeness was fleeting, and I soon found a deep rootedness in the solitary, though very public nature of the liturgy I was offering for others and in virtual company with others. Mindful of a changed quality of prayer and a more exposed pattern of prayer, meant that I never felt alone and felt even more ‘connected’ with many people.

I have made my own prayer more public and so have live-streamed Lauds, Vespers and Compline in addition to the daily Mass. I have also included half an hour of Catechesis each week; for both adults on a Monday afternoon, and children on a Tuesday morning as well as a half hour session on Spiritual Reading on a Friday afternoon.

The Catechesis started with the children the week before Holy Week when I looked at making a Palm-Sunday themed arrangement to put up, as one might a Christmas Wreath, on the front door. I also looked at making a paper Palm Trees that could be held while running outside shouting, ‘Hosanna’. During Holy Week, I looked at crosses that had been part of my life and had meant something to me and then showed them how to make their own, exploring what images were available on the internet. On Holy Saturday I gave some tips of how to make an Easter garden and in Easter week I took them through the details of the Easter Candle.

Parishoners posted photographs of what their children had produced, including a contemporary role play of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and a news report of that and the resurrection – the contributions were phenomenal, and I congratulate all who participated.

At some point in Eastertide I began to offer adult Catechesis, stimulated by some questions that a parishioner had sent me, which I then tried to respond to. I have since begun a series on Prayer, entitled; “Praying with the Saints”, looking at what we can learn from St Benedict, St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, St Ignatius of Loyola and Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

The sessions on ‘Spiritual Reading’ arose out of a recognition that I was reading material that was helping me to better understand the context in which we were trying to evangelise. Once a week in Ordinary (green) Time I read something of a spiritual nature at mass – at the moment it is Henri Nouwen’s, GENESEE DIARY. For the Spiritual Reading series, I have been looking at Cardinal Robert Sarah’s. THE DAY IS NOW FAR SPENT.  I have found this book helpful, in that Cardinal Sarah articulates what we are up against in the endeavour of evangelisation, and those insights can help us recognise elements within our own society and culture that either aid or hamper the living of the Gospel. I have found that Spiritual Reading helps stimulate the dialogue that takes place within ourselves, our context and the Lord.

Preparation for these have been hugely productive and stimulating, and it seems, some have found it helpful. The audience seems to have been both local and international, Catholic and Ecumenical, as well as interested 'friends' on social media. It has also been humbling and encouraging to be joined by brother priests and deacons for some of the Offices.

It has all felt like a more engaging time in terms of evangelisation and a more centred time in terms of prayer - I have felt more priestly than at any other time in my ministry, and will try to hold onto as much of this as is possible for the future.

While pastoral engagement has been limited, it has nevertheless been more bold; on three occasions I have taken the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and blessed people – two Pilipino nurses recovering from Covid-19 and an elderly person whose health deteriorated rapidly.

Being asked to preside at the Mass on the Tuesday of the Virtual Lourdes Pilgrimage was also an enormous privilege and joy. In addition, I led the reflection for the World Apostolate of Fatima as part of their Sacred Heart Novena – it was also a privilege to represent the Archdiocese in this witness within England and Wales.

We might never get back to what we once called and refer to as 'normal' again - I think that will be a good thing.

However, I am also aware that as people have sourced their spiritual support via technology in many areas other than from their own Parish (World shrines, notable Churches, language orientated liturgies, Charismatic / Latin Mass / Extraordinary Form masses etc.) I am therefore conscious that I cannot assume we have all made the journey together, as a Parish, in fact the fragmentation of our now diverse communities might have simply become more evident, or returned to their ‘default’ position, requiring some presentation of what journey has been made, if only in my understanding at this stage, and hoping for a ‘common’ ownership if that is at all possible.

We have for some time been in the ‘pick-and-mix’ world when it comes to the ‘spiritual’ – I wonder if we will become even more intrenched in a privatised form of Catholic practice whereby, when I can’t get to mass (and for increasingly less urgent reasons) I can simply ‘tune in’ to Fr X, Parish Y, shrine Z and make my spiritual communion, satisfying myself that I have fulfilled my obligation. Maybe ‘Lockdown’ has unlocked that gene from the lamp for ever.

This will need more reflection, as part of the reflection of the whole experience, so that the appropriate adjustments can be made at a practical, pastoral, spiritual and technological level.

Prof Stephen Bullivant, author of; Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America, has already offered some reflection on this in The Tablet of the 14th May, citing the impact of the deaths our parishes would have experienced, possible non return of immigrants, fear of returning and decline of income. While I agree with his observations, the opening of churches for private prayer has highlighted another area that has been exposed; with the 70’s and over still described in Government advice, as “being in a more vulnerable position” than those younger, the availability of younger people in simply not there in huge numbers. This is not because there aren’t any, but because they are working and are simply not available.

This raises interesting issues for the future. The very group the church is wanting to attract and engage in collaborative ministry are not free to commit in the same way their forebears did. And when they retire, as is the case with those recently retired, they will be and are looking after their parents and grandchildren.

This has interesting consequences for attempts at broadening the base of lay leadership in the future.

Image: Fr Cecil celebrates Mass via live stream.