ARCHBISHOP OF TUAM
CHALLENGE TO FAITH AND OPPORTUNITY FOR FAITH
Faith Gatherings Twelve Months Ago
This time last year we had just celebrated the Annual Marriage Anniversaries Mass as we honoured those husbands and wives who have provided us with such extraordinary witness of married love. Those family celebrations were truly inspirational and most enjoyable.
Another important occasion in the Diocesan diary was the Annual Meeting with the Principals in our Post-Primary Schools. We are very indebted to them for the part they play in the formation of our young. The work being done by the Post Primary Advisory Committee in the Catechetical area is hugely significant and deeply appreciated.
As priests we looked forward to the annual In-service in October when we endeavour to discern how best to present Christ’s gospel in the changing and challenging culture of today.
During the month of November last year, we acknowledged the great work being done by our young people in serving the Church and becoming involved in Church related organisations in their parishes as they were honoured with the John Paul II Award. That celebration illustrated the generosity, availability, exuberance and joy of our young, their sense of belonging as well as believing. That award ceremony illustrated what faith means to those involved and the way they are happy to give public expression to it. Parents enjoyed the occasion and were understandably very proud of their sons and daughters.
Looking back on those occasions, just twelve months ago, there was so much that we took for granted – freedom of movement, unrestricted social gatherings, pilgrimages, participation in public worship at Mass and the sacraments, regular visits to family and friends. What a contrast to the restrictions with which we contend today, living as we do in a heightened state of anxiety which has implications for our mental, physical and spiritual health. How do we cope as we try to adapt to the changed situation?
Coping with Covid-19
This pandemic has presented us with many challenges, including, and not least, challenges to the practice and the living out of our faith.
As followers of Jesus Christ faith will be crucial if we are to get the strength to cope and continue on our journey. Faith can surface as we, deprived of the customary securities of life, make adjustments and are challenged to distinguish between what is essential and what is of lesser importance. Courage and faith will be required. While they are not the same, they are interrelated as we face unfamiliar terrain. It is inspiring how people have responded to those challenges and have shown their Christian faith in care for others, in prayer and in creative responses to the restrictions on gathering for worship. As we continue on this journey in uncertain times faith will be crucial in giving us the courage and strength to cope.
Living in the age of the instant makes demands on faith. We grow impatient if there is a delay. Yet, faith is the ability to live with delay without losing trust in God’s promise. Faith enables us to cope with disappointment without abandoning hope. We know from experience that the road between the real and the ideal can be long and challenging and yet faith sustains us as we undertake the journey. The Bible constantly keeps before us the way the people of God had to cope with adversity, puzzlement and plague. They thought they could create a “Promised Land” on their own terms and be masters of their destiny. Time and again they failed to read the signs God was giving them. Circumstances confronted them which seemed to frustrate their plans and dash their hopes. So often they had to take corrective action, listen again to what the Lord was saying to them, and make adjustments.
Enabled by Faith to Read the Signs
As a people of faith, we can learn from them and be guided by the way God relates to, challenges, corrects, confronts and consoles his people in the Bible. How are we coping with the restrictions – working from home, deprived of public celebration of Mass, confined to low numbers at funerals and weddings, unable to socialise in pubs and attend sporting occasions? In many respects, due to the marginalisation of faith, we inhabit a rather closed world where the larger questions, when they arise are addressed in a very narrow and confined area. People of faith are readily dismissed as living in the past. Faith however is never naive, blind or unquestioning. It does not and cannot avoid the major questions which we face. Religious faith creates community and encourages altruism. How we relate to God is reflected in our relationship with others where there is loyalty, love, generosity and trust.
Personal and Family Prayer
Faith enables and encourages us to see beneath the surface, providing us with a broader panorama so that we can evaluate, make connections, see the implications, and come to a deeper appreciation of what we may have neglected or overlooked. For example, family life has been subjected to enormous pressure. Parents endeavour to combine professional responsibility with parenthood as they work to educate their children and provide them with values which may be ridiculed by their peers. Covid-19 has enabled us to spend quality time with family members in the home, providing opportunities for understanding, encouragement, affirmation and development.
