BY Ryan McDougall | March 30 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

20200320T1026-1142-CNS-POPE-MASS-CONFESSION (1)

Finding new ways to be as we enter tough times

As priests celebrate Mass alone in empty churches, new ways of being the Church are certain to emerge in uncertain times just like they have done before

AT THE beginning of Lent each year, when I ask the primary school children what they’re giving up for Lent, there’s always some aspiring comic whose hand shoots up into the air to tell me that he (and it’s almost always a ‘he’) is giving up coming to school or going to Mass for the next 40 days. Somehow the joke doesn’t seem quite so funny this Lent.

All across Scotland, our schools have closed their doors and may not open them again for several months. What is more perhaps more serious for us, as Catholics, is the decision made by the bishops of Scotland to suspend the celebration of Mass until further notice.

While we understand and support this most difficult of decisions, surely only made after careful discernment and with heavy hearts, we can’t help but be saddened by the prospect of giving up the greatest gift of all this Lent.

Community worship

We’re saddened not to be able to gather to worship together as a community, saddened to have to cut back our parish activities and saddened that our brothers and sisters, who have been taught to make the Mass the source, summit and centre of their lives, are now being asked to stay away.

Of course, this is not the first time that Catholics have had to do without the Eucharist. Here in this country, in the persecution that followed the Reformation, Catholics who refused to give up their Faith would have to go months and even years without receiving the Eucharist. The Catholics of Japan lived without the Mass for almost three centuries, when the underground Church was kept alive through the heroic fidelity of lay Christians, celebrating their Faith in secret and passing on to their children a love for the Eucharist.

The circumstances here are, needless to say, somewhat different, not least because Mass is still being celebrated in our parishes, albeit behind closed doors. I’ve celebrated Mass in private many times before, while on holiday or on my day off, but I’m doing so in these days with a special poignancy.

When I address a greeting to ‘my brothers and sisters’ in a chapel empty except for a single altar server, I’m reminded of all the people at that moment who would dearly love to be there to respond.

Blessing the parish

At the moment of the blessing at the end of Mass, it’s my intention to bless the whole parish, the children from the school, the sick and elderly in their homes and everyone in the city. I don’t have a sophisticated theology to support it, but I’m nonetheless sure that in the private celebration of Mass, somehow the graces of Christ’s sacrifice are still flowing out to others, sanctifying the world in a hidden sacramental economy known only to God.

As we move forward, these days will require of all us an honest discernment and a creative response. How can I keep holy the Lord’s day when I can’t come to Mass? How can I love my neighbour when I’m social distancing? I’m sure in the days and months ahead more and more parishes and local communities will come up with new ways of being the Church in these most unusual times.

In amongst all the doom and gloom, my spirits have been lifted by the Italians singing from their balconies, the teachers offering to tutor children for free online and the priests publishing inspiring meditations online. A famously technophobe priest friend of mine has just bought a smartphone and signed up for Facebook so he can better keep in touch with his parishioners. Wonders never cease!

Closer to God

Even these trying circumstances can be sanctified. My old spiritual director used to always tell me that there’s no excuse for not being a saint. We’re called to grow closer to God, regardless of external circumstances, offering the minor inconveniences, little irritations and even more serious hardships to God, and asking Him to use them all for His glory.

In these days, I’ve been thinking of St John Henry Newman’s prayer to discern God’s will, which ends: “If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”

God has a plan which, in the confusing mess of human history, is no doubt unfolding and being brought to fulfilment. He has some special grace that He’s preparing to bestow upon his Church and on each of us as individuals this Lent. Let’s trust in Him. As Newman says, He knows what He’s about.

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