A lot of people miss Church during these strange and stressful times. Nobody can remember anything like this ever happening before. We all support the great national effort to defeat COVID-19 and keep each other safe. We willingly make every sacrifice that is needed.
Not being able to go to Mass is a great sacrifice. We have the possibility of joining Mass from our parish church through webcam, facebook live or parish radio. RTÉ broadcasts Mass each morning. It is good to have to have these virtual options and we are grateful to the people who make them possible. Still, it is not the same.
In Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis speaks to us of the limitations of digital media. He tells us that it
‘lacks the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes, the perspiration that speak to us and are part of human communication. … Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges.’
We long for the day when we can once again pray once again as a community, as a family of families.
Our sacraments, our moments of encounter with God, are built around words, symbols and touch. The words remind us that God was made flesh like us and is present among us. The symbols (candles, water, bread, wine, oil) take us deeper as we experience the union of the divine and human in mystery. Touch makes it personal and calls our whole being towards Christ who reaches out to give us the graces we need. Food for the family of faith to sustain us on life’s journey.
Screens can do wonderful things. They relay words and images, but they struggle when it comes to nourishing community and conveying the holiness and the wonder of the moment. In the words of the GAA slogan ‘nothing beats being there’.
Churches are so much more than buildings. They are storehouses of memories and living temples where we gather to pray, to remember, to celebrate, to mourn, to receive guidance, help and consolation. People come to Church for the ordinary and for the extraordinary. Sunday Mass, a wedding, a month’s mind Mass, a quiet moment alone lighting a candle for a loved one on a weekday morning – all special moments. The circle of life orbiting the cycle of the liturgy. Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Feast Days, Sundays, ordinary time and the changing colours punctuate the year. There is also the comforting familiarity of where people sit, the statues, holy water font, stained glass, candles, the sanctuary lamp, the choir, the liturgy, the prayer and the building itself. Then you have the social – the Sunday morning routine, the chat after Mass, the parish newsletter, the visitors during the summer. Memories, routine, celebration, all combining to create strong bonds that make our churches the home of our soul.
In Irish the phrase ‘teach an phobail’ is often used for ‘church’. It is the people’s house, our home where we gather. We sometimes enter with burdens to place before the Lord seeking healing and strength. Other times, we are propelled by joy as we celebrate a birth or as two people commit to a life of love without limits. The memories, love, inner thoughts, dreams and struggles of those who have gone before us await us each time we cross the threshold of our church. We hear words and experience a presence that challenges, consoles, raises up and inspires us. In church we receive blessings that are much needed, freely given and graciously received. A port in a storm, a road to lead us home.
Ireland has 2,652 Catholic churches, each with a light burning to invite and comfort us. Every church is treasured by the people who regard it as their church. Each of us were carried into our church by our parents for baptism. At the end of life, the situation is often reversed as children carry their parent on their shoulders into their church for their final visit. Sacred moments in a place consecrated a great many hallowed moments in between.
Thankfully, during the current phase of the public health crisis we can still visit our churches to offer a quiet prayer, light a candle or spend a few minutes in the presence of the blessed sacrament. For the moment we can only do those things alone or in small family groups. Praying in our homes and uniting ourselves to Mass celebrated in parish Church will keep the flame of faith alight in our hearts and communities until the day comes when we can once again unite as a family of families around the altar.
Fr Albert McDonnell, Resident in Kildysart, Radharc na nOileán Pastoral Area