Making the Undoable Doable
If someone had said to me (or you?) six months ago (or even three months ago) that the government would close all pubs, and that there would be little resistance from the Oireachtas or among the public, I would have found it difficult to believe or imagine. Mere legislation on drinking and driving involved so much controversy. Simply undoable. Even unimaginable. Just as difficult to believe would be that all GAA and FAI and Rugby matches would be banned and schools and universities and businesses closed. Hospitality and entertainment and, almost completely, air travel.
And yet it happened. Overnight. Without consultation with the organisations concerned. “Fiat!” – “Make it so!” This at a time when our country does not have an established government. What seemed utterly undoable has become very doable, in the particular circumstances.
Banning all public gatherings for worship, including for our most sacred rites, seems equally beyond belief. And yet, except for funerals which are limited to a maximum attendance of ten people, this is where we find ourselves. The cause has been the overwhelming topic in the media ever since: Coronavirus, and Covid-19, the disease it causes.
On Friday 1 May, the government launched its “Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business.” It proposes five phases in this reopening. These are not fixed, but will depend on the progress of addressing the Covid-19 pandemic. Dates are proposed (page 3) for each phase, three weeks apart.
On page 12 there is reference to Cultural and Religious activity. In phase 4 we find: “Open religious and places of worship where social distancing can be maintained.” The date planned for this is 20 July. This means we have nearly three more months before opening of places of worship. It is not clear from the document whether this applies just to indoor religious events, or whether it also includes outdoor religious activities – for example, cemetery services, outdoor shrines etc.
Every week perhaps about one million people of a variety of faiths take part in such group religious activities. No other activity in Ireland involves such a large number of participants.
Do we as a religious community have something to say about this? The Conference of Catholic Bishops in Italy has had discussions with the government on the matter. The Archdiocese of Milan has set up an email address to invite the people of the diocese to offer their suggestions and reflections. So far I have heard of no such moves in Ireland. We have no time to lose in addressing this.
Given the opportunity, what might Christians and Catholics say? When the close-down began in mid-March, it seemed to me that it might be a matter of two or three weeks, perhaps at most a month. There seemed even to be a possibility that we would be able to celebrate Easter in our churches. Was I the only person thinking on those lines? Instead we have the close-down for five months, with the possibility that it could be shortened, but also that it may be extended. When we can reopen places of worship for community celebrations, we are still faced with the requirement to maintain social distancing. This is understandable, for the health and safety of our whole society, and it affects all of society. Opening of hotels etc (but not hotel bars) is also envisaged for 20 July.
Phase 5 on 10 August envisages “Open theatres and cinemas where social distancing can be maintained.” Also “Indoor recreational venues (roller skating, bowling alley, bingo halls where numbers can be limited, cleaning can be maintained, restrictions where social distancing can be complied with. Open pubs, bars, nightclubs, casinos, where social distancing and strict cleaning can be complied with.” Full details are in the government document.
Outlining the challenge
Here I just want to offer some reflections which may be useful to start our planning, and so we do not just slip back into the way things were. Because, whatever happens, it will not be the same. It may not look too different at first, but the tectonic plates have shifted. Not only that, but we cannot say at this stage how this “novel” Coronavirus will affect our individual and collective lives. As yet, we have no proven cure for the disease, and a vaccine, if found, is in an unknown future. The challenge of the virus will be with us for an indefinite length of time; perhaps permanently.
It is important that the people of Ireland are part of the discussion. We have had more than enough of being told what we must do. The decisions have been arrived at often by people we never heard of before.
Some argue that since off-licences are open and considered essential services, church services should be considered essential. Yes, they are vital for members of the congregation. But they are in a very different category. An off licence store does not require that a crowd of people gather together. Entry and spacing can be controlled as at present. By definition, a church assembly in normal times essentially involves people being present, “congregating” together. This presents particular challenges in this pandemic. Similar challenges face all situations which involve gatherings of people – concerts, sports, restaurants, festivals, etc.
As restrictions are lifted, “social distancing” will remain with us for quite some time, perhaps a considerable time depending on progress in controlling the virus, in development of treatment for the disease, and in the search for a vaccine. This presents very practical challenges for planning gatherings for worship, especially Sundays. These challenges include sanitising the church building and furniture, and figuring how “safe distance” can be maintained in the gathering. Families living together, of course, could be together; free movement of children seems excluded. But to ensure 2 meters between such groups and the various individuals present would require careful planning.
Depending on the design of the building, the maximum safe attendance would be greatly reduced from normal full capacity. How many people per pew? How many vacant pews between occupied rows? How to assign people to particular locations? This may have the unexpected advantage that it will be necessary that some people occupy the front rows! But how willing will people be to attend such a church?
How can we ensure people will keep safe distance on their way in and on the way out? Do we need to plan to have people apply to come to Mass at a particular time? Do we exclude any others who come, expecting to be admitted? Do we need to increase our schedule of celebrations to provide for full normal attendance in smaller groups? Do we insist that everyone coming must sanitise their hands on arrival? Will face masks be required?
