Speaking at the Chrism Mass in Carlow Cathedral Bishop Nulty said “There is much to do in the new Church that must be born out of this current crisis.”
It is a very different context for a Chrism Mass this year. And yet I have purposefully continued with the celebration on the traditional date the Chrism Mass normally falls on, in our diocesan calendar. The dreaded coronavirus has in a matter of a couple of weeks turned upside-down our economy, our personal lives and our understanding of ‘normal’. We are waving through perspex and glass at grandparents and vulnerable loved ones currently cocooned. We are working remotely if we are lucky to still hold onto our job. We are staying at home and abiding by regulations akin to a curfew or a lockdown. These seem like war times and the battle is a virus we are trying to control. The country has in the past couple of weeks shifted gear completely from cruising in fifth to a struggling second.
The Church is no different, because it is embedded into our society, our community. While Church buildings are regretfully closed in order to protect the vulnerable and those most at risk from contracting this virulent virus, our pastoral and spiritual outreach continues unabated in every parish and across the diocese. Prayer continues, maybe better than ever before in homes, aided and assisted by the use of modern technology. And I hear feedback with all kinds of messages; someone followed a ceremony on Facebook live, someone else never knew their parish had a webcam until they logged on and someone was moved enough to send an email to say how much that Holy Hour meant to them. And tonight, Luke’s text is unrolled before our very eyes in all our homes where the spirit of the Lord anoints each one of us to become intentional disciples of His good news, of His freedom and most of all tonight of His healing.
Justifiably we could have postponed the Chrism celebration, because it always is an event that celebrates the diocese; we could have rescheduled it for the summer months, as someone said: “once this pandemic has passed”. But who knows when that will be? I firmly believe we need to reimagine church, reimagine liturgy, reimagine community, maybe even reimagine faith to make some sense of the vista that opens out to me from where I’m standing this Chrism night – empty pews, empty seats, empty churches, an empty Cathedral. And yet they aren’t empty, and the Cathedral isn’t empty, anything but. You are here, each one of you digitally connected with the Church you love, the faith you profess, the diocese you are so proud of. Perhaps we have always found it a challenge to be present as a Church on the edges, on the margins, in the field hospitals, (a much loved image of Pope Francis), and here it falls right into our lap, in this Holy Week 2020.
Why delay blessing the oil of the sick when so many are in need of anointing and healing this very night? I purposefully chose, with the support of priests and people to continue as planned with tonight’s celebration. You at home, priests and people are an intrinsic part of this celebration. While you may not be physically here, I’m holding you very much in my heart. Where you would be sitting, the parish banner you might be carrying, when you would arrive, the banter in the sacristy and of course the conviviality afterwards over in the College. All that will have to wait for another day, another event. And that day will come.
But to tonight, our Chrism Mass. I think these past few weeks have brought all of us to our knees in many respects. We know someone struggling on a ventilator with the coronavirus. They are in our prayers. We celebrated a Requiem Mass within the very restricted norms. Everyone respected those guidelines. The pain of the bereaved remains very much in our prayers. We haven’t seen family in weeks, so we must discern new ways of keeping in touch, keeping connected, we hold them also in our prayers.
Oils are what keeps engines ticking over and the sacramental oils that are to be blessed and consecrated this evening are what keeps the engine of every parish ticking over. We look forward in hope to using these oils in sacramental moments once restrictions are lifted and it is safe to do so. I think we will be a richer Church community for how we face these COVID-19 days. When we can shake someone’s hand again, let us appreciate more that encounter; when we can meet up with someone, let’s have better conversations and when our parks and playgrounds reopen let’s make those moments last. A crisis brings out the best and we are seeing the best in people every day, very conscious of those serving on our frontlines, particularly healthcare teams and their families.
Perhaps most of all what this time seems to be telling us is that we are vulnerable. No matter how powerful we are, some things are outside our control, completely outside our control. And my greatest concern is that we need to nourish and mind our mental health. The 2km walk or exercise might be as much a stimulant as a restriction. Don’t be in fear, don’t be afraid. It’s reasonable to be unsure, unsettled, upended but remember the oil of the sick, in great demand these days, includes in its ritual text: “health in mind and body”.
What will the new ‘normal’ look like as we try to reimagine church, liturgy, community and faith? No one knows. It will be different but I think it will be rooted in the connections we are now making. Perhaps we were too busy at the wrong things? Maybe our priorities were a little askew? As Pope Francis alluded to at his Urbi et Orbi blessing that we as a society have been deaf to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. There is much to do in the new Church that must be born out of this current crisis. A home, a parish, a diocese gives us a great sense of connection. We are all interconnected. Look after one another, inspired by the narrative of Saint Luke’s gospel, that’s what our Church does best this Chrism night. And that’s where these new oils are put to best use, in our care for the most vulnerable and the most broken of our brothers and sisters.