Catholic Masses with congregations are suspended, Holy Water has been removed from church entrances, the flock has fallen sick and been scattered. But the Church shows its resilience; all is not lost. Catholic communities all over the world have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by finding new ways to practise their old faith. But how can the faithful discover new meaning in these difficult times?
Parishes now meet for a virtual Mass. Oxford’s own Blackfriars, for instance, are live-streaming Sunday Mass at 9.30 on YouTube. Pope Francis has been delivering powerful sermons livestreamed across the world. In his Easter Address, the Pontiff memorably underscored the need for unity and action: ‘Indifference, self-centredness, division and forgetfulness are not words we want to hear at this time. We want to ban these words forever!’ (we’re assuming this is not to be taken literally).
The Pope also gave his Extraordinary Blessing ‘Urbi et Orbi’ – ‘To the City and the World’, which is normally reserved for Christmas and Easter. In this Blessing he again emphasised that believers should take an active response to the crisis: ‘it is not the time of [God’s] judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away … It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.’
So, the faithful must think and act with new clarity in the midst of turmoil. Many are. They gather in their homes to watch the Mass from afar. Parishes have reported an increase in the number of people attending (virtual) Mass, with some viewers returning to Mass after long absences. In Ireland, where religious divisions run deep, Catholics and Protestants prayed together, virtually, on Palm Sunday. Pax Christi, the international Catholic movement for peace, held an online prayer service in solidarity with Extinction Rebellion Faith Communities, including prayers for those affected by the virus.
Believers have also been urged to give charity. Last month the Bishops’ Conference suggested in their letter to Catholics in England and Wales that they should be ‘attentive to the needs of our neighbour, especially the elderly and vulnerable; contributing to our local food banks; volunteering for charitable initiatives and organisations; simply keeping in touch by all the means open to us’. Far from shying away, this uncertain time is the chance for the Church to prove and reinvent itself.
In this, it has many advantages. The Church is an entity which in some ways is custom-built for helping its followers overcome difficult times. Christianity’s strong track record of resilience in crisis is a trait which comes from the very nature of its foundations. This history begins with the Hebrew Bible, and its account of ancient Israel’s endurance of mishap and toil, from Assyrian invasion to exile in Babylon, without losing sight of its Covenant and God’s salvific purpose. Centuries later, Christianity was born into a world of persecution in the Roman Empire. It grew, initially against a backdrop of torture and execution by emperors, notably Nero and Decius. Thus began a tradition of martyrdom, which infused into Christianity a spirit of resilience in dealing with oppressors and times of struggle.
Today, one may look to the narratives of the New Testament which mirror in some way our present, self-isolated living, for guidance or inspiration in lockdown. One may remember the story of Peter, sitting, isolated and alone, in Herod’s prison, who kept praying for rescue (which arrived in the form of an angel). One may think of the Apostles, hiding in the Upper Room after the death of their leader. They must have faced trials similar to those which we face, which have been brought on by our (sometimes-fearful) social distancing and self-isolation. The Apostles could not leave their room, and they had no idea what the future held for them. The life of Christ is also, of course, a case of perseverance and courage in the face of uncertainty, danger and anxiety. This fact has influenced the whole Christian tradition. Important theories of salvation, like that of St. Augustine, centre on the hardship faced by Christ as the active ingredient which brought about salvation. Contemporary scholars now tend to focus on Christ’s participation in human suffering, emphasising Paul’s metaphors of Christ as sacrificial victim, as when Paul wrote that ‘our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed’ (1 Corinthians 5:7). Through his suffering, it is said that Christ demonstrates the failure of violence. The Christian, then, does not have to look far for exemplars of great resolve in times of difficulty.
Christianity is in the business of making sense of hardship. The Church gives its followers a framework for times of crisis. In addition to injunctions to give charity, Christianity offers stability and certainty, which are both at a premium in lockdown. It urges a rule of compassion towards others in the community, encouraging gentle persuasion of others that they should follow rules for the general good, rather than the harmful shaming which has been witnessed from some quarters. It encourages frequent ritual and practice, such as routines of prayer or charity, which can give structure to one’s day in the absence of going to work. There are three particularly important traditions of relevance here: monasticism, silence, and prayer.