Will some or many people, although wanting to come, be reluctant to come for fear of infection?
The Sign of Peace poses no problem, as long as it is without physical contact.
Communion, whether one species or both, poses particular challenges. How can we have a congregation receiving Communion while avoiding possibility of cross-infection as far as humanly possible?
Since singing involves more scattering of air from lungs and mouth, is it safe to have singing by congregation or choir?
Will the building need to be fully sanitised following each celebration? Who would be responsible for this? What supplies do we need for this?
Special celebrations, like baptisms, weddings, First Communion, Confirmation, Funerals, Christmas, Easter, outdoor events, etc. will also need attention. The process of working out what to do is best done in conjunction with the parish or the people involved rather than handed down from above.
These are all practical considerations. But probably more important is the understanding of the nature of what we are doing. The implications are not just for the cultic life of the church, but for the mission of the church in the world, awakened to how utterly we are interlinked, even if it takes a tiny virus – one million in a straight line would be the width of a hand – to awaken us in a new way to this.
The pandemic as a time of grace
Because of creation, and amplified by the Incarnation, every moment and event is a moment of grace which we can experience through the indwelling of the Spirit and the abiding present of Jesus.
We have experienced a fast, a famine, from the sacrament of the Eucharist. Not all, of course – some have been able to celebrate Mass each day, albeit with an on-line congregation. For those of us who have been accustomed to unrestricted availability of the Eucharist, it has been a time when we share the famine from the Eucharist which many millions of Christians experience as their normal faith life: those who may be able to receive the Eucharist only a few times a year. It seems this will continue in Ireland at least until late in July.
Can we then experience this as did Teilhard de Chardin? “Since once again, Lord — though this time not in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia — I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will raise myself beyond these symbols, up to the pure majesty of the real itself; I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world … Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.” (Hymn of the Universe, Ch.1: The Mass on the World.)
As our society shares with people all over the world the suffering and sickness and death brought by the Coronavirus, can we live these moments as Christians, willing to bear the cross of the moment and to do all in our power to assist those in greatest need, as St Cyprian wrote when pestilence struck Rome in the third century: “What grandeur of spirit it is to stand up with living faith” before “the onsets of devastation and death” and to “embrace the benefit of the occasion.”
When in our online worship, either as ordained minister or as the one linking in from afar, we experience the physical absence of our congregation, we miss then the experience of being embodied. While engaged (or disengaged) in the digital experience, we know the insufficiency of the what we call “virtual” reality – in reality a hollow substitute for presence, the sacramentality of the gathering of our sisters and brothers who are the living presence of the Body of Christ.
Have we sometimes slipped into presenting worship and the Eucharist as a religious product to be passively consumed, rather than as an essentially transforming incarnational experience? A “service station” model of the Church? Is Eucharist sometimes experienced as something (even someone) we receive, rather than as a verb: something we do as the Body of Christ?
Have we been lured into living as if the mission of the Church is to make the Eucharist, rather than knowing that it is the Eucharist that makes the Church? The Eucharist is not an end in itself, as food is not an end in itself, but is a gift to nourish and enliven and strengthen the living presence of the Risen Lord in his body, the Church. Jesus sends us, just as the Father sent him, so that the world will have life, and life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
When we cannot gather as a community in a church building on Sunday, are we simply bereft, or can we find a renewed sense of the presence of Jesus who promised to be with us all days? As the Coronavirus can deprive us of the functioning of our lungs, do we at times try to live on just the “lung” of prayer in the church building, while deprived of the “lung” of worship at home and everywhere we find ourselves? In seeing the Eucharist as the “centre and summit of our Christian lives”, is there a temptation to the mistake of regarding the Eucharist as the whole of our life of faith? Can we learn from this strange experience (not strange to millions of Christians) to discover anew that we are the Church, and that we must be Eucharistic every day and all day?
The Coronavirus brings death to our attention in a way to which we are unaccustomed. But, before Coronavirus, on average 2,461 (2011-2017) died in Ireland in the month of April. That is 82 each day, on average. We don’t know yet what the numbers will be in 2020. Now, in the very fact that we are called almost to view every person we meet as a possible contagion, a carrier of death, and to view ourselves as such a person. We are faced with how precarious life can be for human beings. But millions of people live that every day before Coronavirus came along. Will we hold on to that awareness of the links, the bonds, which unite us with every human being on this planet?
We have three months before we can begin to gather again for Mass; and many months after that when our celebration of Mass is in the world of social distancing. How will we use that time? When again we can gather, will we be ready to start? Will we have a celebratory liturgy of return? Will it just be back to “normal”, or will we ensure that it is both a grieving and a healing, a renewal, of the full church in which each member is welcomed and valued and entrusted with the Mission?
We have this time of grace for discernment so that our re-emergence will not be a rush to get back to the “old normal”, but will be the beginning of the next phase. Not the phase in the government “Roadmap”, but the Easter phase into which we and the Church are re-Christ-ened.