Holy Week rituals are a loss beyond words –
Religion seems to be making a comeback. Not surprising in the circumstances. In times of crisis former believers can sometimes tend to recapture their faith. Or if not their faith at least a memory of what once was. Or for many, I suspect, a sense of loss for the courage and comfort a lively faith in God experienced by believers and their families.
Or maybe those who still believe, can be a bit like the Burt Reynolds character in the film, ‘The End’, who found himself in the sea far from the shore in danger of drowning and making a deal with God. He promised God that if he could somehow get as far as land he would, for all his days, promise to keep every one of the Ten Commandments. Gradually as land neared he started re-evaluating the agreement, shelving the commandments one by one until he had run out of them – promises and commandments – by the time he arrived exhausted on a beach.
For some there’s a dawning realisation of how central God is in their lives, how much they miss Mass, how important are the rituals (as with death and funerals) that they took for granted, how empty life can be without the sustenance of a faith community.
For others, there’s a realisation that the other supports they imagined they couldn’t possibly do without can seem insipid and empty in a crisis, poor gruel when wholesome and nourishing food is needed. God is missed.
Those whose business it is to try and care for their parishioners have developed technical broadcasting avenues – the webcam and local broadcasting of parish Masses – for keeping in touch with their communities, especially the elderly and vulnerable. It isn’t Mass, someone said to me the other day, but it’s the next best thing.
Radio stations are now broadcasting regular Masses, like MWR three times a week, and even RTE is now broadcasting Mass on television every day on RTE News Now– after moving things religious to the periphery suddenly re-discovering their public service remit to two million Catholics who go to Mass in Ireland each weekend. Any port in a storm.
And, of course, the coronavirus has released all manner of religious enthusiast, from the wise owl to the eccentric, happy to offer or inflict their own individual devotion, novena or spiritual idiosyncrasies on the unsuspecting public. A bishop (not in Ireland thankfully) with little sense and less theology took to a helicopter with a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament to fly over his diocese. Some local extremists have taken to driving through empty city streets belting out the Rosary over a loudhailer. And the world of social media, not the most balanced media platform, has attracted any even more varied clientele. God between us and all harm. Even the nonsense of the chain prayer demanding prayers is making a bit of a comeback.
If the experience of not going to Mass has been difficult for the two million Irish Catholics who regularly attend church on a weekend, the hollow experience this year of this week (Holy Week) for regular participators in the ceremonies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday will seem even more strange.
Holy Week is the most important religious celebration of the year. In a hectic week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning, the Church puts everything into the celebration and we’ve become accustomed to the weave of liturgy that commemorates the death and resurrection of Jesus.
This year our churches will be empty, choirs will be silent and the great symbols with which we related ‘the greatest story ever told’ – the palm, the table at the Last Supper, the cross, the water of baptism, the light of Easter morning – little more than a memory.
It will be a loss beyond words for those who treasure the celebration of the core of our faith. This year that won’t happen not because we’ve a choice but because we’ve a moral responsibility to ensure it doesn’t.
All of life in Ireland at present is now lived through the prism of government regulations to try and cope with the coronavirus. The scientists, the political leadership, the clear consensus is that a number of key practices – social distancing, hand washing, coughing etiquette – are the key to limiting deaths and protecting the health service from being overwhelmed.
So everything that happens including church services has to fit within the parameters of the government regulations. That isn’t just an option but a requirement. A bottom line. A corollary is that anyone who organises a gathering of even a few people or ignores the recommended practices is guilty of wilful neglect.
Mavericks like the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who boasted that he shook hands with everyone (and now has the virus) are a danger to society and legislation to protect the lives of the vulnerable from such idiotic macho posturing has had to be rushed through the Dáil. Extraordinarily, even some of those who vaunt moral responsibility and indeed a pro-life ethos seem strangely reluctant to obey the received wisdom around this deadly virus.
Church leaders are caught between their responsibility to give clear and appropriate guidance and the felt need of the people to celebrate the key events of the first Easter. But their (and our) moral responsibility is clear. The bottom line is that no compromise that might endanger health and life is acceptable.
Even though things are changing by the day, effectively first communions, confirmations, baptisms, weddings, public masses, etc. are being postponed. Already two dioceses have decided that there will be no more funerals and that’s a particularly heavy cross placed on the shoulders of bereaved families.
But, as the effort to control the virus continues, what’s clear is that the present strategy is working and we need to proceed with it, despite the sacrifices involved at a personal or family level. And that effort needs to be reinforced by clear and simple decisions.
Anything less is an abdication of our moral and community responsibility.