Last weekend, a number of churches across Metropolitan Melbourne opened their doors for the first time since Victoria entered its second lockdown back in early August.
‘It’s great to be back!’ said Paul Jakubik, who attended the five o'clock Mass at St Mary's Greensborough, along with his wife Rachel and thier daughters Ella and Caitlin.
'We've been doing the Masses online but it's just not the same,' Paul said. 'You’ve got to stay connected otherwise people will drop off.’
The resumption of public Masses at St Mary’s and its partner parishes (St Thomas’ Greensborough North and Sacred Heart Diamond Creek) has been wonderful, says parish priest Fr Steven Rigo. For him, the time away from parishioners cut deeply.
Personally it’s been a really difficult time. Celebrating the Eucharist with community defines who I am.
And if I don’t celebrate the Eucharist and the other sacraments for which I am responsible as pastoral leader of the parish, then I’ve felt this real “robbing” from me of some of the fundamental things that go with priesthood and therefore my very life.’
Fr Steven and the parish leadership team began livestreaming weekend Masses when Victoria entered its first period of lock down.
'I was determined that I’d celebrate Mass in a different church each time,’ Fr Steven said. 'People have commented that they love seeing the different churches and those who come from a particular church have an affinity with it, so it makes a lot of difference for them to see it on screen.’
‘Of course, you can watch various other people celebrating Mass around the world but there’s something about participating in the Eucharist in your own church. That’s something that I would hope to take forward because there were several people even before the pandemic who couldn’t come to Mass and now they can have access to it in this way.’
While he's grateful for the return to public worship, Fr Steven says he is disappointed by the disparity in restrictions applied to places of worship and other sectors within the community.
Under the current COVID rules, places of worship are permitted to open for up to 10 people indoors (plus the faith leader) and 20 people outdoors. These numbers will increase to 20 indoors and 50 outdoors from Sunday 8 November.
Why is it that 20 can gather inside pubs and yet if we want 20 people we have to be outside?
This weekend has been really good and people have really loved it. I think part of it is that they’ve relished being together again.
But I’m angry because we’re forced to do this. I’m angry because the Eucharist shouldn’t be exclusive. And whenever we have to exclude the eleventh person or the twenty-first person or the fifty-first person, then we are being exclusive. I’ve got a real problem with that. The Eucharist should never be exclusive.’
The pandemic has also meant there is now a “backlog” of baptisms and school children waiting to receive their sacraments of Reconciliation, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
‘I was asked to make a short video which was shown to all the classes and I just commended the kids on their preparations this year… and encouraged in them to see this not as a once-off sacrament, but a deepening of their relationship with God.’
The inability to gather physically during the pandemic has opened up new avenues for building community and faith enrichment, Fr Steven says.
Every Friday at 10am we meet across the parishes on Zoom. We talk for a bit and then I ask the people to talk for a few minutes about what they’ve been up to. It’s been marvellous the way that people have listened to each other, talked to each other and have come to know one another—sometimes people who haven’t even met one another before.’
Recently, the parish started a series of online talks exploring theology, creation and the cosmos. The series began a few weeks ago with presentations from Fr Steven, pastoral associate Jacinta Bright and John O’Connor. It’s attracted a diverse group of about 70 parishioners from across the partnered parishes and beyond.
Fr Steven says the series emerged from conversations with local teachers who were having difficulty reconciling the Scriptures and developments in science. ‘I'd encountered two teachers who were told back when they were studying to avoid talking about the Big Bang theory when teaching. These are people who are younger than I am. That’s what surprised me because it was a Catholic priest who came out with the Big Bang theory to begin with!
‘But this is where a lot of teachers are at – they haven’t been brought to a place where they can reconcile the things that come from our faith with what we know from the developing sciences. They are reconcilable. And not only are they reconcilable, but they are also different pages of the same book. They enrich each other.
‘The other interesting thing is that if we were to put that session on (pre-COVID) we would have been lucky to have gotten 20 or so to attend, if that. But there were over 70 people who attended and in some places there was more than one person watching from the same home. It’s been great.’
While he acknowledges the wonders of technology, Fr Steven says he’s still in a quandary about its overall effectiveness in building community and a sense of belonging.
Earlier on [in the pandemic], I ran into a lady from one of the parishes who said what she really missed was the gathering – the community. She was quite sad that she couldn’t gather with her friends for prayer and the Eucharist.
And I thought, for all of this – the online video and streaming of Mass – it really takes away from what the Eucharist is meant to be. It’s about being together. No matter how good it is, what you offer online, it’s not the same. And I hope that we will never lose that.
We ought to be searching for what will nurture our faith – and its wonderful that people can do it in that way (online), but there is nothing that can replace the physical being with one another.’
It seems ironic that the first weekend of public Masses occurred around the feast days of All Saints and All Souls – occasions which seek to remind us of our membership within a community of faith beyond the here and now.
Delivering his homily from the outdoor lectern on Sunday, Fr Steve said the month of November is a time for Catholics to remember their connection to, and belief in, the Communion of Saints.
‘We belong to the family of Jesus and we belong to each other – to those who have died, to those who have attained the perfection of love in eternal communion with God, and to all those still living here on earth who are, as the [Second Vatican] Council says, still “tending to the perfection of love”.'
We belong to Jesus and to each other. It’s a timely reminder as the world rediscovers what community might look like in a world forever changed by this COVID-19 pandemic.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli20 October 2020