As parishes we will have to invest a lot of energy in community building as we emerge from this time of social isolation and cannot take it for granted that people will simply return writes Bairbre Cahill
You’ve probably heard the story of the hungry caterpillar; well I’m currently feeling like the rather anxious caterpillar. We are on a phased journey back into society. We are emerging gradually from our cocoons. I delight at the prospect of getting back to walking the Derryveagh mountains. I long for the chance to swim in the sea. I want to meet up with those I have missed so much. The prospect of a cup of tea or a wee glass of wine and a chat, even sitting at a sensible two metres social distance in the garden is wonderful.
But I know I am not alone when I wonder how we will relax with these gradually evolving freedoms, sources of joy and yet needing our ongoing vigilance. I suspect this is why I found myself thinking a lot about Pentecost as the feast approached last weekend. I identify with the friends of Jesus, safely cocooned in the upper room. They must have wondered how they would ever venture out again. It is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which empowers and liberates them.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Pentecost Sunday transforms us and allow us to run free, without a care in the world. What I am suggesting is that over these weeks we would do well to pray for the gifts of the Spirit. Living through a pandemic creates anxiety – that’s natural – but we cannot allow that anxiety to dominate and so we need the courage to move out into the world again. While it is not good to spend too much time watching the news or reading articles about Covid-19 online it is essential that we have a realistic understanding of the situation, that we are not being driven by rumours, half-baked stories and hysteria. The threat is very real but there are clear steps we can take to minimise the risk of catching or passing on coronavirus. So all those gifts, of wisdom, right judgement and reverence come to the fore.
I’ve been doing a tour of parishes lately. I’ve been to Glenstal and Clonard, to the Augustinians and Redemptorists in Limerick. I’ve popped into the cathedral in Letterkenny and St Mel’s in Longford as well as my own parish here in Letterkenny’s Irish Martyrs – all on the laptop of course. I deeply appreciate the availability of Mass online and yet, I am concerned. It strikes me that in partaking of Mass in this way we are becoming, yet again, an utterly passive laity. I know there is not much we can do about it for now but it concerns me. Yes, it is good to be able to ‘hear’ Mass, there is certainly a sense of connection but we need so much more.
And indeed in order to do that, we need to take time to listen. What has people’s experience been during this time? What have we learned? Online and in conversations we hear over and over again, people saying that we cannot simply return to what we previously thought of as normal. We need the future to be different, better, more human. If that is to happen then we need to take the time to reflect. What have we discovered in the quiet simplicity of our socially isolated lives? What do we desire to do differently? What values have been brought into focus?
For society in general and for the Church it cannot simply be ‘business as usual’. We do not know how long this is going to impact on our lives but sitting at Mass, wearing masks and at a two metre distance from others will not be business as usual. So we need to take this opportunity to think about who we are and who we are called to be, what community means in this context and what it is to be a Christian in a world where, at the moment the most powerful Gospel images are coming to us in the guise of doctors, nurses and other health staff, frontline workers and volunteers.
I find myself thinking about the Basic Christian Communities which developed in Latin America. At the core of these communities was the willingness of people to reflect together on the Word of God, to view the scriptures through the lens of their daily experience and their lives through the lens of the Gospel. These were simple, ordinary people living their lives in challenging circumstance but it was this interaction of faith and life which gave them vision and courage and the desire to transform society. It takes courage to enter into the intimacy of faith sharing, to break open the word of God with others. There is an openness and vulnerability involved but a richness too. It can truly be an encounter with Christ which can transform our lives and how we live out our faith.
Surely that is what is being asked of us by this whole situation, to be open to encounter Christ and each other in a new and life giving way. Going forward, how do we want to live? Answers are not easy to come by. We need to develop contemplative discerning hearts. There may be a security in ‘getting back to normal’ but maybe we need the courage to find something better than that. Yes, we are blessed that Mass is available to us online but perhaps this shared reflection, the development of small groups committed to praying and sharing together is what we also need at this time. Our parishes have in so many ways and for many years become service providers allowing us to simply be consumers of these services. We have paid lip service to the importance of adult faith development. So then, rather than being simply passive recipients where can we come to, bringing our meagre offerings, our five loaves and two fish and allow them to be transformed into bread to nourish others?
Do we believe that the family is the domestic Church, the place where faith takes root? If that is the case, then what are we doing in this time to nurture that? What resources are we providing for families to enable them to grow in faith together?
