We have not gathered for prayer during much of 2020. Many people have greatly missed the sacraments as moments of prayer and grace, some missed the chats after Mass, some have felt the loss of their Sunday routine and or perhaps a combination of the above. We have had people engage to varying extents with on-line liturgies, often in far larger numbers than used be physically present in church.
In recent weeks there has been a limited re-opening of our churches, parishes and pastoral areas. Our current situation is ‘blended’ with small congregations present in church and larger numbers engaging on-line. The Christian imperative to care for each other by safeguarding health is all important. We practice social distancing which reduces the capacity of our churches, we provide sanitizing stations while generous volunteers act as stewards.
We pray that the day will soon come when we will speak of COVID-19 in the past tense. When that happens or when we learn to live with the virus, what form will our Church, our life of faith, take? Few envisage a return to the old normal. The trauma of the pandemic has been too great for that and our society continues to evolve.
We have seen extraordinary change in the role of the Church in Ireland in recent decades. When Pope Francis visited Ireland in 2018, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told him that:
‘People of profound Christian faith provided education to our children when the State did not …. They founded our oldest hospitals, staffed them, and provided welfare for so many of our people.….It is easy to forget that the Irish State, founded in 1922, did not set up a Department of Health or a Department of Social Welfare until 1947.…… The Catholic Church filled that gap to the benefit of many generations of our people.’
Until recent times, in a town like Ennis almost all the big buildings and institutions were managed by Church bodies. Priests, religious and people of faith were to the fore in providing a whole array of community services including leadership in education, social care, sport, drama, community development and so much else.
Those days are largely gone and we will not see them return. So, what is the role of the Church and of people of faith in contemporary Ireland?
We return to our roots to find a way forward. The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the first Christians as they lived and shared their faith in challenging and dangerous circumstances. It is an account of courage, love and commitment. A single phrase sums up their life:
‘[they] remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the community, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers’ (Acts 2:42).
They drew their strength from their faith in Christ, fortified through prayer and the sacraments and expressed in service.
Spirituality is what the Church is about. Christianity is living the gospel, celebrating Christ’s presence and sharing the joy and hope He gives. In Christ alone we are fully alive. It is through each other that we come to share in Christ’s life. We cannot do it alone. Parents share their faith, which they treasure, with their children whom they love. The true greatness of every woman and man consists in the love and goodness in her/his heart which knows no limits and endures forever. The fact that the State has taken responsibility for so much administration previously carried out by Church bodies helps Christians rediscover the heart of our faith.
The current public health crisis has called forth a wonderful outpouring of goodness as people care for the elderly and other vulnerable people. Some people have remarked that it is mostly the GAA and similar organisations that lead this effort rather than Catholic parishes. But what inspires the people who practise such generosity and care? For many it is their spirituality, their faith in Christ. Examples of faith inspiring practical care abound. As I write these words, the funeral Mass for John Hume is being celebrated in Derry. The homilist at that requiem Mass told us that the parable of the good Samaritan had inspired and shaped Mr Hume’s work for peace. The work of faith groups in caring for the homeless in our cities is also striking. Christians stop, get involved and help.
We need the Church because we need Christ and we need each other. If the Church doesn’t keep spirituality and prayer to the fore it is likely that nobody else will and we will all be diminished. To be fully alive, we need the joy that flows from faith, hope and charity. Praying together we inspire each other as we grow spiritually as daughters and sons of God, our saving Father and friend.
Fr. Albert McDonnell is chancellor of the diocese of Killaloe. He is based in Kildysart and vicar of the Radharc na nOileán Pastoral Area