The Covid-19 pandemic has presented Catholics with many challenges, including to the practice and the living out of faith, according to a senior archbishop in Ireland.
The pandemic has been especially “difficult and lonely” for those who have had to lay to rest a family member “in a way which is counter-intuitive to the Irish psyche”, Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary says in a new pastoral letter on the virus’ challenges to people’s faith.
Remembering those grieving and those lost to the virus, Archbishop Neary also highlights the plight of those in nursing homes and hospitals and their families for whom it has been “a very trying time as visits were discouraged and impossible”.
Ireland is currently operating under Level 5 of the framework for living with Covid-19 which began on 22 October 2020. This means religious services must take places online and only 25 people can attend a funeral or a wedding. Visits to nursing and care homes are suspended except in critical and compassionate circumstances.
The pastoral letter, Covid-19 is a challenge to our faith - and an opportunity for faith, notes how many couples who had planned to celebrate their love in the Sacrament of Marriage have been seriously inconvenienced by the pandemic.
“This pandemic has presented us with many challenges, including, and not least, challenges to the practice and the living out of our faith,” the archbishop says.
But Dr Neary also outlines some of the positive responses seen in the wake of the crisis: “It is inspiring how people have responded to those challenges and have shown their Christian faith in care for others, in prayer and in creative responses to the restrictions on gathering for worship.”
Speaking of the context in which people of faith are grappling with the restrictions, Archbishop Neary suggests that living in the “age of the instant” makes demands on faith: “We grow impatient if there is a delay. Yet, faith is the ability to live with delay without losing trust in God’s promise. Faith enables us to cope with disappointment without abandoning hope.”
Acknowledging that the pandemic has placed additional pressures on families, as parents have endeavoured to combine professional responsibility with parenthood, the Archbishop notes that Covid-19 has enabled them to spend quality time with family members in the home, providing opportunities for understanding, encouragement, affirmation and development.
While “we are deprived of the togetherness occasioned by the public celebration of Mass, many [families] create a ‘sacred space’ in their own home where family prayer can take place.”
Elsewhere in his new pastoral letter, Archbishop Neary praises the teams of volunteers who worked closely with pastoral councils and local priests in planning and preparing, cleaning and sanitising churches in order to ensure that when the time came they “would be safe secure places for public worship”.
After the first lockdown in Ireland, parishes resumed public celebration of Mass and the sacraments on 29 June.
The work done by Covid volunteers in parishes was a most encouraging sign and a good barometer of faith and what the Mass means to people, according to Archbishop Neary.
“It is also a clear illustration that religious faith is not just about believing but also about belonging in a local community, that significant network of relationships which indicates that people are there for each other,” he said.
Public worship is not possible for now, the Archbishop acknowledges, because of “our desire to co-operate with and support all those who are working to suppress the virus”.
In the meantime, he commends all those priests who have responded to the situation, often very creative ways.
In the pastoral letter the Archbishop of Tuam also expresses his gratitude to the priests and all who assisted them in preparing candidates for Confirmation and for celebrating the sacrament when it was not possible for Dr Neary to do so himself.
Priests, he explains, have said the smaller numbers involved in these ceremonies provided an opportunity to focus on the essential meaning and the simplicity of the sacrament and this contributed to a very prayerful experience.
Archbishop Neary draws his pastoral letter to a close with a note of hope.
“While the present experience constitutes a huge challenge to faith, yet in so many ways the situation brings out the best in people, awakening the need for and appreciation of connectivity and community. Goodness, generosity and gentleness are in evidence in service, neighbourliness and volunteerism.
“As a people of hope, we commit ourselves to welcoming and contributing to the decisive transformation made possible by the God who brings order out of chaos, light out of darkness, and new life out of situations where none seemed possible.”