Pádraig McCarthy has helpful suggestions on facing ‘The Challenge of Covid-19’

The Challenge of Covid-19

The current situation presents challenges and opportunities. At this time when we cannot gather in our parishes for our normal celebrations, what can we do to develop awareness of the existing Christian living of people outside the location of our parish church buildings, to know that they are the church? While attendance at public worship is suspended the Christian life is not suspended.

It is an opportunity for developing awareness for lay people to experience being the domestic church. The job of those of us who are ordained to ministry is to serve and promote the baptismal ministry of all church members, recognising their dignity and vocation.

Having the celebration of Mass on line or on television is good. It has the disadvantage, however, that it may become for some simply a spectator activity rather than participative, and there is also the danger that it can convey the impression of being priest centred, an expression of clericalism.

Insofar as it applies to families with children, the family gathered for a meal together is a reasonably common experience, even though it can be more fragmented nowadays, with the distractions of television and phones. A current television advertisement shows a woman conducting a business meeting, which turns out to be via phone at the home dinner table; and a child reminds her: “Mum, no screens at the table!”

The Christmas dinner is likely to be a special occasion for many families. I wonder how many families also gather for Sunday dinner, in a way they may not do during the week? The situation of those of us who live alone, or who are homeless etc., is not so clear, but there could be adaptations – even via Zoom! This provides an opportunity. It’s not that we’re trying to drag religion into it, but is based on the fact that Jesus chose the very human experience of a meal as a central rite to build communion. We want to recognise what is already there as experience of God.

Perhaps parishes could suggest ways during Advent for families to reflect on their experience of family meals. Adults could talk at the table on Sundays about their memories of what family meals and Sundays were like when they were growing up, and recall what it meant to them. It could stimulate both happy and sad memories, as indeed is the case with the Eucharistic celebration. In this strange year, the family could have their own Advent candles on the table for dinner on the Sundays of Advent – the colour doesn’t really matter too much, and a wreath, if desired, could be just a bowl with some greenery. It has often occurred to me that the Advent wreath and candles are more suited to home than the church building. A short prayer for the lighting of the candle(s) could be grace before meals. This would perhaps help the children in becoming aware of what Christmas is about.

It could be developed further. Those who go online for Mass could listen to the readings for the day, inviting each person to pick out one sentence or thought to share with the others present at the dinner table, and say what it means to her or him. It would be important that it not become an occasion for anyone to criticise what another says, but simply to listen with an open mind to what it means to the one honestly sharing. (None of “that’s a stupid thing to say!”)

If they want a chance to look at the readings more closely, they are available on the ACP website by clicking on the calendar on the right hand side. Also in Irish and English at


For those who like to go further, there could be an opportunity to share intercessions for the family, those they love, those who have been involved in the growing, processing, transport and retailing of the food they share, those with Covid-19, the needs of the world, those who die of the even greater plague of hunger – about 9 million people die each year of hunger-related conditions – and so on.

The breaking of the bread in the Word and in the Eucharist cannot truly happen without breaking of bread with those who have none. The family might like to decide to make a contribution to such a worthy cause. The services provided by such as the Capuchin Day Centre are very good, but it is shameful that people in Ireland today still depend on food parcels after nearly 50 years.

(They might also like to commit to a contribution to their local parish.)

Those who would do some or all of the above would, I think, have a heightened appreciation of what the Christmas celebration of the coming of Jesus Christ can mean to us. It would also link in with the experience of gathering with the parish when this is possible. And it would be an introduction to the experience of lay people sharing of faith, and contribute to a growth in confidence in faith, and enrich also their participation in public worship. It would help to lay the ground for those who will be preparing for their first reception of sacraments.

As well as this, there is a great richness in the Irish tradition of recognising the presence of God in the nuts and bolts of everyday life, including many everyday elements which may not seem to have any relation to faith living. The collection of traditional prayers and blessings in Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire’s book Ár bPaidreacha Dúchais, and in Donla Uí Braonáin’s Paidreacha na Gaeilge: Prayers in Irish, a smaller collection with both Irish and English.

There are, of course, other possibilities which could be developed. When the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, the people of Israel adapted to their new situation. Christians have adapted to times of persecution, as did the people of Ireland in Penal times.

The four archbishops made representations to the Taoiseach about the reopening of churches for public worship – there are varying views about the wisdom of this. I have the impression that there is little awareness among our political leaders of the part religious worship plays in the foundations of our society. They know it’s there, but how it functions is almost ignored, except when there is a clash between faith and state.

The European Social Survey in 2017 reported that 36% of adults in Ireland attend a religious service at least once a week, and that Ireland’s least religious age-group (16-29) are more likely than most of their peers in Europe to be active. The social capital involved is incalculable. It means that at that time over 1 million every week attend a religious service – a far greater number than take part in any other community activity, albeit with a lower profile than sport etc. The closing of places of worship for a lengthy period must have implications for the health of society.

Covid-19 is an opportunity for renewal at the grass roots of our church, to re-establish today the foundations of our faith in the everyday life of Christians, without which all the “superstructures” of church organisation totter. “Aggiornamento”, as we used to say in the days of Vatican II.

I write as a retired priest, helping in our local parish, and (thankfully!) without the responsibility of administration. I’m sure those of you fully active in your parishes may have suggestions and experiences to share so that the pandemic will be a time of grace and hope.

Pádraig McCarthy

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