Reflections on Covid-19 from St. Patrick’s College Maynooth
Post-lockdown, can the Church return to ‘business as usual’? by Dr Aoife McGrath
As we move tentatively through the phases of Ireland’s Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, church doors are reopening for in-person, socially distanced liturgies. While for many this is a long-anticipated moment, we should ask ourselves are we truly ready? Our focus may well be to get back to ‘business as usual,’ but to what ‘business’ are we returning?
The ‘newsworthy’ impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the life of the church has been centred on the sacraments. This year Easter was celebrated remotely, and the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation were postponed until late summer/autumn. Baptisms and Weddings were likewise delayed. The most radical and tangible transformation has been to Funeral ceremonies and the daily or weekly celebration of the Eucharist.
In the era of lockdown, priests (sometimes with a few lay ministers) continued to serve their communities by celebrating Masses remotely, for the intentions of the faithful, either from empty churches or their own homes. The Mass came into our homes via radios, televisions, smartphones and computers. We watched, waited and prayed, in anticipation of being re-admitted to communal worship.
For some, these past months have been a fruitful time for creative and revitalised personal prayer practices. However for the majority, the absence of communal prayer and receiving the sacrament of Communion has been sorely felt.
As a lay theologian, I found the feast of Corpus Christi, on 14 June, particularly challenging. I sat alone in my house facing a screen, watching, as a priest celebrated Mass alone from his home. As he read from Deuteronomy, I wondered whether this pandemic was our ‘vast and dreadful wilderness,’ meant to humble us, not just for God to know our inner most hearts, but for us to know ourselves.
The feast usually speaks to me of our relationship with Christ and with all his baptised followers; of a food that nourishes us, his disciples, co-heirs of – and co-responsible for – Christ’s mission throughout the world. This meaning is made tangible in our companionship, through our physical presence together, in our mutual sharing in the Eucharistic meal, and our collective sending forth.
This year, however, I felt only absence: the isolation of one individual facing another who could neither see me nor know that I was present with him. Our dissonance was compounded by his inadvertently leaving insufficient time for me to respond to the prayers; my silent watching while he ate and drank.
As I recited the Spiritual Communion prayer, I reacted strongly to its words: this absence was not just about me and my heart, nor only about me being united wholly with Christ. I remembered the words of Pope Benedict XVI, ‘I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians.’ (Deus Caritas est §14).
In this vision, love of God and love of neighbour cannot be separated. Being present together for the Eucharistic meal helps to nourish our relationships with each other, so that we can truly be united with God. But our living communion faces new challenges because of the coronavirus.
This evolving world we live in has opened up what some have called a ‘twin consciousness,’ at once a feeling of connectedness, mutuality, solidarity, and cooperation in the face of common adversity, and simultaneously an awakening of divisions and gross inequalities, competition for essential supplies, and survival of the fittest in failing economies.
Where is the church as a sign, instrument, and advocate of communion in such a world?
When Pope John Paul II spoke of a ‘spirituality of communion’ he meant the ability to think of others in faith as ‘those who are part of me’; the ability to share the joys and sufferings of others, to offer them ‘deep and genuine friendship,’ and ‘make room’ for them in our lives. The great challenge of this millennium, he said, was ‘to make the Church the home and the school of communion’ (Novo Millennio Ineunte §43). His words have taken on new meaning in 2020.
For the majority of Catholics, phase three reopening will be the first opportunity to participate in Mass and receive Eucharist since lockdown began. I wonder, following our experience of ‘church’ and Mass over these past four months, what meaning will the sacraments hold for us now? Will laypeople fall into the habit of watching/observing, while the priest is active/doing?
Will we fear spreading the virus so much, and be so used to our isolation, that our companionship is weakened? Will the Eucharist be nourishment for our individual spirituality, rather than nourishment of the Body of the Church for its wider mission?
Will we choose to live a spirituality of communion, not just when we are gathered for Eucharist, but every day? How do we take responsibility for our share in this business? Can we give communion a home, and share our learning with others?
