At St John’s in Heidelberg, the church doors have recently reopened for Covid-safe Masses indoors. At a typical service, ten people enter and, having booked beforehand, list their names and phone numbers at the door. These ten people sit socially distanced, wearing face masks. They hand sanitise as they come in and as they leave. After they go, anything they touched is wiped clean.

‘These are some of the practicalities we have to work with,’ says Fr Joel Peart, parish priest at St John’s Heidelberg.

As part of the state’s gradual easing of restrictions, St John’s has recently been allowed to host ten people for Mass indoors. ‘That was as of two weeks ago,’ Fr Joel says. ‘We were able to go to ten on 27 October.’

Despite attendance only being a fraction of what might be usual for a weekly Mass, Fr Joel notes that the atmosphere amongst parishioners has taken a turn for the positive. ‘People are excited,’ he says. ‘People are really hungering for the Eucharist and wanting to get back into Mass and back into the church, which is really encouraging.’

‘There was a time when they were getting despondent and losing hope about when things might open up, and when they might be able to get back to Mass and the sacraments. But with restrictions easing and low numbers reported daily, they’re hopeful that things will continue to get better from here on in.’

Before restrictions eased, Fr Joel was conducting Mass outside, catering for groups of five people. ‘It was a challenge but there was something good there,’ he says. ‘I think people appreciate seeing you doing what you can within the rules. People appreciate you’re making that effort and that they can get to Mass, small as it was.’

Fr Joel explains that he’s been thrilled to meet parishioners as he’s only been at the parish four months, starting with at St John’s in Heidelberg on 1 July, during lockdown.

‘I’m starting to meet more and more people as things open up. That’s exciting because the greater the numbers, the more likely you are to bump into new parishioners who have been looking forward to meet the new priest.’

Alongside the enthusiasm of parishioners, Fr Joel notes a prevailing sense of relief.

‘We were getting to a point where some people were getting quite frustrated and angry. So it was good to help quell a lot of that.’

According to Fr Joel, the re-opening of churches has given rise to an abundance of collegiality. This has, he notes, been especially demonstrated in the willingness of parishioners to help the church follow hygiene guidelines to creating a Covid-safe space.

‘People have been very helpful and proactive in looking for different ways to best clean the space afterwards and help set up and pack up and get forms sorted and adhering to Covid-safe practices. People are looking to contribute and make life as easy as possible for everyone.’

And with Advent just around the corner, Fr Joel recognises Christmas Masses will not look the same as in years past, but he hopes for as many people as possible in his church, while adhering to best-practice guidelines.

‘We want to keep everyone safe and make sure the virus doesn’t break out again,’ he says, stressing that safety and caution are top priorities. ‘Any return to regular Mass will be managed and limited, so we won’t be able to expect the usual numbers of parishioners during Christmas.’

‘In a best-case scenario, people would likely need to socially distance with four square meters around them. For us, that might be mean 40 or 50 people in total. If restrictions allow 100 people indoors for Christmas, that would be fantastic. But I’m not holding my breath,’ he adds.

‘The temptation is to be frustrated,’ Fr Joel says, ‘but obviously it’s better if you just look forward.’

On the process of gradually opening up, Fr Joel says it’s been ‘good for the soul’.

‘Those able to get back to Mass have been so relieved and so happy. You can see the joy when people do get to receive our Lord and be back in the church that they love. After so long, this is going to be great in so many ways for this community and for the church. Just the very fact that they’re seeing it go in the right direction is enough for people to have some hope and be uplifted, which is amazing.’

‘Even if it’s small progress, is progress. It’s not a bad metaphor for the spiritual life, that this is generally the way things are done. Bit by bit, slowly and surely. Slow change is true change.’