Fr. Chris O’Donnell talks about life under lockdown – the positives and the negatives.
“THERE have been many positive experiences that have emerged out of our current situation, which is always a testimony to the ability of the human spirit to rise to challenges. Some people have embraced it and have even benefited from aspects of the restrictions. Some people have experienced a shift in outlook that will serve them well into the future. That being said, for many this probably has been the most difficult period people have collectively lived through.
I have heard and felt the pain of those who are sick and dying in such isolated circumstances. It has been torture for the families of the sick and the dying and it has been so difficult for those who bravely work on the frontline. Grandparents are missing their grandchildren and vice versa. People are deprived of the sense of touch, the hugs and the embraces that lifted their spirits. Working from home has been very stressful for many. People are experiencing great loneliness and isolation. Families are under pressure on so many fronts – financial and otherwise. People’s lives have been turned upside down and sadly for those who have been bereaved they will feel that their lives will never be the same again. Sadly there are probably other challenges that may only emerge as this continues. And yet the human spirit will always seek to make the most of these moments and find meaning, light and hope. If we can’t find these things, we have to create them for ourselves and for others.
For people of faith it has been unsettling. The closing of churches was very difficult as churches tend to be places of sanctuary where people find some peace and stillness. Also people missed the comforting ritual of lighting candles. Thankfully, now that the restrictions have eased, people are able to visit churches again and hopefully this is helping them find some of the comfort that they need.
Sadly couples have had to face the disappointment of postponing the wedding day that they had been looking forward to for so long. Children and families have missed out on those beautiful occasions that Communion and Confirmation affords us, both on a family and a spiritual front. People who find the peace, healing and grace they need through the regular experience of Mass and Confession are feeling their absence acutely. Leaving cert and primary school graduation liturgies have all been effected. Certain parishioners will miss the priest calling with Holy Communion on the First Friday.
It has been hard on priests, especially those who are cocooned. To not be able to celebrate or attend funeral Masses for people you know is so hard. Ministry is relationship orientated, meeting people, visiting hospitals, nursing homes and schools, celebrating sacraments. Equally the Bishop and those who work for the diocese face challenges we could never have foreseen. None of this is easy, but we are not the only ones feeling like this and so we have to make the most of it. The church has done this in so many shapes and forms. Suddenly a church that was slow to embrace technology has taken to offering online liturgies. Social media has been used in new and creative ways by way of trying to reach out to its people. A compilation of the ‘out-takes’ or mistakes made would make entertaining viewing! Even those men who are cocooned have found new ways to support parishioners through phone calls and letters, just to mention a few.
Priests may have lost many of their normal ways of ministering to their people, but they have not lost their desire to do so. People have responded well to our various efforts, no matter how humble or flawed they are. As always out of great difficulty great love and courage are born. We have all been inspired by the incredible kindness, commitment and thoughtfulness of so many in our communities and country. The church has equally experienced positive moments in the midst of the challenges:
The pandemic has resulted in people reflecting a little more on life and the meaning of life and it has sharpened our vision around what is important. Questions of meaning and purpose tend to be questions that can open us up to God and faith and life.
People who may not normally attend Mass have found themselves ‘logging in’ to various liturgies and hopefully finding some comfort in them. Faith and prayer is helping people to cope with the heightened levels of stress, anxiety and loneliness.
Irish people can have an innate reluctance or awkwardness around sharing or talking about our faith and praying together. That being said, recently a young father thanked me for the fact that his family are praying together in their home for the first time. In the midst of the enforced changes some lovely things are happening and we may even find more wholesome ways of living our faith. We are even being reminded that our church began in homes and so it is fitting that people are actually praying together in their homes.
Currently people can feel very isolated and lonely. However praying communities are being created online and these times of prayer are helping people to feel connected while also giving them a few things every day that punctuates what can be long and weary days.
Families who are scattered throughout the world can now ‘attend’ Mass together in and through the online liturgies, when normally this wouldn’t be possible. Also I feel people who are living abroad are finding great comfort and security by checking into the familiar sight of their home parish.
As a church we have been forced to embrace the digital age. Now that technology is the only means by which we can reach our people we have finally made the leap (often with the help of many committed and generous parishioners).
We have been reminded that our Church is more than a physical building, it is about people and community. So even when the physical building is inaccessible we can still be Church and we can still be a community.
These are just a few of the positive things that I see happening in our church at the moment. Naturally as a church there are great challenges too. Being unable to visit parishioners who are sick or dying in hospitals and nursing homes is very hard. Despite the online engagement we can’t but feel less connected to our people and to each other as priests as suddenly we are less likely to bump into colleagues as we are consumed with life in our individual parishes. Church revenue and the upkeep of churches are challenges that could have far reaching implications for our future. Also we know that online liturgies, while helpful, aren’t ideal. We would prefer more people involved and to have liturgies that are less priest-centred. Also people could find themselves as ‘spectators’ rather than actively praying during these liturgies. Nothing about this is ideal and yet we have to minister in the present moment with a spirit of trust and love while sowing as many seeds of hope and joy as possible as we need these now more than ever.
In Ireland we have always celebrated death really well. Sadly ministering to the sick and dying at the moment is very difficult. My heart breaks for people who are mourning and are deprived of the normal rituals and experiences that would help, heal and hold them during difficult times. I have been inspired by the creativity of people who find beautiful ways to safely reach out to the bereaved. I have had experiences of prayer with families and neighbours and friends that have been safe and incredibly wholesome and healing. My heart breaks for families who have to make decisions about who can attend the funeral. Everything about funerals is so much harder for people now and as a church and society we have to continue to try to find new ways of reaching out.
There is a lot of worry, weariness, isolation and sadness. As a church and a people, we are called to continue to be witnesses of love and hope and to be bearers of good news and joy, now more than ever. With the help of God, our commitment to this will continue while the ways in which we do this will probably have to continually evolve”.
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