Q: Archbishop J, will the Church survive COVID-19?
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus promised His disciples: “I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). What is promised here is that the Church, on mission in the world, will conquer all territory up to the very gates of Hell. And there, at the last frontier of Hell, the Church will triumph over evil: she will prevail. The strongholds of evil will not stand. The last enemy, death will be defeated
(1 Cor 15:26). The question is not if the Church will survive; it is, ‘How will she flourish?’.
This promise, however, is to the Church universal, not to the local Church. We must always remember that where many of the seven churches in the Book of Revelations (1:4) existed, is today Muslim territory.
Although planted by apostles, they came into troubles. They died! This is a sobering reality for us. The Universal Church will always flourish. The local Church has no guarantee. We must be vigilant.
Into the desert
When Israel was unfaithful to God, there came the desert. The prophet Hosea said: “Therefore, I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt” (Hosea 2:14–15).
The invitation to the desert is not threat or punishment. It is tabanca! It is God, the consummate lover inviting us back! Out of love, God will do anything to get the attention of His beloved. Not out of spite or punishment, but out of the madness of love.
Lent 2020 is unlike any other Lent. From the very beginning, we were invited into the desert. When COVID-19 reared its ugly head, we were all in horror. Then came social distancing, curbing our appetites, closure of all shows, bars, clubs and restaurants, forcing us to stay indoors. Now has come restriction of movement and imposed isolation of every family.
This is the desert of Lent—on steroids. Whatever you decided to give up this Lent, I am sure, you never imagined this level of sacrifice. A sacrifice is giving up something good, for something that is better. It is answering a higher call to transformation. It is daring to become the best version of yourself.
We sometimes see sacrifice as bad: character is built on the grit of sacrifice. Without it, we become like Jell-O—with no spine, no courage, no morality, no capacity to love.
This invitation into the desert is not a punishment, it is the consummate lover calling to you, asking you to open wide your heart, again, and allow Him in. What will you do with this time in the desert? Will you allow it to draw you closer to God? Or flit it away with more mindless activity?
To flourish as Church, we need to rethink our notion of pastoral relationships. In his book Out of Solitude, Henri Nouwen gives us another image. He says:
The word “care” finds its roots in the Gothic “Kara” which means lament. The basic meaning of care is to grieve, to experience sorrow, to cry out with. I am very much struck by this background of the word care because we tend to look at caring as an attitude of the strong toward the weak, or the powerful toward the powerless, of the “haves” toward the “have-nots.” And in fact, we feel quite uncomfortable with an invitation to enter into someone’s pain before doing something about it. (34)
We are all invited into this desert. We are all weak and powerless in the face of COVID-19, the lockdown, the cabin fever, the isolation, the vulnerability. Can we sit with this long enough to listen to Jesus in the solitude of this desert? Can we approach others from our vulnerability and weakness? Can we admit we do not have the answers?
In the past week with all staff gone, I suddenly realised: I am still doing 12-hour days. I am unsupported by staff physically. I am working to get our 118 primary schools up and running again, to plan Holy Week, to meet the priests, to organise a national network to ensure the most vulnerable communities and people have care and support, to say Mass for the whole diocese, etc.
I experienced my vulnerability and, suddenly, I felt the full weight of the moment and the absence of those who are usually around me. I too needed care. I too needed support for the very simple things that I take for granted. I had to work through this consciously to recognise the great love and care that was there—just in different ways. Can you be honest with your needs and realise the invitation to vulnerability, then to be vulnerable with others?
We reach out to others not to bring answers but so that we together can find our common humanity and faith in God. We do not have to have quick answers; we need patience in the face of the silence, the unprecedented and fundamental change to the circumstances of our life. I reached out and called someone and spoke to them about what I was feeling. They listened patiently and, in the speaking and listening, I found my centre again.
By the end of the day I was OK again and nothing had changed in my external circumstances. Internally, I was connected again to Christ and how much I was loved, and how many people loved and appreciated me. I was able to be vulnerable and express it to others. Our reaching out is not because we have something that the other does not have. It is so that we can find our humanity and faith in Christ together.
Key Message: To flourish, we need to face vulnerability and find our common humanity. Out of this, our expression of care will not be to reach down, but rather to reach across to a brother or sister; to God who is our common Father.
Action Step: Spend some time in silence and get in touch with what you are feeling. Speak to someone about it and discover the grace of vulnerability. Reach out to someone you know, with vulnerability and love.
Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:9–10