First Holy Communions have been postponed all over the country. Even come September it is highly unlikely that we will be able to have – as in many larger towns – over a hundred families plus friends and relations gathered together for the celebration of First Communion. So, how could we do it differently then? Is this the time to invite families to pick any of the Sunday Masses over a six week period and to celebrate a smaller, simpler First Holy Communion for a small group of children, their families and the parish community? This was a recommendation by the Irish Bishops some years ago but has not been widely taken up. Is this an opportunity to embrace a new way of doing things? Is it an opportunity to recognise First Holy Communion as a celebration of faith in family life, enabling parents and guardians to take ownership of their vital role as the first teachers of faith? Change is nerve wracking but resistance to change can be resistance to life itself.
We deeply need the gifts of the Spirit, not just as individuals but as families, as society and as the people of God. We could so easily be like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, plodding into an unknown future with heads down, embroiled in a sense of anxiety and loss, wanting everything to be the way we had once expected it to be. Or we could take the time to look around us, we could risk that intimacy of faith sharing, we could allow ourselves to encounter Jesus in the goodness and generosity of others and respond to the invitation to be the bread of life for each other, broken and shared. Now wouldn’t that be a future rich in the fruits of the Holy Spirit?
And what of the Church in the midst of this? Yes, we want to get back to celebrating the Eucharist together but our vision needs to be deeper, wider, more than this. This pandemic has provoked an existential crisis on a global level. What is the pastoral response to the trauma of this? Firstly I would have to ask, are we open to being evangelised by the Gospel goodness of so many all around us, of every creed and none? What have we learned about humanity? When you listen to a teenage boy saying that he hasn’t seen his mum since the beginning of lockdown because she is a nurse and is staying away from the family home in order to keep them safe we are witnessing the stuff of holiness – in the actions of the mother and the loving understanding of her son. When you hear of people who have retired but return to work in order to be of service – holiness. When you look at the sports clubs and community groups delivering support to those who are vulnerable within the community – holiness. When volunteers work together to manufacture visors, sew masks and scrubs – holiness. This is what Pope Francis has in mind when he speaks of the universal call to holiness and yet we still reserve the idea of holiness for that which is more conventionally sacramental. When will we embrace a wider vision if not now? When will we nurture discerning hearts so that people can comfortably speak of their daily lives as a place of God’s presence and action, a place of revelation?
Pope Francis has asked repeatedly for the Church to be a field hospital, “I see clearly,” the Pope says, “that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle…Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…And you have to start from the ground up.” How do we begin to heal those wounds? We need first to listen, to create space for people to share their experience.
There is the trauma of all those who have been bereaved during this time, when our usual Irish ways have been set aside. We have not been able to gather at a wake, to hold each other in our grief, to gather to pray for the departed and the broken hearted. We cannot go back in time. We cannot retrofit those supports but going forward we need to explore how we nurture and support all whose grief has been made more complex by this pandemic.
There is a pervasive sense of loss. Children moving from primary to secondary school this year have lost out on those final months of preparation, fun and a process of closure to ease their transition. Leaving Cert students are living with ongoing stress about their exams and what the future will bring. Grandparents are living with the loneliness of missing grandchildren and in many cases the loss of those first few wonderful weeks with a newborn, something they are very aware they will never recapture. Many people have experienced a sense of being unmoored – disconnected from their normal routines and what gives structure and meaning to their lives. Within that many have found a freedom and greater sense of balance which they may now not want to relinquish. Big emotions are being corralled and contained but at some point will need to be spoken of – anxiety, fear, frustration. What is our pastoral response? It is here, at the heart of people’s lives that God is powerfully and profoundly present and so as Church we need to listen to what is emerging, we need the capacity to be with people, to acknowledge the woundedness we all experience.
There is a very real sense in which we are being invited into the paschal mystery – cross, tomb and resurrection. We cannot simply jump to resurrection without contemplating and reflecting upon the cross and tomb experiences. God, in the resurrection, is doing something radically new. What is God doing now? How are we, as Church, being called to newness of life, to resurrection?
Pope Francis in his writings has consistently asked us to reflect upon the type of society we are building, upon the exclusion of so many. He has invited us back to that radical commitment to God’s anawim – the poor and the vulnerable. In Laudato Si’ we are challenged to consider our relationship with creation and the damage being done by exploitation. It strikes me that so much of what Pope Francis has written about is brought into focus by this pandemic. We are being invited by our Pope and by our circumstances to contemplate anew what it means for us to be Church, to be the body of Christ. A caterpillar has no intention of emerging from the cocoon still a caterpillar. Through the gifts of the Holy Spirit let us be open to transformation.