Dr Aoife McGrath is Director of Pastoral Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
‘Praying thoughtfully during the pandemic’ by Fr. Kevin O’Gorman
During this COVID-19 pandemic when priests and people could not physically come together to remember, sacramentally and socially, the Lord’s Supper in the Eucharist, the prayer after the Our Father in the Communion Rite offers a fruitful space for spiritual reflection and nourishment.
Divided into seven articles it both asks and anticipates the help of God in this harrowing time of illness, isolation and uncertainty about what the future holds.
The first, ‘Deliver us, Lord, we pray from every evil’, picks up on and prolongs the last petition of the Our Father. The poignancy of adding every puts into focus the presence of evil in the many forms that people experience it, especially in the course of the pandemic which brings woe and worry in ways that were previously imaginable only in fiction and film. The opening Deliver recognises that God is the ultimate source of our salvation (from the Latin salus, well-being and safety). It is also a reminder that, as Pope Francis declares, ‘Jesus taught us to ask daily for deliverance from “the evil one” lest his power prevail over us’ (Rejoice and Be Glad, 160).
The second ‘graciously grant peace in our days’ gathers together the two great signs of God’s presence and power in the Holy Spirit. From the Latin for gift, grace is the ground of God’s life in us that is the basis of growth in goodness and holiness. The Christian understanding – and undertaking – of peace is positive, presupposing not only the absence of conflict but promoting the fullness of life that sharing in the paschal mystery of Christ invites us to inherit. Again, ‘in our days’, adds an urgency to the petition to protect us from peril and preserve us in peace through the course of the pandemic
The third, ‘that, by the help of your mercy’, takes us to the heart of the Gospel. Commenting on the parable of the prodigal son Pope emeritus Benedict XVI states that ‘above all, this Gospel text has the power of speaking to us of God, of enabling us to know His face and better still, His heart’. This revelation of God is realised in the mission of mercy that is manifested in the compassion that Jesus continually shows in the course of his ministry and completes with his suffering on the cross.
The helping heart of God leads to the fourth, that ‘we may be always free from sin’. A time of lockdown does not put love on the long finger but leads us to seek newer and deeper ways of imagining and incarnating love of God and neighbour. Desiring to be ‘always free from sin’ demands an awareness that the assistance of the Holy Spirit is a continual ask. It is in God’s faithfulness and forgiveness that we finally find freedom as the children of a merciful Father.
The second wing of God’s helping mercy is to keep us ‘safe from all distress’. This prayer for divine protection calls to mind the confidence of the Psalmist, that ‘God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at in time of distress’ (45:1). In this time of distress, with daily statistics of disease and death, we ask for the strength of the Holy Spirit to sustain us, to support all who serve the sick and serve society in so many ways, to drive away despair and fear from the future.
The sixth article shifts from asking to announcing, ‘as we await the blessed hope’. Building upon the human need to hold families and friends together in the long and lonely hours of social distancing and separation, faith unfolds the horizon of hope for the church cut off from its sacramental celebrations in the present. As we anticipate the ‘blessed hope’ of holiness in heaven we trust that, in the words of Dame Julian of Norwich who lived through the Black Death, ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing[s] shall be well’.
The seventh culminates with the assurance of faith in ‘the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ’. The prophet Hosea’s confidence that the Lord ‘will come as certain as the dawn’ (6:3) is surpassed by the joyful conviction that even (and eventually) when the dawn expires on earth, Jesus the Lord will come in glory to gather the harvest of God’s Kingdom. Associated in the Creed with judgement, this article asks that Christians put prayer into practise and perform the corporal works of mercy so as ‘to bring forth fruit in charity for the life of the world’ (Vatican Council II, Decree on the Training of Priests, 16).
