“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
This question in Psalm 137, from a time when God’s chosen people were in exile, echoes down the centuries to our time, when most nations are in the very strange land of a coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic.
In New Zealand, restrictive measures have implemented to slow the spread of the virus.
For Catholics, the greatest impact is being felt in the cessation of Masses – announced by the New Zealand bishops on March 20 – and in not being able to visit churches to pray and spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Writing before the Government announcement was made about the country going into lockdown – other than for essential services – the bishops acknowledged the disappointment the decision on cancelling Masses would bring to many. They also noted that many would be pleased that this sacrifice was made in order to promote the public good.
It was only a few weeks beforehand that 3000 people had gathered in the Vodafone Events Centre in Manukau for the joyous episcopal ordination Mass of Bishop Michael Gielen.
At that time, many were well into their Lenten preparations, looking ahead to Holy Week and the Triduum and the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord.
But all of a sudden, a feast (even in Lent) became a famine. Joy and expectation turned to anxiety about what the future might bring. Then the nation hunkered down into lockdown mode.
“Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion,” Psalm 137 also stated. Many Catholics will identify with this verse at this time.
We are weeping now – not only for the pain and suffering overseas we see with horror, but for the scattering of the Lord’s flock here and elsewhere.
As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is indeed a time to weep.
But that chapter in Ecclesiastes noted that no-one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. It also stated that there is nothing better for people to do while they live than to do good.
Catholics need only to look to their history, to their saints, to see the good that the Lord can raise up in dire circumstances of illness and disease.
There are the saints who actively tended to the sick, or who arranged for their care. St Aloysius Gonzaga, St Charles Borromeo, St Damien of Molokai, St Teresa of Kolkata – these are some of the names that spring to mind. There are many more. It would be useful to seek their intercession at this time, in praying for the sick and for those caring for them.
Most Catholics in New Zealand will not be called to take such measures as these saints. In fact, all, other than those providing essential services, should obey the Government directives to stay at home, acting as if they too had the virus.
Catholics are usually called to be saints in their own place, in their own time, in their own circumstances. For most during this time, that place will be their own home, up until the lockdown ends.
Some of the great names in the Church spent long times in isolation or near isolation – for instance, St Basil, St Gregory of Nazianzsus, St John Chrysostom, St Jerome – and this was part of a deliberately ascetic way of living the Lord’s call. (Although the New Advent website notes that some other hermits were not “models of piety”).
Will Catholics today find it easier to be “models of piety” during the time of lockdown? If there are many people in a home, it might be harder than usual to get away to a quiet place for prayer. Family tensions might be exacerbated. Patience will be called for. As 1 Peter 5:8 cautions: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion, your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.”
During the lockdown, Catholics will not have the immediate consolation of the liturgy, of the Eucharist, of many aspects of their normal, community life as a Church.
But as the New Zealand bishops wrote in a pastoral letter, the life of Jesus Christ communicated to us through the Church remains open to us. There are still spiritual resources, streamed celebrations of Mass and social interactions available online.
And who knows what good will arise out of this time of “lying fallow” as a Church community?
We have to hope that, whatever inconveniences, trials, suffering and tragedies arise out of this pandemic, God will ultimately bring good out of it.
This is the pattern of Easter. Let this be our hope.