The development of Covid-19 has been as rapid as it has been deadly. In the space of a few months it has turned from a minor news item from a part of China few of us had heard of, to the global pandemic that has been the stuff of disaster planning for the last 50 years.
We are probably still in the midst of the crisis and it might be thought premature to start assessing in what ways we can be Church to each other, how we preach the Gospel in deed and word, when the Government expects people to remain in their homes. Clearly, we do not know yet how things will develop and some of our hopes for what we might achieve in the weeks and months ahead are likely to be premature.
Part of our responsibility as baptised Christians is to read the signs of the times, to reflect on how the world is changing and how we must change to serve it better. Normally this process of change takes years, sometimes decades and the process of discernment can be slow and evolutionary. This pandemic is different. Our response has to be commensurate with the rapidity of social, economic and cultural change.
The leadership of the Catholic Church has set a pattern. From a very early point, the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales [CBCEW] disseminated material on social distance in worship and precautions for those visiting the sick and elderly. The suspension of Sunday Masses from the Fourth Sunday of Lent was measured, but dramatic for many elderly Catholics who thought such things unthinkable.
The Italian Bishops’ call to universal prayer and Pope Francis’ iconic Urbi et Orbi blessing on Friday 27th March marked how different the world has become. The development of a Mass in Time of a Pandemic is a signal both of the seriousness of the crisis and the readiness of the Church to respond pastorally and actively to the needs of its members.
We have started, hesitantly maybe, to find ways to meet in virtual space. The technology of WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and Facetime has allowed people to stay in touch, to care from a distance in ways that seem the stuff of science fiction. Enforced isolation is alleviated by the technology. It is a substitute, and, in some ways a poor one for the personal engagement of a lengthy visit to a lonely person.
Meetings that were abandoned in March and April, now take place in July and August with varying degrees of expertise. We are starting to explore the extent of the technology; to challenge it, and ourselves, to make it a fit and proper substitute for the world we still remember with affection.
The central purpose of ACTA – A Call to Action – is to support respectful and honest dialogue within the Church. Debate and discussion are central to our function to support Catholics in playing their part in fulfilment of their baptismal vows. We have agonised over the difficulties of sustaining that dialogue with meetings that can involve a significant commute in some dioceses. We have remained concerned at the difficulties of older people, reluctant to go out in the winter months. Enforced isolation makes each man an island and yet we know that we are reduced by that lack of social connection.
The technology that connects us needs to be seen as a contribution to the reading of the signs of the times. In each generation, the tools for living out our Gospel imperative will be different. Zoom, Skype, Facetime and WhatsApp allow us to maintain communication even when we are in lockdown. Paradoxically, it liberates those who have been isolated through age and infirmity. We now share their loneliness just as they now come to share in our new forms of dialogue.
As soon as the World Health Organisation deemed Covid-19 as a pandemic, world leaders recognised that this was to be a world-changing event. Peter Hennessy, the historian, opined that the world would now be judged as BC/AC – before and after Covid 19.
Pope Francis, in April, established a Covid 19 Commission with a view to understanding the ways that the environment, financial services, political systems, economic structures and healthcare were likely to be affected by the pandemic. The sense that the world could not return to the status quo ante had been established; the chance to reverse the patterns of economic expansion, excessive consumption of finite resources and wilful neglect of the environment had arrived. Suddenly, papal exhortations from Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si had achieved a prophetic significance, in both popular senses of the word. The world had begun to understand the mission of Pope Francis.
If institutions and governments were expected to change, so, too, was the Catholic Church. There could be no return to the old normal. The lockdown had given us pause for thought. We needed space to read the signs of the times; we needed time to assess anew our spiritual space. Liturgy, Eucharist and our acts of charity, our service and ministry were all to be considered from a new standpoint. We were no longer the same people and we needed to emerge, chrysalis-like, to a brave new world.
How we, as Catholics, and the Church of which we are part, need to change is the subject of a set of discussions arranged by the trustees of ACTA. Our purpose is to encourage and support respectful dialogue between laity, religious and clergy. If we are to play our part in the development of a post-pandemic Church we need to listen, to learn from others, to speak with honesty and to share with compassion. The title of the series of discussions “The Post Pandemic Church – Business as Usual?” implies that we cannot return to the old normality. If you wish to be part of this wider debate you would be most welcome.
Frank Callus is chair of ACTA
Details of the separate sessions, which start at 7.00pm
Wednesday 23rd September 2020– Prof Tom O’ Loughlin University of Nottingham
Eucharist and Community in a Digital Age
Wednesday 7th October 2020 – Fr Gerry Proctor MBE – Archdiocese of Liverpool
Ministering in the Field Hospital
Wednesday 21st October 2020- Dr Philip McCarthy – Chief Executive, Caritas Social Action Network
Hearing the Cry of the Poor and Disadvantaged
Wednesday 4th November 2020- Dr Clare Watkins, Reader, Roehampton Institute
A Vision for the Church of the Future
All sessions will be available via Zoom. Full details on the ACTA website.