The coronavirus pandemic has meant that Shrewsbury Cathedral has recorded the largest congregations in its 170-year history as thousands have tuned in to watch Easter liturgies via live stream. While the Church has suspended all public Masses as it seeks to protect the elderly and other vulnerable people whose lives may be particularly in danger if they contracted Covid- 19, the cathedral, along with some parishes of the Diocese of Shrewsbury, have made the Mass and other liturgies accessible from online portals and the service has proved hugely popular.
The live-feed provider, ChurchServices.tv, recorded that more than 11 times the number of people watched Easter Mass at the cathedral from their homes than would normally attend in person.
Shrewsbury Cathedral usually attracts congregations of between 600 and 700 people each Sunday and about 1,000 on Easter Sunday. This year, however, a total of 11,446 watched the Mass via live-stream, with some tuning in from as far away as Ireland and the United States. The figure represents an increase of 1,044 per cent.
The high point during Holy Week and Easter, however, came on Good Friday when 13,594 people watched the liturgy remotely in their own homes. Similarly high numbers tuned in to watch Mass on Holy Thursday (10,360), and live-stream the liturgies of Holy Saturday (8,189).
The monthly total of views exceeds 83,000, with 33,307 unique viewers logging on to Mass and other liturgies from Shrewsbury for the first time.More than 40,000 hours of liturgical services have been streamed from Shrewsbury Cathedral in the last month alone.
The Rt Rev. Mark Davies, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, said: "During the weeks of the public health crisis Shrewsbury Cathedral has stood empty for the first time and yet has drawn congregations by live-feed which are undoubtedly the largest in the cathedral's history reaching a remarkable high point on Good Friday.
"It appears to be faith more than curiosity which brings thousands to join us every day for daily Mass and services which are prayed without music and from a fixed camera that has no special, televisual quality.
"It is especially good that many who are isolated or alone at this time have been able to be part of the daily prayer of the Cathedral."
In preparation for the restrictions that came with the pandemic, the website of the Diocese of Shrewsbury was redesigned to give greater emphasis to the portal from where Catholics can watch and take part remotely in the Mass and seven other daily services from the comparative safety of their homes.
Besides the Mass, the daily programme includes Morning Prayer, the Rosary, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, Evening and Night Prayer, Benediction and a blessing for those who are sick.
The live-streaming service provides the opportunity for the faithful to practise "spiritual communion" at a time when they are physically unable to receive Holy Communion from a priest during Mass.
Since the national lockdown began more than three weeks ago, churches have been closed to the public even to private prayer in observance of the Government's social distancing requirements.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales waived the Easter duties of the faithful to receive Holy Communion and go to confession at least once during the Lent and Easter seasons.
Baptisms, first Holy Communions, first confessions, confirmations, and weddings have all been deferred until restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly are eased. Priests may provide the Sacrament of the Sick to those afflicted during the pandemic as long as no direct physical contact is made and sufficient personal protective equipment is available from hospitals treating the patients.
Funerals will be carried out only at either gravesides or crematoria and not inside churches until the crisis is over. Requiem Masses will eventually be offered in memory of the people who died during the pandemic once congregations are permitted to assemble again.
During the crisis, the Diocese of Shrewsbury will continue to provide other pastoral support and Bishop Davies has also invited individual Catholics to respond to the pandemic with acts of charity and selflessness.
In a homily preached on Easter Sunday, the Bishop reminded Catholics that "the hope of Easter itself sprang from the stark reality of human suffering and Christ's death on the Cross, and ... would be heard first by men and women 'self-isolated' in fear".
"The Easter promise of the life that overcomes death, is as needful as ever today as a global pandemic confronts entire populations with our vulnerability and mortality," said Bishop Davies.
He continued: "May the enforced inactivity which marks these days help us to spring back thanks to the greater force of supernatural faith, hope and love, so that in the struggle evoked in the Easter celebration between death and despair, the victory may be to all that promises life.
"May we return with renewed longing for the Holy Eucharist; for deeper prayer and sincere service; for the healing grace of Confession, the Sacrament of our conversion after Baptism. In this way, may we emerge from this bitter struggle victorious with Christ our Lord who, in the words of the Easter Liturgy, died and yet 'reigns alive for ever and ever'."
Diocese of Shrewsbury website: www.dioceseofshrewsbury.org/
Shrewsbury Cathedral website: www.shrewsburycathedral.org/
Cathedral livestream: www.dioceseofshrewsbury.org/about-us/live-masses