by Fr JOHN O’CONNOR
This week’s (March 28) pastoral letter of the New Zealand bishops invites the Catholics of Aotearoa to greater maturity of faith in the face of the coronavirus restrictions.
When we began this Lent five weeks ago, we could never have imagined that we would soon be confined to our homes and deprived of the sacraments of the Church, which we know to be essential.
The bishops write that they are inspired by the generous response of parishioners to this unexpected lenten penance and are clearly excited by the evidence that people are encountering Christ within their own homes as they pray together, following the live-streaming of Masses and other communal times of prayer, reading the Scriptures alone or with families, and praying the rosary and other devotional prayers.
While it may seem as though our faith and mission is restricted and even confined in these weeks, we know that we are united with people of faith in every nation on earth who are also deprived of the life-blood of the Church.
But we know too that the Church was born in closed rooms where the first disciples gathered. It was in these confines that the risen Jesus broke through locked doors and fearful hearts to re-form the Church.
We understand well that the sacraments are an indispensable source of relationship with Jesus Christ. Therefore we rightly do all we can to participate in the Mass every Sunday and take part in the sacramental life of the Church – ensuring that children are baptised, and receive Eucharist and reconciliation, and that the sacraments of marriage and anointing of the sick are celebrated whenever necessary. We understand well that the sacraments provide a beginning point for faith.
Perhaps we appreciate less fully that the sacraments are also a summit point of relationship with Jesus Christ. The person who comes to a priest to confess sins, receive communion or to celebrate marriage or anointing of the sick has decided before they meet the priest that they will celebrate these sacraments. They live therefore with the desire for these sacraments, which has already led to their decision to make the phone call, send the email or to get in the car. These people are already experiencing the grace of the sacrament they seek.
The coronavirus lockdown awakens us to our desire for the sacraments, precisely because they are unavailable to us. But the bishops are reminding us that the desire we experience is itself the life of faith. Our deep longing for the sacraments is proof that we do have faith and that the life of Jesus Christ is already vibrant within us.
The bishops remind us that the sacraments of the Church, instituted by Jesus, are the usual tools of trade for the priest as minister of the grace of Jesus Christ. However, when a priest is not available (or when we celebrate a year of jubilee), the Church enthusiastically takes extraordinary steps to indulge those who seek God with an abundance of God’s mercy through indulgences.
In this situation, the Church is able to be even more generous with God’s mercy, and the method for this mercy is the gift of the indulgence.
Fr Merv Duffy, SM, writing in the Marist Messenger a couple of years ago, concluded his reflection: “Indulgences have a very long history in the Church. They have encouraged virtuous actions and helped many people on their path to salvation. . . . [I]ndulgences are a simple and concrete support and encouragement for practices that should be part of the life of every Catholic.”
- Fr John O’Connor is director of the National Liturgy Office