As we are deprived of the togetherness occasioned by the public celebration of Mass, many create a “sacred space” in their own home where family prayer can take place as they light a candle of hope to dispel the darkness and play suitable reflective music and read a passage from scripture. Individuals and families are discovering new strength, support and meaning in traditional prayers like the rosary. Last year the Archdiocese of Tuam produced a beautiful Prayer Card. It is short, simple, succinct, inclusive, relevant to our situation today and conducive to prayer. In that way the home becomes a domestic Church and reminds us of the way the early Church met in peoples homes.
Generosity of Volunteers in the Local Church
So many find solace in a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in their local church. As people were preparing for the resumption of public celebrations of Mass and the sacraments, so many volunteers and Pastoral Councils became involved in planning, preparing, cleaning and sanitising our churches so that they would be safe secure places for public worship. This was a most encouraging sign and a good barometer of faith and what the Mass means to people. It is also a clear illustration that religious faith is not just about believing but also about belonging in a local community, that significant network of relationships which indicates that people are there for each other.
Coming together to worship God and celebrate the Mass is at the heart of our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. In recognition of our responsibilities of co-operating with the public health authorities and their efforts to suppress the virus, this is not possible for now. It is, however, deeply disappointing for many people of faith. In this context priests have been ministering creatively online and on digital media. While those online Masses do not substitute for being present at the celebration of the Eucharist, they are an important element in maintaining a prayer life and a sense of the sacred and they help to give a sense of community to those involved. Priests, whose ministry is defined by pastoral and sacramental care, want to journey with their people and are at pains as to how best to do this, acknowledging the situation which confronts us.
While I look forward each year to celebrating the Sacrament of Confirmation and meeting the candidates and their families, this was not possible since the “lockdown” on the 12th March as Confirmation ceremonies had to be multiplied in keeping with the public health requirements, physical distancing, and restricted numbers. I wish to express my appreciation and thanks to the priests for the way in which they administered the Sacrament of Confirmation and First Holy Communion in very challenging circumstances. I want to register my gratitude to parents, the teachers, the Primary Catechetics Committee and all those who prepared the children for those sacraments. Our priests have been relating that in view of the smaller numbers involved in the ceremonies there was an opportunity to focus on the essential meaning and the simplicity of the sacrament and this contributed to a very prayerful experience.
A Challenging Time
It has been a particularly difficult and lonely time for those who had to lay to rest a family member in a way which is counter-intuitive to the Irish psyche. We remember them in our prayers in a special way at this time. For those in nursing homes and hospitals and for their families it has been a very trying time as visits were discouraged and impossible. Many couples who had planned to celebrate their love in the Sacrament of Marriage have been seriously inconvenienced by the pandemic.
Patience Generating Hope
Coping with all of these challenges will require a robust faith in God as we witness the world which we have known collapse in front of us. In this delicate situation our fears will be exploited as we become more conscious of our fragility and vulnerability. Yet solidarity, support, neighbourliness and community have all taken on a new urgency. Our response to the challenge posed by this pandemic will demonstrate who we are, what we believe and what kind of future we wish to create. Pope Francis encourages us to respond to the coronavirus pandemic with the universality of prayer, of compassion, of tenderness and to remain united.
While the present experience constitutes a huge challenge to faith, yet in so many ways the situation brings out the best in people, awakening the need for and appreciation of connectivity and community. Goodness, generosity and gentleness are in evidence in service, neighbourliness and voluntarism. All of this became abundantly clear in the responsibility which is being expressed by the way in which people abide by the restrictions for the good of all, and the sacrifices which families make. As a people of hope we commit ourselves to welcoming and contributing to the decisive transformation made possible by the God who brings order out of chaos, light out of darkness and new life out of situations where none seemed possible.
As we draw ever closer to the season of Advent, we get a new and deeper appreciation of what it means to practice patience as we wait and watch for the homecoming of God at Christmas.