In Co. Down the small and vibrant parish of Ardkeen has been bursting with creativity during lockdown ensuring that the parishioners knew the loving presence of Christ and the support of the Church, writes Paula McKeown
Initially our parish started with weekly ‘Faith Survival Kits’, the family rosary, a weekly children’s Mass that teachers and pupils joined in, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church grounds, and Facebook live Masses.
Life changed dramatically for us all in March; it was a time of genuine fear and loneliness. At this time, more than ever, people need hope and consolation. Necessity is the mother of invention. Fr Anthony Alexander, knew there was no way to accommodate the typical attendance of 600 socially-distanced in the church – so Mass went outdoors. A new sound system was installed, the carpark became the new pews, sunsets the new stained glass windows and bird song the choir. The people came. Gathering in cars provided people with the safety that they needed to return to Mass and encounter God present in the gathering of people, in his Word and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. An important part of the mission was the special ceremony for the blessing of tractors.
The parish mission has often been viewed as a shot in the arm for our faith. As Fr Anthony chatted with parishioners, he floated the idea of a mission and everyone liked the idea. This was an opportunity to give people a time to reflect on all that we have been through and to approach the future with confidence. The theme of the mission was; “and now these three remain faith, hope and love and the greatest is love”. So, while the Covid-19 pandemic has changed our interactions, stripped people of security and continues to generate fear the parish invited people to focus their hearts and minds on the three virtues of faith, hope and love.
With a full carpark in front of him Fr Martin Graham led the first evening reflecting on faith. We recalled how when the new translation of the Missal came in many of us had to think again about the creed that we rattled off at lightening speed and come to understand what we believe. Lex orandi lex credenda – the law of prayer is the law of belief – what we pray as a community reflects our belief. With that in mind we were drawn to consider the beauty of a child-like faith, a faith that doesn’t doubt God’s existence, a faith that doesn’t doubt God’s love for us and a faith that doesn’t doubt our own worth. Indeed, the congregation were invited to recognise their giftedness and our role as baptised Catholics as central to the mission and life of the Church. With that in mind the renewal of Baptismal promises took place.
Fr Conor McGrath was very familiar with the carpark congregation as he too celebrates Mass outdoors in the parish of Glenravel. Fr Conor led the people to reflect on the emptiness that we have experienced during the pandemic; empty shelves in the supermarket, empty skies and airports, empty offices and the empty chair at the kitchen table. We then looked towards the empty tomb. The empty tomb found by the women was to become a source of great hope. While initially Jesus said to Mary “Do not touch me”, something we are familiar with at this time, there then followed encounters with Christ and his reassurance that he will always be with us. It is this certain hope that allows us to know in confidence that despite this current hardship that all will indeed be well.
Love was the theme of the final night. Fr Dominic McGrattan spoke on how love can be an overused word in the English language because there are so many variations surely “I love my Mum” and “I love bacon sandwiches” aren’t the same kind of love. And so, we focused on agape. We recognised that loving each other requires us to do thinks that might be inconvenient – like wearing a mask and that as a Christian people we ought to love selflessly and go out of our way for the other. Our actions as a Christian people should lavish the community we live in with charity. With this in mind as people left the mission they were given a red envelope to open at home and a task of discernment. Each envelope contained the passage from St Matthew’s Gospel with Christ’s challenge to recognise him in the poor and to feed, clothe and shelter all those in need along with a crisp £10 note. And so, people were sent to live out their faith, in a spirit of hope and with acts of charity. It is too early to tell what the fruits of this mission will be but we trust that God is at work and through him all things are possible.