Fr Kevin O’Gorman SMA is a lecturer in Moral Theology at Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth
Decoding the stories we tell ourselves about COVID-19 by Dr. Jessie Rogers
We are meaning-making creatures. We have a strong urge to find a narrative – a story – that will make sense of the Coronavirus crisis that has engulfed the whole world. As Christians, we are looking for a God-sized story, but the tendency is always there to construct a story that shrinks God down to the size of our own hopes and fears. Such stories remake God in our own image so that God’s agenda perfectly matches our own. In these scenarios, most tellingly, God ends up disliking the same people that we dislike!
There are a lot of stories on offer at the moment. Some of them are conspiracy theories which invite us to channel our fear into aggressive or impotent rage. Many entrench divisions between ‘them’ and ‘us’, however we draw those lines. The most common stories to reach for in a time of fear and powerlessness are scapegoating stories that blame individuals or groups whom we label, probably subconsciously, as ‘dispensable’. If we can put the blame on ‘them’ and then somehow exclude them, the problem – we tell ourselves – will go away.
You may have heard that the new Coronavirus was deliberately manufactured or that it is part of a global plot to undermine human rights and religious freedom. It is sometimes called the Chinese virus. Common to all these kinds of stories is that they make us afraid, they invite us to circle the wagons, and they close off our hearts.
It can be hard to navigate the different narratives out there and to assess them wisely. Jesus gave us one good barometer for judging what we see – by looking at the fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). Here are some fruits which are not the result of the Spirit of God at work in the world and in our hearts: an anger that paralyses us or makes us hate others; a selfish concern for ‘me and mine’ that lets the rest of the world ‘go to hell’; a despair that kills off hope; a complacency that leaves us with our heads in the sand; a numbness that makes us stop caring.
You can add to that list anything that closes us off and diminishes our compassion. Conversely, the fruit of any God-inspired narrative will produce greater love for God and for others. It will open up our hearts and inspire a costly but joyful solidarity. It will make us more Christlike. I am reminded of the slogan often repeated by Dr Mike Ryan of World Health Organisation: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” If we take that to heart, we will treat everyone as our neighbour and place the most vulnerable at the centre of our concern. That is Christian discipleship!
Our explanations and meaning-making stories are always going to fall short of capturing all that God is doing in, through, and despite this calamity. Still, our story-making urge is planted in us by God, so we need to keep weaving those stories.
When they are the product of human pride, our stories will shrink God down to a little deity that fights our battles for us, or a cartoon character that rewards and punishes according to our own simplistic calculations. But when they are God-inspired, they will call us to journey along the path where God’s Spirit beckons.
That is why it is so important to bring into prayer the Coronavirus stories we hear and tell ourselves. As followers of Jesus, we need to submit them to the Gospel story that we hear in the Scriptures and celebrate in the Liturgy.
When we bring before God the stories that have taken hold of our imagination, the divine light will illuminate their contours so that we can begin to discern what is of God and what is not.
May the Lord grant us wisdom and deliver us from being seduced by the wrong stories.
Dr. Jessie Rogers is a lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Living under Lockdown – The Upper Room Experience – by John-Paul Sheridan
As I sat in my kitchen on that Sunday morning in March, I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do on a Sunday morning if not celebrate mass. How was I going to be a priest for my parishioners? What am I, if not one who ministers? I finished my coffee and put my thinking cap on. I figured out a way to celebrate online and by the time the following Sunday rolled round, I began to celebrate mass in my office in the presbytery – my time in the Upper Room had begun.
The Upper Room became the focus of operations. My day began with the celebration of the Eucharist. It was spiritual nourishment for parishioners and me, but also for some sense of a timetable and order as one day followed the next. In the late morning, I could have class, answer students’ queries, grant extensions, or review class work and essay drafts sent by email. At least once a week I would share a virtual coffee-break with colleagues using the Microsoft Teams videoconference.
Since 2017 I have been in the position of teaching at Maynooth and well as the parish priest of Annacurra, nestled in the Wicklow Hills. A blended ministry of teaching and parish has been a joy these past three years. Normally it would involve time spent in both places during the week. Now I was isolated and confined to the presbytery.
