Fr Joe Ryan, Parish Priest at St John Vianney Church, in West Green, north London writes:
An open discussion paper during our current shutdown situation with a view to making the most of our time to work out a Pastoral Plan for the reopening of our churches.
How will we, as Christians, rise again from our COVID-19 Crisis?
We can take inspiration from the Pope's recent Easter reflection:
The wish the Pope expresses on concluding his reflection is that society might find "the necessary antibodies of justice, charity and solidarity. Let us not be afraid to live the alternative civilization of love". It is a "civilization of hope", he says confounding "anxiety and fear, sadness and fatigue". This civilization, he explains, needs to be built daily, "uninterruptedly" and requires everyone's commitment, a "committed community of brothers and sisters". (Pope Francis: "Let's not be afraid to build an alternative civilisation of love")
Personal starting point
As I put my thoughts to paper, we have been shut down for almost six weeks already and it's been announced that we're going to be closed down for a further number of weeks, if not for the rest of the year. We are living in difficult times; times we never expected or really prepared for. We all have our own ideas, observations and predictions. Our lives are full of uncertainty. We ask, how long will it last? I ask myself, will I survive? Part of me says, "Due to your age and asthmatic condition, you are in real danger." It's not very easy to come to terms with this prospect. And it is in this light that I write these words. If you find these words helpful, good; if not, that's fine too - just leave the ideas be. As the Pope says, this new civilisation needs to be built daily, so it follows that we can begin here and now. The details for the national reopening have yet to be worked out, but we can make our preparations.
Re-opening in the parish
My main aim is to be prepared in a pastoral way in this parish for the day when parishioners will be able to return to worship together. A lot will depend on what we have been doing in the meantime, to reach out to others in their time of need. On this matter I feel very helpless, but we have been celebrating Mass each day online. I am most thankful to the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity based here in the Spirituality Centre at St. John Vianney Church. Our gratitude to Srs. Devy, Monica and Anabel. They have looked after the IT technology, most of which I am utterly unaware of. How will we be in the new era?
A new chapter - a golden opportunity
As our churches are reopened, people will arrive with much joy, hope and expectations. It can be a new Pentecost, a new beginning. By opening a new chapter, we can take into account all that has gone before and build on the faithfulness of the people. We will have been through a national crisis hitherto unknown. Some will have suffered and lost close members of their families, as well as friends, while others will have worked in frontline services, putting themselves and families at risk. All will have been in some form of isolation and some will have lost their livelihoods. We will all have changed. We hope we will be better, stronger, and different people.
Our isolation, however, might have frozen our thinking, so that we remain in mourning and shock, anxious only to return to the world we knew before. For a vacuum has been created during the time of lockdown. A vacuum can be a wonderful thing, but also dangerous. We can be sucked in to whatever space or reality that is presented. Yet God's word, read particularly during this Easter and Pentecost season, presents a different reality, of renewal, hope, healing and comfort. The following are but some of the aspects of this reality, seen through the eyes of faith:
Scripture and Tradition
My reflections are based on the Word of God; the teachings of Jesus and our own Christian tradition. Ecumenism, in its widest sense, is not excluded.
- Gen 1:2 "And God's Spirit hovered over the water" - the Spirit of God is still active in our world, forming it anew as in the Creation story.
- Ez 3:3 "I ate it, and it tasted sweet as honey" - the image of Ezekiel eating the scroll, the Word of God.
- Ez 40 and 47 - the vision of the water of life flowing from the temple.
- Ez 37 - the vision of the valley of dry bones; at this moment we could feel like those dead bones. But then we see in Ez 37:14 "And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live."
- Joel 3:1-2 "I will pour out my spirit and all mankind, your sons and daughters, shall prophesy. Your old men shall dream dreams, and young men see visions. Even on the slaves, men and women, will I pour out my spirit in those days." - are not these the days when we need the Spirit of God, enlightening our minds, so that we can visualise and vocalise God's plan for us today? We mustn't be afraid to dream.
