Sunday, May 03, 2020

There is always a reason to hope

Fr Paddy Byrne

CHURCHES are usually very active at this time of year with First Holy Communions and weddings. But this year, with very few exceptions, they are empty. Not just in Ireland but across the world. In Jerusalem’s old city, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a major pilgrimage centre for Christians throughout the world, has now been closed for six weeks. The last time it was closed to the public for a sustained period was during the Black Plague in the 14th century. At the Vatican, Pope Francis stood alone, speaking before a huge, empty square. “We find ourselves afraid,” he said, “and lost”.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is doing what wars, depressions and natural disasters have not: shutting down places of worship for Christians all over the world. There is a fundamental challenge to Church work when the assembly cannot assemble. The 59 ‘one another’ commands of the New Testament ‒ love one another, forgive one another, rejoice with one another, bear with one another ‒ show how deep and rich the relationships in the Church are intended to be. As wonderful as Zoom, Facebook Live and texting are, they cannot facilitate the kind of interactions necessary for such relationships.

There are additional complications when it comes to pastoral care. In-person crisis counselling, comforting people as they die and consoling loved ones in the wake of death, is far more difficult. At the moment, ministry is regrettably equivocated with misery. The dying, funerals, parishioners really struggling, the brighter aspects, baptisms, Sunday eucharist, weddings, First Communions all are on hold.

One of the reasons Christianity grew so rapidly is that when plagues hit the Roman Empire and so many people, including physicians, rushed out of the city, Christians rushed in to care for the sick, often dying themselves as they did so.

That kind of sacrificial love, coupled with incredible courage, convinced an unbelieving world that Jesus was Lord. How we live out sacrificial love will be different. We know more about diseases and how they spread than the early Christians did, so we need to follow social-distancing guidelines, but the principle of healing the wounded still applies. If, in this pandemic, Christians care first and care most, we may find ourselves in a whole different dialogue between the Church and our culture than what has been primarily a very toxic dialogue.

Read Fr Paddy’s column Time to think in next Tuesday’s Laois Nationalist

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