Last year Holy Week culminated, for me, by serving as Deacon for Pope Francis during Easter Sunday Mass in St Peters Square. My first task was to sing the “Annuncio Pasquale”, in front of thousands of people gathered in the square before me and in the street behind; my last was to sing the dismissal at the end of Mass. It was an experience I shall never forget.
I knew that returning to the Archdiocese for Holy Week this year would be a marked contrast, but it was one which I was looking forward to. I had volunteered my services to the Vicar General to supply in any parish which, for whatever reason, could not have a priest present for Holy Week this year. The chance to serve a community, with whom I could have a personal and pastoral relationship, was an exciting prospect, compared to being a distant figure on the horizon or a big screen.
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!” So goes the old clerical saying. So this year, with the country under lockdown, I spent Holy Week in the sole company of Fr Tom Farrell, parish priest of Christ the King, Coventry (where I am based when not finishing my studies in Rome) and, of course, with Fr Tom’s Labrador, Kai.
Staring out at our empty church and preaching down a webcam is something that I haven’t completely gotten used to. While parishioners, family and friends have been great at keeping in touch and making sure that everyone’s being looked after, it’s in the Mass where you really do feel the effects of the lockdown, especially in a church that’s normally as busy as Christ the King. Fr Tom and I split the duties between us: he would be celebrant on Maundy Thursday and for the Easter Vigil, and I would celebrate for Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The major danger to watch out for was celebrating on some sort of autopilot. Having a congregation around me helps keep me focused and, strangely, makes it a little easier for me to pray the Mass. I’m certain that’s a major reason why God called me to Diocesan priesthood rather than religious life. Without our congregation being physically present, but viewing digitally instead, I had to be aware of the risk of rattling through prayers without being as present as I ought to be.
Mercifully, we’ve had countless emails, cards and letters from people all over the country who’ve turned in to our services and told us how grateful they are for what we’ve been doing. Fr Tom has served in parishes all over the Archdiocese and many former parishioners have tuned in to see him again. Friends of mine in Rome have joined us, the hour’s time difference making our Mass a convenient one to tune in to while their young children take a nap. The prize for the longest distance streaming however, goes to my friends in Singapore, who join us for our Morning Mass at 8:30pm, Singapore time! My 6 year old god-daughter is allowed to stay up late in order to see Uncle John in his church!
There were just two positives to such a radically different Holy Week. The first was arriving at Easter Sunday without already being exhausted! Holy week in the English College is always a bit of a marathon. If you’re not looking after all of the guests who come to college church for the liturgies, then you’ll end up being roped in to serve, sing, read, prepare the sacristy, serve refreshments afterwards and just generally be useful. And, being a seminary, we do everything possible in the liturgy, meaning that the Easter vigil lasts a minimum of 2 and a half hours! Contrast that with our locked down vigil, which took only 1 hour 15 minutes!
The second positive is a little more selfish on my part. If I made a mess of the Exultet, there would only be Fr Tom to notice! Mercifully, I made it through the 10 minute long chant more or less unscathed.
We discovered just recently that 2,500 people have been joining our livestreamed daily Masses and an amazing 5,000 have joined us for Sunday Masses! On top of that, the parishioners have been brilliant at keeping up their outreach to the community and, where necessary, adapting that outreach. Our parish email lists and whatsapp group help keep track of anyone who needs looking after, whether that’s getting in some shopping or just a phone call to check in on them. Our parish club has utilised its kitchen, providing a ready meal service for people to pick up a meal a day to take home for their family. Over 150 meals per day are presently collected or delivered by volunteers. And our youth group has begun experimenting with group meetings online via Zoom. The parishioners are still organising foodbank deliveries and collections, while another group is involved with providing food each day for the homeless in Coventry.
Families have told us how much they appreciate tuning to our 7 pm Rosary before sitting down to dinner. Who would have thought that lockdown could be a catalyst to increased family prayers.
While it’s been far from the Holy Week that I’d expected, the opportunity to be part of a Catholic community which is this dedicated to practicing what it preaches. It’s heart-warming to be at the service of the sort of people who are themselves so dedicated to serving those around them.
Fr John Waters is a priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, ordained in July 2019. Having returned from the English College in Rome due to the Covid-19 prevention measures, he is based at Christ the King, Coventry, whilst completing his Licence in Canon Law via online classes.