Nichols said that one of the worst aspects of the crisis was that friends and relatives were “cruelly separated” from ill loved ones.
“It’s just awful,” he said. “A friend of mine is in a nursing home, and all we’ve been able to do is to park in the car park of the nursing home and talk to her via a mobile phone -- she being in an upstairs window. And, you know, that’s very, very painful. Very painful.”
The president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales recognizes that the virus is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the Church.
“There’s no doubt there are changes,” he said. “Some of them have risk to them. I think many people really appreciate being able to share in the Mass through livestreaming. But we always have to remember that the Eucharist is not a service provided by the clergy.”
“The Eucharist is the life of the Church and it’s the Church that makes the Eucharist, not simply a priest in a church building. And so the Eucharistic heartbeat, or pulse, of the Church is not fully expressed on the internet.”
“And I have no doubt that, in their heart of hearts, Catholics really want to get back to Mass, which is why this present moment is so full of anguish, that we’re going to be excluded from that again for a short while.”
Nichols told contrasting stories about how Catholics were adapting to the suspension of public worship. In one London parish, a woman told her priest that she loved internet Masses “because I can sit on our balcony and have a cup of coffee.”
“And then from the neighboring parish,” the cardinal said, “the parish priest tells me: ‘We have a lady in the parish who is 103 and for many years she has not been able to get to Mass. But now she can join in the Mass on the internet.’ He says she gets up every Sunday morning and she gets dressed in her best clothes, and she puts her hat on and she comes before the television set and goes to Mass.”
Nichols suggested that the lockdown had opened up new possibilities for communicating the Gospel, catechesis, and studying the Scriptures.
“But we do need to gather,” he stressed. “This sacramental life of the Church is corporal. It’s tangible. It’s in the substance of the sacrament and of the gathered body … I hope that this time, for many people, of Eucharistic fast gives us an additional, sharpened taste for the real Body and Blood of the Lord.”
Nichols said that the pandemic had helped him, as the archbishop of a sprawling diocese, to appreciate the importance of “local energies.” He praised the “ingenuity” of Westminster priests.
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“I would like to think that in this period we’ve become much less top-down and much more enhancing and supporting local initiatives,” he said.
He is proud of the charitable work across the diocese, led by the energetic Caritas Westminster. He mentioned one parish that was supporting 15 families at the start of the first lockdown in March and is now helping 75. Another parish had increased its food distribution by 400% in the same period.
Nichols was born in 1945 in Crosby, Lancashire, in northwest England. The Catholicism of his childhood was starkly different from that of today.
“For example, when I was a young boy, we would never go near an Anglican church,” he recollected. “We wouldn’t even go into the churchyard, nevermind join in prayers. That was enemy territory.”
As a young priest in Liverpool, he would be accompanied by two men as he took Holy Communion to the sick, in case of possible harassment on the street.
“I’ve gone from that to the situation where we are now, where we see ourselves with other Christian bodies in very close cooperation, in a very shared witness. And it’s broadened out to the presence and the partnership with leaders of other faiths as well,” he said.