Efforts to limit the spread of the virus COVID-19 have greatly impacted our everyday life. The required social isolation has robbed us of many of the normal, natural and healthy interactions with family and friends. We have had to miss larger family gatherings, birthday celebrations, holiday travel, and various other social events with friends. Some have experienced the anguish of not being able to attend a funeral of a loved one.
There has been a considerable human cost to our efforts to contain the spread of the virus. We all recognise that this has been necessary and we have supported the difficult decisions our political leaders have had to make and the work of health professionals on the front line.
As Catholics we have experienced the particular pain of not being able to attend public Masses in our parish and even more simply just being able visit our churches and say a prayer. This has been something we never anticipated nor have experienced. It was particularly difficult given this happened at the time in which we celebrate the Easter mystery.
However, history reveals that it has occurred in the past. The great St Charles Borromeo, during a plague in Milan in 1576, co-operated with the city government when it became necessary to close the churches in the city. In an action very similar to what happened in northern Italy in recent months, in October of 1576, the city went into general quarantine and no one could go to the churches.
In a strangely modern twist an outdoor procession organised by St Charles held on January 18, 1577 allowed only one lay person from each parish to participate with required social distancing.
As in the example of St Charles Borromeo, the Church works in co-operation with the civil authorities, and must do so for the common good. However, our intention always is to reopen our churches and return to the public celebration of Mass as soon as government allows. The initial return to the celebration of Sunday Masses will need to be done under very strict social distancing and hygiene conditions.
I am in discussions with the government about how this could be achieved. I have also begun talking with priests as to how we may be able to provide Sunday Masses which are compliant with health requirements.
We are hopeful that some of the restrictions may be relaxed in the coming weeks. While we wait for this to occur we must continue to abide by the restrictions and be patient. Co-operation with the efforts of government to continue to protect citizens is critical for us as Catholics. The Church teaches that to the extent that public officials are striving to promote the common good we are obligated to support these efforts. One expression of this is our willingness to take up the COVIDSafe app which I commend to all Catholics as a sign of our responsible citizenship.
The denial of public access to our churches and the public celebration of Mass has challenged us to take personal initiatives to sustain and nourish our faith. I have been edified by many reports that I have received of how people have responded in positive and innovative ways to live their faith in these changed circumstances.
This period of sacramental deprivation has been a time for rekindling the quality of our personal prayer. It has been heartening to see so many people embrace online opportunities to participate in live-streamed Masses and devotional prayer and engage with various Catholic initiatives available online.
Our experience of Eucharistic hunger has helped us appreciate the great gift the Eucharist is to our life of faith. No doubt our first reception of Holy Communion at a Mass will be a treasured spiritual moment, satisfying our Eucharistic longing.
As we await the announcement by the government to permit churches to reopen and public Mass recommence, let us continue to hold fast to our faith in the risen Lord. We can allow this time to be one of a purification and strengthening of our faith. We know the Lord is with us, as he was with the downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like them, when the time comes, we will discover him afresh at the “breaking of the bread”.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
May 10, 2020