“It’s strange and just depressing,” lamented the sacristan of Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral as he stood on the sanctuary, gazing into the empty nave. On any given Sunday, some 2,000 worshippers pack into the pews of the Minor Basilica to attend the 10:30am Solemn Mass. Thousands more – tourists and Sydneysiders alike – usually stream in; some to admire the Cathedral’s illuminating stained glass and its imposing neo-Gothic structure, others in search of solace. But on a day when Catholics in Australia should have been rejoicing at the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the nation’s first state-sanctioned priests, the Mother Church of Australia remained vacant with doors locked, surreal and still.
This, of course, has been the case for some weeks now. Desperate times call for desperate measures, the adage goes. And so, as the number of coronavirus cases in Australia began to spike, doubling every second day, the Australian Government, acted swiftly, mandating that churches temporarily close from 12 noon on Monday March 23. Some scrambled to get to early morning Mass before the ban came into effect, many others were forced to go without, unsure of when they would get access to the Sacraments once again. As for me, a cradle Catholic, the thought of having to skip Sunday mass for the first time in my life was strange, depressing even.
In times of great uncertainty, the natural response is to want to regain control, a manifestation of some form of Pelagianism. And when that fails, we lose hope, we fall into profound despair and allow ourselves to wallow in self-pity. The supernatural response though, as Pope Francis so beautifully pointed out in his Extraordinary Urbi et Orbi, is that of trust and to embrace the Cross which means “finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring”.
For Australians, these have been trying times. For a society that revels in mateship and camaraderie, lockdown restrictions have upended social life, the very fabric that undergirds the foundations of “Australian culture”. Some have struggled to adjust, to be sure, evidenced by the panic buying of pasta and toilet paper. Others, though, have remained resilient and acclimatised to the new normal, knowing that their sacrifices are ultimately for the common good.
The Catholic Church in Australia Herself has also been faced with Her own unique set of challenges. The furore over Cardinal George Pell’s acquittal as seen on social media served as further proof that anti-Catholic sentiments remains deeply entrenched in the Australian psyche, and with that, a reminder that the Church’s evangelical mission to evangelise a deeply secular society must continue, even with enforced social distancing and lockdown measures.
Meanwhile, the Australian Government’s declaration just prior to Holy Week that Churches would become designated workplaces has seen many parishes live stream masses online with servers, musicians and lectors on hand to assist in the work for the people.
Grassroots initiatives have also taken hold with prayer at its summit. Social groups have been formed for the sole purpose of the daily recitation of the Holy Rosary, university chaplaincies have organised lectures to help the intellectual and spiritual formation of students, and church musicians, amateur and professional alike, have even banded together to broadcast the public celebration of the Divine Office. And while social distancing measures have emptied our churches, the lockdowns have inadvertently revitalised domestic churches.
With the curve flattened, Australians can now look forward to restrictions easing. Already, those living in New South Wales have been allowed to visit friends and family for the first time in weeks, and it is expected that further relaxations on restrictions to sport, business and social activity will soon follow. Meanwhile, Australian bishops remain hopeful that state authorities will permit the reopening of Churches, if not for Mass then at least for private prayer and for Confession. A resumption of normality might just be on the horizon.
Still, the effects of the coronavirus will be felt for years, if not decades to come. However, the immense suffering endured by Catholics unable to access the sacraments has allowed for the “creativity of the Holy Spirit” to flourish, and in doing so, renewed evangelical zeal amongst the laity. And with that has come the realisation that it is ultimately the religious and social phenomenon we call prayer that brings communities together.