St Werburgh's Roman Catholic Parish, Chester

Updates from the Parish Priest

The Church's Response to the Current Situation 

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Sunday 29th March 2020

I’ve been so struck by everyone’s stoical, common-sensical reaction to this crisis that the last thing I intend to do tonight is go counter to it all by saying this is the first Sunday ever that St Werburgh’s has been closed and piling on the agony. We all know that our church has never been closed before, we’re all coping with it, and clerical melodramatics wouldn’t improve the shining hour one little bit. Agreed? I try to imagine Sunday 3rd September 1939: Canon Maurice Hayes handed a note as he finished saying the 10.30 Mass, and having to announce that, as the 11.00 o’clock Ultimatum had now expired, Britain was sadly once again at War. As the people left church, they noticed sandbags being filled on the corner of Foregate Street and Grosvenor Park Road, the former being, of course, the main thoroughfare in those days.

No, we don’t as a nation do drama queen, do we? And thank heavens we don’t. I’m sure Canon Hayes didn’t, eighty years ago. Nor did Canon Chambers in August 1914. Nor would Canon Welch, with his own memories of being a Seminarian at Ushaw in 1914, choosing to enlist, and finishing the war in November 1918 in a German Prison-of-War Camp. Wonderful Priests, one and all, and I just feel so inadequate occupying their place today.

But, as I said yesterday, there is something transcendentally calm and peaceful about saying Mass in our empty Church. Except that it’s never empty: the presence of the Blessed Sacrament means Our Lord is always there, even when we aren’t. It may sound daft to you, but when I say my Private Mass every day, I try to read the Readings out loud, as if you were all there. Apart from anything else, it makes me read them more slowly and carefully. I hope you are using the Universalis app (good, or what?) to find the Mass Readings every day. No need for any Lectionaries or those death-dealing ribbons. Just click the button, and hey presto. How I would have loved such electronic aids in those Seminary days, me the reader, Community Mass, ribbons not prepared beforehand, eighty pairs of eyes burrowing into me as I go from pink to crimson, just wanting the ground behind the Lectern to open up and swallow me whole. And the Rector greeting me afterwards, “Eee, Paul, I did enjoy that…” Thanks, Father!

Today’s Readings pulled me up short, not just that superb account in John 11 of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, but St Paul to the Romans: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you” (8, 11). It’s the Holy Spirit who will defeat this virus, working in His own marvellously unfathomable way, but also through the skill, commitment and training of our wonderful nurses, doctors, scientists and health workers. There’s no “either… or” here, God versus Science, only an unstoppable “both… and”. The power of our prayer at this time is also unstoppable, so let’s all renew it doubly, every day.

Being given the number of Coronavirus Deaths on a daily basis is a hideous reality check: but it does allow us to track the course of this killer disease. 113 deaths last Thursday, 181 on Friday, 260 on Saturday, 209 today. Far too early to say we’ve reached the peak. We are all following these numbers, I know, and praying and longing for the day they are definitely and permanently starting to go down. Each one is a Soul who has met the Lord face to face, and each one needs our prayers.

Thanks to Deacon Tom from St Theresa’s and St Columba’s for sending over this morning a message from his previous Diocese, Southwark, including a reference to the Funeral of Peter Smith, their late Archbishop, previously Archbishop of Cardiff and Bishop of East Anglia.

"It is a great sadness that Archbishop Peter’s funeral will take place on Monday with only his close family and the priests of the Cathedral present. Please pray for him, and his family, and all who mourn him at this time of loss. This is effectively a graveside service as Archbishop Peter will be buried in the vault of the Cathedral. We will have a Mass in memoriam once the restrictions are lifted, when we will be able to give thanks for his life and ministry. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen."

I only met him on three or four occasions, but was always struck by his amazingly down-to-earth, straightforward manner, putting you at your ease immediately. As he would have been the first to acknowledge, part of that impression may possibly have been created by the inevitable cigarette in his hand. His other uncompromising trademark was his evening Gin and Tonic. I’ve followed the second, Your Grace, if not the first. Two weeks today and counting. Boy, am I counting!

Thanks for sending that over, Deacon Tom, and the whole of the new Archbishop of Southwark’s message. Archbishop John Wilson. John, my great swimming buddy all those years ago, every Sunday afternoon out on the bus to the Salesian College next to the Beda for our statutory lengths, back for Sunday Vespers and Supper. One of the nicest lads it’s ever been my pleasure to know. You’re in my prayers, John, with the awesome responsibility now on your shoulders.

May God bless you all,

Fr Paul