On Friday March 20, many Catholics in England and Wales attended the final public Mass for some time. (Pictured: Catholics after the last Mass at Westminster Cathedral.) Numbers were certainly larger than the average weekday Mass – but worshippers, mindful of the need for “social distancing”, will have been keeping the requisite six feet from each other.
At one church in the North-West, the parish priest encouraged his anxious flock to persevere. “We are Lancashire Catholics,” he said. “We have been through a lot. Henry VIII didn’t defeat us and neither will the coronavirus.”
Yet many Catholics were barely consolable – particularly those whose children may have moved away, and for whom the local parish has been the strongest community in their lives.
The isolation of the elderly will mean the closing down of many social networks. Yes, technology can be a remedy, but only a partial one. (For those who are hard of hearing, their loved ones may not be able to make themselves heard over the phone.)
I know one woman, a practising Catholic all her life, who has expressed real and profound grief at the suspension of the Mass, and at the prospect of being unable to be buried with a Requiem Mass if she died during the restrictions.
It is not only the virus that is dangerous; loneliness can be a killer when elderly people are left to stagnate. Lengthy social isolation might, in the end, prove a lesser evil to the virus by only a very fine margin.
Given the widespread hunger for the Eucharist, it is commendable that dioceses are live-streaming liturgies over the internet at this time, and teaching the faithful how to make a “Spiritual Communion”.
The Government is also showing welcome solicitude by organising the delivery of food and medicine parcels to the 1.5 million people the NHS wants to keep indoors for at least the next 12 weeks.
But Catholics and many other people of good will were already responding positively to such challenges at a time when ugly scenes of panic-buying and other selfish or reckless behaviour were grabbing the headlines.
Priests are reporting how people have been volunteering to help the elderly and others isolated: by shopping, running errands, and odd jobs. Sometimes they are organising themselves into groups.
It is happening all over the country, but one fine example can be found at the Church of Our Lady and St Christopher in Romiley, near Stockport. On Saturday about 20 children of the parish’s Young Caritas group delivered an initial 350 leaflets to offer practical support to people asked to isolate themselves.
The leaflets invited such people to contact them if they could assist with shopping, a friendly phone-call, posting mail or delivering urgent supplies.
The group, for youngsters aged from 10 to 16, was soon noticed by Stockport councillor Angie Clark. She acted quickly to win the backing of local shops and also to secure funding for high-visibility vests for the children to wear while they were out.
The actions of the children are an exemplary response to an appeal made by their bishop, Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, in a pastoral letter just a week earlier.
“Let us be mindful at this time of the elderly and the most vulnerable,” Bishop Davies said. “Let us not forget those on low incomes, families who are dependent on food banks, and the homeless on our streets: they cannot share in panic buying and may even be deprived of necessities. May no day of this health crisis pass without us giving thought to their need.”
He continued: “It is good to already see initiatives developing in parishes for the care and support of those who may be most vulnerable and isolated in the days ahead. As Christians, we can never lose sight of Christ’s preferential love for the sick which the Church has expressed in her mission through the centuries.”
It would be possible to find similar examples of Christian charity in every diocese, albeit in different expressions. Caritas Salford, for instance, has vowed to keep open its services to rough-sleepers throughout the crisis, and has just launched an appeal for such items as pasta, tinned food, soaps, cereal and long-life milk to counter the slump in donations to food banks during the frenzy of buying.
It is during such times of trial that the Church distinguishes itself by its charity.
This has always been the case: from the plagues of ancient Rome, where the courage and the care of Christians shone out as a great witness to the population, through the great epidemics of the Middle Ages and into recent history.
By observing the teachings of Our Lord, in every era Christians have always put into practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy whether they faced outbreaks of the Black Death, tuberculosis, cholera and typhus, or most recently among Aids and Ebola epidemics. Often their love came at great costs.
Today, they will not remain separated by the coronavirus, nor will they hoard up goods they do not need while the weakest are left to fend for themselves. That Lancashire priest was right: the Church will not be defeated by Covid-19.
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