The social isolation proved easy enough initially. I don’t mind my own company. I had a library of books. Netflix, and a kitchen shelf full of cookbooks. What I discovered very quickly was that it’s no fun cooking for yourself and binge-watching is not good for you or your sleep. I’m lucky to have a beautiful wood nearby, which I finally became familiar with. However, again it’s much nicer to walk with another person to pass the time. In the end, podcasts were good company.
My first adventures in online teaching went well. I began by adding audio to existing PowerPoints and posting them on Moodle. I gave lectures online through Microsoft Teams. The one thing that killed me about the whole process both in teaching and celebrating mass online was not being able to see people. Early on, I asked parishioners to say hello when they came online. As long as I knew they were there, I could imagine their faces. Some parishioners even attended mass virtually during walks in the Wicklow Mountains.
Lecturing was different. Nearly all the students left their cameras off. It meant I was lecturing to an empty screen. They were there but were they there? I was fearful that they were less engaged than they can sometimes be in the lecture hall. I wasn’t enjoying this at all. It would get better and with the college beginning Blended Learning training for faculty members there was hope for the future.
In the meantime, I had plenty to keep me academically busy: the herculean task of corrections. Between all my lecture modules from the second semester I had about four hundred scripts to review and correct – ranging from 300-word reflections to 3000-word essays, and a host of assigned classwork of varying sizes and lengths. There’s only one way to consume an elephant; consistently, and with one spoonful at a time.
With all the corrections done, I sat to write a farewell letter to my fourth year Froebel students. It is tough to sever ties with just a letter. We have seen each other in class every year, and I’ve watched them grow and develop into enthusiastic and committed student teachers. It was sad not to wave them off the premises, but I hope our paths will cross at some stage. First we teach them and then we watch them leave.
Rev. Dr. John-Paul Sheridan is Director of Education Programmes in the Faculty of Theology at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth and also Parish Priest of Annacurra, Co. Wicklow.
Grieving and remembering during the lockdown
Fr. Michael Shortall describes how his family dealt with the loss of a loved one during these strange times.
My father died during the lockdown. He didn’t contract the COVID-19 virus; but his final weeks of care and dying, as well as our period of mourning, were all shaped by it. Some rituals had to be abandoned; others, because of technology, took on new forms.
In life, Dad took seriously the responsibility of going to funerals. Of course, there was the social aspect, the obligatory raising of a glass in honour of someone. But it was also to use an old phrase, a corporeal work of mercy: “to pray for the dead”. This obligation can be especially strong in rural areas, like my home in northern Kilkenny. Because when someone dies, it’s a community as much as a family that loses someone.
Now, our community couldn’t do the same for him – or at least not in the same way. I can still see the big wooden doors of the church shutting behind us, allowing no-one in. To say we felt robbed or cheated can imply that there is someone to blame. There isn’t. The restrictions were the right thing to do. Yet, we really felt the lack of it. The peculiarly Irish rituals surrounding the death of a loved one weren’t available to us, or our neighbours and friends, and most of all to Dad.
“We had a small funeral. Half the world was there,” my mother said afterwards. People adapted as best they could, and technology helped hugely. It was striking how many people tuned to the live stream on the parish website. It especially helped my sister, who lives abroad and couldn’t make it home. She was even able to participate, as she led a decade of the family rosary on her smart-phone, from three thousand miles away.
Many people have heard of the five phases in the process of grieving. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross famously named the stages as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But this can give impression that there is a right way to grieve. Experience tells that everyone has their own way of grieving and sometimes someone can get stuck. Getting through grief is a matter of managing or muddling through.
Instead of stages, recent research names four tasks to grieving. They are: recognising the reality of the loss; dealing with expressed and latent feelings; living in a world without the deceased and finally; the relocation of the deceased in one’s life.
It would be a great social cost indeed, if these often-called ‘strange times’ changed our habits about how we support the grieving. It would, I believe, make it all the harder for those enduring loss.