First, one may look to the tradition of monasticism for inspiration, as the life of the self-isolator is not so very different from that of a follower of a monastic rule. We, like them, must plan our days in an enclosed environment, deciding at what times to do this and that in order to feel motivated, productive and, for the believer, in communion with God. Self-isolation is not monastic in the mould of the communitarian Benedictines, but in that of the solitary lifestyle of the Carthusians or Trappists, enclosed off from the outside world. Monks live without frivolous and non-essential items (many without any private possessions), just as many of us will likewise have to do without non-essential items for the time being.
Secondly, the Catholic tradition of silence is of interest. Silence is a spiritual necessity – or so say many Catholic spiritual writers. In monasteries, conversation is limited to the necessities, to prevent idle talk and help one in speaking with God. Although alien to many, this thought is a fruitful one, easily applicable to the days spent in lockdown. Regardless of one’s faith, withdrawing, even in part, from the noise of the 24-hour news cycle can give one space to contemplate and be restored. And perhaps believers can view less conversation among each other as an incentive for more conversation with God? Chapter 6 of the Rule of St. Benedict emphasises the need for silence for listening to God when it suggests to its disciples: ‘since the spirit of silence is so important, permission to speak should rarely be granted even to perfect disciples, even though it be for good, holy edifying conversation’, and again: ‘the disciple’s part is to be silent and to listen’ (trans. Leonard J. Doyle, Order of St. Benedict: archive.osb.org). This reflects Romans 10:17: ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’, among many other Scriptural passages. Silence is the means to listening to oneself and to God, and lockdown presents the opportunity for this.
Lastly, the believer may pray for those who suffer from the virus itself, and for those who care for them, (in addition, of course, to giving charity). Prayer is as old as the Judeo-Christian tradition itself. It is used throughout the Old and New Testaments, among other things to cry out to God, as the ancient Israelites cried out to God over their enslavement in Exodus 2:32; to petition, as Paul recommends in Ephesians 6:18; and to intercede, as in 2 Corinthians 1:11. Petition, asking God for things, is perhaps what people think of first about prayer. When Christ gave the Church the Lord’s Prayer, he included this element in ‘Give us this day, our daily bread’ – which is a request for nourishment, and all entailed in this, like strength, health, worldly opportunity and so on. But petition is not all. The Lord’s Prayer itself includes these other aspects too: meditation, praise of the Father, a request for forgiveness, reflection on the coming Kingdom, and a request for strength. Prayer is said to effect a change in the one praying – helping the believer grow in love and confidence, and find courage within themselves. Bestowed with the gifts of prayer, perhaps the believer will be able to contribute to bringing about positive changes in the world. Perhaps the believer may pray for the courage and strength to face the challenges of their time – like those in the Christian story before them. This is affirmed in the Church’s official teaching, in which is quoted St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s insightful description: ‘For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy’. This last ‘embracing both trial and joy’ resonates in times like this – prayer is for good times and bad.
What about those on the peripheries of the Church – those who do not normally have much by way of religious faith but who may turn towards religion in times of crisis? The aim of the Church should be to encourage them to engage with these three relevant traditions of monasticism, silence and prayer. It would be interesting to know how many of the new attendees at online masses which parishes are reporting are those who had joined in just to see what it was like – to see if a religious perspective could help them cope with difficult times. It would not be surprising if many were. The effect of the present crisis on Christianity will come down to whether or not people on the peripheries of the faith have been inspired to return to the fold, and whether the weeks-on-end without any physical church attendance will mean a downturn in attendance once the pews are re-filled.
Christianity has difficulties it has to face. But making sense of times of crisis like this is something for which it is well suited. Christian faith and practice can help make sense of events like this. As long as Christians make good use of their own tradition’s spiritual and practical resources, there is no reason why it cannot find new strength in a dark time.