By NEIL VANEY
Commentators are beginning to speculate on what our world will be like when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. What will the “new normal” look like? They agree that, although many would like all to return to the way life was before, that will not be the case. Such commentators are focusing on economic and social scenarios. In this reflection, I want to begin a discussion concerning how the same questions will also be true for people of faith. This could be a time of renewed vision for the Church. I will highlight four areas I see as critical – but there could well be more.
Priests and People Make Eucharist
Over this most sacred time of the liturgical year, we have not been able to gather and celebrate as parishes and congregations. Many have followed online services from local churches, cathedrals or even from Rome itself. Some felt a new sense of personal commitment in this; for others it has accentuated the need to come together to share belief and belonging. What we do know is that vastly increased numbers have tuned into services from the Vatican, many not Catholic or even religious.
When churches open for Mass once again, those who gather will be a different mix. Some, for various reasons, will not return. There will be others who return, perhaps after many years of absence; yet others will be drawn to taste something they begin to perceive as missing from their lives.
Common to all this group will be an implicit awareness that people need a priest as focus and celebrant on their behalf, but equally for priests there is the realisation that they are there for the people; they are there to serve the people by being the focal point. Any idea that the priest performs while the people watch on must disappear. All must embrace the reality that celebrant and people make a unity in Christ, re-embodying him in the world.
This will not happen unless clergy, parish councils and liturgy committees dialogue deeply and honestly about how to create this environment in the particular communities in which they live.
The Elderly are a Precious Heritage
This time has highlighted the vulnerability of those in rest homes. Many have died without family or loved ones to support them. They have been buried anonymously.
Most parishes have at least one residence for the elderly within their boundaries; some have many. We know that Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that Eucharist must spill out into mission, especially to the isolated, alone and unloved. For many in rest homes, their families are scattered or do not come any more. What better outreach than being surrogate family, to bring cheer and comradeship to threadbare lives.
Just as it was outsiders who brought the deadly virus, let it now be a new group of outsiders to bring a sense of belonging and significance to those who are physically bound to solitude.
Who are the Pillars of our Community?
One of the significant learnings of this time has been the importance of many invisible people in our societies. They are the essential workers: doctors, nurses, paramedics, transport and electrical workers, garbage collectors; many have emerged not just as doing critical tasks, but also as self-effacing, self-sacrificing, but superbly generous men and women, going far beyond the often low wages that are paid for their labours.
One positive dimension coming out of the pandemic has been the way in which media, especially newspapers, have begun to hold up and underline the importance and value of such people. Likewise, we can see that the czars of publicity: celebrities, sports stars, CEOs of huge multinational firms afforded easy press, are less central to our well-being than their status portrays. It may be their vast salaries seem inflated homage in such times of need, while many low-paid workers can be seen as the true champions of this age.
Science and Technology do not Create Community; Only Love Does
The last month has underlined the value of online connections such as Skype, Zoom and WhatsApp and other applications in linking bubbles and cementing friendships, breaking the barriers of isolation. This is a subtle, but critical, shift. Such technology has often served to isolate individuals, to feed their addictions and lock them into a virtual world. What this trend also underlines is the nature of technology as a wondrous servant and tyrannical master. Surrounded by the shield and wonders of science and its technological offspring, it is easy to drift into the uncritical belief that contemporary science has given us unparalleled mastery over all the earth. This ignores the insistence of both Popes Benedict and Francis that we humans are also part of nature, creatures of earth. Just as humans and society evolve, so too does nature, including animals and viruses. As Laudato Si’ insists, this planet is our home, not our storehouse or bank deposit box. When we treat it with reverence and respect, it will honour us; when we think we can use it as we want, it will eventually punish us. Ecology is not just about management, it is also about worship.
In proposing these ideas, I hope that they may serve as a stimulus for many discussions, even disagreements. I would love to see them bandied about around family dinner tables, RE classes, parish councils and even gatherings of bishops!
This crisis has come upon us at the centremost part of the Christian passover, when we observe Jesus’ agony, death and rising to new life. It is by entering deeply and fearlessly into what has died in our churches during this time of lockdown that we will be able to welcome a resurrected life, in which a renewed community will emerge to see the world and society with new eyes and hope.
- Fr Neil Vaney, SM, is pastoral director of the Catholic Enquiry Centre NZ.