As this dreadful pandemic sweeps the land, our NHS front-liners are giving their all to tend to us. Their heroic action reminds me of another hero, a young aristocrat from Turin, born in 1901: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Charismatic, with film-star looks, he loved skiing, horse-riding and above all climbing mountains. The life and soul of the party, Pier Giorgio was a man of deep faith who spent his evenings visiting the sick and homeless. Serving in the slums of Turin, he caught polio and after a short, painful illness, died, aged just 24. At his funeral, to his family’s amazement, crowds of his beloved poor filled the streets to give thanks for his life, a life of love in action.
This Holy Week and Easter will be one we will never forget. Normally, our Cathedral here in Portsmouth would be full, but this year we will celebrate Easter online in an empty church. The Devil seeks to isolate us, yet we are united in prayer, prayer for a speedy end to this scourge. We also commend to God’s mercy the sick, the elderly and vulnerable, those in self-isolation, those suffering anxiety and loneliness, the NHS medical staff and those who have died.
In the midst of it all, God is offering us many graces. He invites us to contribute to the common good, to care for the sick and to live charity, love in action. Where the Eucharist cannot be received, He invites us to renew our thirst for Christ as we approach the Easter Triduum.
As Catholics we need to proclaim the Good News of Easter. Our clergy and laity are already finding new and creative ways of doing this, through virtual communications such as live-streaming liturgies, “Zooming” prayer meetings, and the ‘‘ministry of the telephone’’. Yes, we need our hand gels etc, but our essential approach must surely be one of confident trust in God, our loving Father. He is on our side. I find myself constantly returning to St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that nothing can come between us and the love of Christ (Romans 8:35).
The pandemic is bringing positives. Here in Portsmouth, we have a wonderful hospital, the Queen Alexandra, popularly known as “the QA” I was talking with one of the nurses from A&E: it’s manic, she said, but we’re in good spirits. To me, the staff working on the NHS front line are heroes.
Heroes too are the many helpers who have volunteered. Our chaplains are heroes. Recently I appointed an additional priest to assist at QA, to minister to the dying. The crisis is rousing great courage and selflessness in individuals, and more broadly a new sense of community, that we all belong to one another.
It was an agonising decision as a bishop to mandate the cessation of the public celebration of the Sacraments and to close our churches. It is devastating to me that people cannot have access to the churches even to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, I feel it of the utmost importance to state that while churches have had to close temporarily, in no way does this lessen the importance of actually receiving the sacraments. It’s also a sadness to me that it isn’t possible to have a Requiem liturgy in church and I am deeply concerned about our pastoral care of the dying and how to administer to them the Last Rites and the Apostolic Pardon. Please pray that no Catholic dies without the help of Mother Church.
Receiving these last rites is a fundamental right which no Catholic should be denied, if it is at all possible to administer them. Through them the dying person receives consolation, peace, and strength from God, forgiveness of sins, union with Christ crucified, and strength for the physical and spiritual battle of the final journey (cf. YouCat 245). In the current crisis, some feel that hospitals should not grant access to anyone other than those on the front line. Yet here in the diocese, one of our largest hospitals recognises the dignity of each individual patient and allows the priest and a family member to have access to their loved one in their last agony, providing the equipment needed for them to be present safely. I pray their fine example is followed by other hospitals and nursing homes throughout the country.
This Easter, let us ask the Lord to bring us through this crisis but not so that life can return to normal, to the way things were. We should ask God to bring us to a new normal. The pandemic is a wake-up call to society. It calls us back to basics, to the things that really matter: faith, hope and charity; family, health and happiness. Over these last decades many in Britain have been on an ‘‘investment holiday’’ with regards to their spiritual and religious life. Covid-19 invites everyone to rediscover their Lord and Creator and to encounter the Person of Jesus Christ.
We rightly applaud the amazing staff of our NHS. They remind us in their way what Holy Week is all about: how Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour laid down His life in service of us, and how in history many others, like the inspiring patron saint of our diocesan youth, Pier Giorgio Frassati, have done the same in imitation. Let us learn from them, praying that through the Passover of Christ, we too will pass over – soon – to a renewed normality, one less frantic, more compassionate, one with more space for faith and for love in action.
The author is Bishop of Portsmouth
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