- Mt 9:16-17 (cf. Mk 2 and Lk 5) "No one puts a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak, because the patch pull away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wine skins; if they do, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are lost. No, they put new wine into fresh skins, and both are preserved." - Jesus reminds us that new wine has to be put into fresh skin. Neither can we sew a new piece of cloth on an old garment. Yet so often, this is what we do, because we are creatures of habit - "This is how we've always done it!" Yes, but these are times for new beginnings! That time is now!
- Lk 5:4-ff "Jesus said to Peter, 'Put out into deep water and pay out your nets for a catch.' 'Master,' Peter replied, 'we worked hard all night long and caught nothing, but if you say so, I will pay out the nets.'" We know the results - a miraculous number of fish! We may feel that we have laboured all these weeks and months... and what have we to show for it? Who knows? God knows! So we have get to be very brave, not heed our wavering instincts, but answer the Lord's calls, and put out into the deep. How exciting if only we believe that God's spirit is with us! It's so easy to stay by the safety of the shore - 'Let's hang on to our securities'; 'Why venture into new pastures or seas?' Instead, let us grasp the opportunities with both hands!
In our Easter reading, that beautiful reading on the shore where Jesus prepares the food for the disciples, "Come and have breakfast!" What a beautiful invitation from Jesus. He knew the fishermen would be hungry and cold (after another unsuccessful outing) so he has food ready for them. He knows we, too, need to be fed. He gave us Himself in Word and Sacrament. We need to offer that food of Christ to all our brothers and sisters, with no exceptions!
In the calming of the storm (Mt 8, Mk 4, Lk 8) " 'Master, master, we are going down!' Then Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and the waters, and they subsided and it was calm again." - one detail we need to keep in mind from this story: Jesus was in the sinking boat too! He still is in our 'boat' of life, even if we feel in mortal danger, he is with us in all our trials.
I'm sure there are many other passages in the Scripture equally relevant. Keep those in mind, too.
Renewal of life within our Church
We need to present a safe and welcoming space for all God's people. This new home, we need to be working on now. While there will be the familiar, there is also some redecorating to be done, some repair work, some spring cleaning, maybe new 'furnishings'. I don't mean new pews, but a fresh theology; a theology of welcome, forgiveness, compassion, nourishment and freshness. All of this doesn't have to be earth shattering, but a simple development of thought and vocabulary, just like the many languages spoken and understood at the first Pentecost.
Our parish liturgy on that first weekend will be so vital. We need to begin as we hope to continue. It's not just a matter of opening the same 'doors' that we closed in the lockdown. Those who return will have much to be thankful for, but also much to mourn, and much to rebuild. We could well remember the Jubilee Door of 2000. The concept of jubilee has to do with forgiving debts, letting slaves go free, declaring an amnesty to those in any kind of chains and prison. Our Eucharist is important. There will be so much to be grateful for. Likewise, our Penitential Rite needs to be meaningful in those opening days. Here there is a pastoral possibility we may not have even considered, and yet are part of our church's tradition in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There will be so much ground to be covered and to catch up on, such as the obvious sacraments like First Holy Communion, First Reconciliation, Confirmation, the RCIA candidates, Baptisms, weddings and certainly Memorial Masses for all who have died. We need to be aware that people are looking for meaning in their lives. There are those faithful who will return full of joy to be back again where they feel they belong. There are others who are searching, those who have been hurt or wounded or turn their back on the church for whatever reason, such as loss of friends and relatives, working in dangerous circumstances, those having to contain children in small spaces, as well as disappointment, cynicism with church and with society. They need to be welcomed, understood and appreciated at the new wedding feast!
This New Spring will mean new sowing and a lot of pruning! It is only when the rose is pruned severely that new shoots appear. A fresh catechesis is needed. Pope Francis has been leading in this.
Renewal in the world.
We cannot simply focus on our parish life, important though that is. The world is a different place, and we must be ready to respond to the greater and different needs that there will undoubtedly be. The soul of the nation/world is up for grabs! We need to be ready to build on the outpouring of solidarity we are currently seeing, for our service workers and our vulnerable neighbours.
A New Pastoral Plan
We need a fresh Pastoral Plan - a plan meditated and worked on by Bishops, priests, religious and laity. In the parishes, we will have to implement the welcome.
