There has been much talk in recent weeks about the re-opening of churches and a date for the resumption of Masses and liturgies in which the public can fully participate. This conversation takes place in parallel with much responsible and careful work being done at national and diocesan level to plan and prepare for a return to public worship in our churches. This work seeks to strike a balance between public health and safety on one hand and on the other a desire to resume public worship as soon as possible.
I believe that it is important to proceed towards this goal, not only with a desire to restore or resume but with a strong spirit of conviction of the value of what the Church has to offer and a real self-belief that her contribution really does belong to the essential services that society needs and values. To date, this confidence of the Church in itself, as a body providing an essential service in the life of our people has been lacking by the leaders of the church themselves. For example, one would need to question why former politicians such as Bertie Ahearn and John Bruton are the ones to call for an extension of the numbers allowed to attend funerals when church leaders have been silent on an issue that is a source of pain to many families who are bereaved.
On Tuesday last, 2nd June, Fr Eugene Duffy had an article published in the Irish Times in which he pointed out the importance of Church communities looking at fundamentals rather than just the practicalities of getting back to where we once were. In his view this is ‘an opportunity for profound renewal. It reminds me of how we received the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in Ireland. We did the mechanical things, like reordering sanctuaries, but it did not take on board the theology that underpinned the structural alterations and have reaped the harvest of that neglect for decades’.
The current situation is another opportunity to evaluate who we are as Church, what we are about and what we have to offer. It is a chance not just to focus on the protocols and practicalities but on our mission to gather God’s people, form them as disciples of Christ, feed them with his Word and the Eucharist and offer hope that is badly needed at this time.
In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, Pope Francis outlined the reasons for a renewed missionary impulse by the Church. He explains how enthusiasm for evangelization and mission is based on the truth that: ‘We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint. It penetrates to the depths of our hearts, sustaining and ennobling us. It is a truth which is never out of date because it reaches that part of us which nothing else can reach. Our infinite sadness can only be cured by an infinite love’ (n. 265). He then warns: ‘A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody’ (n. 266).
When we resume public Masses in the future, we will have a different Church. There will be less people, safe-distancing, sanitation and other protocols that will take time to get used to. But we hope that when we do assemble again that our community will be imbued with this spirit of conviction, enthusiasm, certainty and love that Pope Francis speaks about. For without this spirit, we will have little credibility because we give the impression that we don't believe in what we stand for ourselves.
In the world of business, effective advertising is about both believing in the product that one has to offer and convincing people that they need what we have to give. Do we as Church really believe in what we have to offer? Do we really believe that the Gospel is literally a matter of life or death? Do we burn with a desire to convince others that ‘we have a treasure’? These are questions that each of us must answer as individual Christians and collectively as Church. We must not wait for the State or others to tell us whether we are an essential service or not. We need to be the first to be convinced of it ourselves.