Rituals, traditions and customs are vital. They may be the kind acts of a neighbour that leaves in a casserole or an apple tart left at the door; or they may be the religious rites of a faith-community. They provide a way to recognise the reality of grieving, in all its emotions and confusion. They give comfort to those who mourn. And in the end, they give hope for a new future.
Remembering is a key part of our Catholic rituals. When we gather to celebrate Mass, we are heeding the invitation of Jesus to: “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19). When we gather and remember his name, a promise was made that he would be with us (M 18:20).
So, by remembering in Jesus, we are bound to the one giving hope, for he has conquered even death itself (Rom 8: 31-39).
Nowadays death notices on local radio – which are very much part of rural life – generally end with a line saying that a memorial service will be held at a later date. As a family I know we are looking forward to when we can remember Dad, together with his community, in a spirit of hope.
Let us pray for all who have lost loved ones in this time, particularly due to the COVID-19. May they rest in peace.
Dr. Michael Shortall is Registrar of St. Patrick’s College Maynooth and a lecturer in Moral Theology.
Coronavirus and the Existence of God
Dr Gaven Kerr is a philosophy lecturer at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth
As the coronavirus sweeps across the world, our reaction to it – short of finding a cure – is either to succumb, or to avoid it through social distancing and lock down. The coronavirus makes us mindful of the fact that whilst our intelligence can give us a technical mastery over nature, nature is not our slave and we can succumb to its devastations. As such, people are (re)turning to God, since God is the only agent who does have the mastery over nature to which we aspire.
Yet some may think it foolish to turn to God in such a crisis; indeed some may even go so far as to say that this crisis is positive evidence that God does not exist; for how could such a good God, the God of love, allow this disaster to happen to us? Either God does not care, in which case He doesn’t love us, or He is unable to do anything about the current situation.
Yet, scripture is very clear that God is love and that He has a design for us which ultimately entails our salvation (cf. 1 Jn 3, and 1 Th 4:3). Scripture is also clear that God is master over all of creation (cf. Gen 1). So how does one committed to these truths address the role of God in the current crisis?
Whilst scripture is clear that God loves us, such love is manifested in His will for our salvation. But as is made clear time and again in scripture, our salvation does not consist in a life free from hardship; rather it consists in living by God’s grace so that when we come to die we may enjoy His presence in eternity. In short, our salvation is communion with God and to live by the very happiness with which God is happy (Jn 17:3).
Furthermore, although God is the primary cause of all things and master over all of creation, this does not exclude what philosophers call secondary causality. Just as a person can make use of his hands to move a stick to move a stone thereby allowing the hand-stick-stone to share in his causality, so too does God permit creatures to share in His causality so that creatures can act as causes within creation.
Insofar as God is pure love and goodness, all causal interaction in the world which seeks to promote and disperse the good is in fact a participation in God’s primary causality which He exercises in creation. And this is especially relevant during the current pandemic.
Without any effort God could bring to nothing all ills in creation from start to finish, but if He were to do so, creatures would be mere puppets with no causality by which they could act in the world; they would in effect be mere characters in a story. Rather God dignifies creatures with an ability to act and to share in His own causality, and this is especially so for humans who are rational and can make decisions to manifest God’s goodness in the world.
Hence in regard to the current coronavirus pandemic, God permits humans the dignity of coming together and acting in such a way that they can deal with this crisis. This is manifest not only in the turning to God that is occurring all over the world, but also in the turning to one’s neighbour to ensure his or her good, whether it be through key workers, family, or colleagues. Indeed, the turn to both God and neighbour is illustrative of the primary and secondary commandments that Christ places on his disciples: to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbour as yourself (Mt 22: 36 – 40).
Accordingly, far from being a situation in which the presence of God in the world is cast into significant doubt, the current crisis continues to reveal to humanity their place within and not above nature, but at the same time the goodness and dignity with which God graces humanity in coming through this crisis.