There will be many pressing considerations, including the fact that a new academic year will be with us. That is why I would like to have a dialogue on the topic, so that all of us together can work out a pastoral plan. We can then put it all on hold or amend it, as necessary. Our government will direct us in so many ways and guide us in best practice - but any civil leaders will not provide the necessary liturgical plans or pastoral plans!
Building 'the new civilisation of love'
In the meantime we work day by day. I would like to continue the daily mass online. To date, hundreds of parishioners have been so faithful to Mass. On Holy Week and our Sundays so many have participated. Thanks for all your support and prayers.
At St. John Vianney we hope to have an opportunity between Easter and Pentecost to look more closely at the Acts of the Apostles. We have so much to learn from the early Christian Churches. We see how the new Christians met for worship in their homes, just as you have been doing in this time of shutdown.
We can learn a new vision of what it means to be Church. We can see how the apostles and leaders acted as the numbers of Christians expanded; what type of leadership emerged... there were presbyters, elders, and all those with different gifts and talents, all working together to build up the body of Christ. Here is much food for thought.
How are people coping in other parts of the world?
We can well keep in mind our Christian brothers and sisters in other countries who have the celebration of Mass maybe once a month, maybe every six months, when a prise is able to visit. How do they keep their faith alive? What is their understanding of Church and being a Catholic? Their occasional celebrations of Mass, Baptisms, Marriages, Reconciliation etc. have to be viewed in a different way. They are not a sacramental based practicing Christian Community. They need to rely on the Liturgy of the Word of God and on their family prayers at home. It is a different way of 'being church'. What does it teach us? Can we learn anything about our concept of closing churches and parishes, thus dismantling an existing Christian Community? This begs the question of our understanding of leadership, our understanding of priesthood. Yes, we could well examine our understanding of Priesthood and maybe re-think the concept so vital in the teachings of Vatican Council II on the role of the laity and priesthood of the laity.
The more I think of this time of shut down, I realise we should be busier than ever: thinking, praying, evaluating and discerning who we are as a Church. Rather than deploring our sad situation, we could be getting on with Zoom conferences and having dialogues on pastoral matters.
A lesson from Irish history
As an Irishman, I'm always very conscious of that period of Irish history leading up to the Great Famine of 1846-47. There were 8 million people in Ireland. How many priests, how many large churches were there for people to gather? Very few! How did the faith in such a large population of Catholics survive? It wasn't by attending Mass, as the Penal Laws were in vogue. People were not allowed to gather for mass or the practice of their faith. There were Rock Masses in isolated districts; there were Hedge Schools - can we learn anything from this period of history? I.e. During this time, what priests there were, they were on the run and would celebrate Mass in the open air with a rock for an altar. People would gather, for Mass, while others would be on the lookout for the soldiers seeking to arrest the priest. Likewise, with education for the young, classes had to be held in secret in the wilds. What was the definition of Church in those circumstances?
We have a golden opportunity to re-evaluate our understanding of being Church today. Our lives will never be the same again as a result of Covid-19. Time and experience will have moved us on. We need to open a new chapter in our spiritual, political and social living. We have precious days while on lockdown to share these ideas and have dialogue together in order that we hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.
How can we take some of these ideas forward? I have mentioned several items in passing; they may need developing. Some people, I can hear them say, "Well, all of this is unnecessary, because the future is uncertain. That's fine... but we need to plan. I would appreciate some dialogue and comments, an expansion of the few ideas I'll be mentioning. We are all in this situation together: Bishops, priests, sisters, laity. All have a vital role to play to ensure we make the most of this time of solitude, confinement and shutdown in order that we hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches!
Some questions to consider:
Have you any plans for those early days when people return to their parish churches?
How do you think the Church can respond and be proactive in the post-lockdown period?
How do we try to restore morale and retain the goodwill and generosity shown in the shut-down time?
So, thank you for reading. I'm conscious that this is very lengthy, but we have time in our hands to think and share while in solitude.
It's now over to you, readers, to take it from here!
St John Vianney Church,
London N15 3QH
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