NI Faith Forum

Eileen Gallagher Support Officer for the Irish school of Ecumenics and support for other interchurch groups writes on Finding Hope and Healing in a Pandemic.

Churches: Finding Hope and Healing in a Pandemic
Life has changed utterly and as we try to adapt there are many lessons churches, people of faith, and people of no faith can garner from the pandemic. With none of the usual human and community supports available at this time the grieving process is more difficult and the suffering is all the more intense. Within the constraints people have been doing what they can to offer support - phone calls, emails, video calls, and letter writing. When lockdown eases there are many things churches need to reflect on and to do: a priority will be to gather as communities to remember and  mourn those lost and bring the consolation and support of communal presence to bereaved families; to offer prayers and rituals which enable people to process grief.  Those who carry a legacy of unresolved pain and grief will need the help of trained professionals and it is hoped that the agencies which provide these services will have the support they need to carry out what will inevitably be a vast increase in workload.

Extraordinary, Courageous, Creative steps
This crisis is teaching the world much about the values of compassion and fairness, and the ability of societies to care for the most vulnerable. We have witnessed the courageous and creative steps taken by clergy, chaplains, and lay leaders in our churches as they try to accompany people in these strange times. These actions include pastoral care of the sick and dying using the only means available -  a tablet, video phone or computer;  care for young people with video messages to offer hope and encouragement when school lives have been upended; virtual graduations and religious ceremonies to replace the normal rites of passage at this time of year which are so significant in the lives of young people; video messages of reassurance and encouragement to disappointed Confirmation and Holy Communion classes; digital liturgies -   livestreamed and televised Sunday Worship and Masses; guided virtual pilgrimages; online retreats; online guided meditation and traditional devotions.

Music and fun have echoed around our living rooms as enterprising virtual choirs, bands and home-produced videos were seized upon as ways doing things differently sharing gifts and bringing joy to others. Music echoed in our streets as neighbours came out to entertain one another and demonstrate talents, well-hidden until this catastrophe struck and we discovered we needed the reassurance of connection and one another’s presence.

Poetry, inspirational writing and music have found new audiences among both young and old. Our inter-Church Fora members are busy sharing resources which console and uplift while drawing people to a deeper appreciation of our shared humanity and the blurring of lines between sacred and secular.

In our rural communities a great sense of loss was experienced by those regular Church goers who could no longer attend services on Sunday. Many volunteers who would not identify with Churches were acting out the values at the heart of the Gospel as they brought not just food and necessities to the elderly and those living alone, but also the much-needed reassurance of human connection and kindly words.

What will the church look like after the pandemic?
In the wake of this pandemic the world will not be as it was before and it probably should not be. The pandemic has forced us to take a step back to reflect on our modern way of life and its side effects; to confront our mortality, our vulnerability and our weakness. We have not heeded warnings that the threats we face as a planet, health pandemics and climate change among them, require a coordinated international response with no room for continuing to waste resources. Security too has taken on a new meaning as the world struggles to defeat an invisible enemy.

We have seen however over recent weeks governments can take radical action and we can change our behaviour quickly. We have rediscovered our neighbours, and even our own families. We have witnessed charity and heroism flourishing in the midst of crisis.

The lessons for Churches are varied and many. The day before his papal election, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) quoted a passage from the Book of Revelation in which Jesus stands before the door and knocks. He added: “Today Christ is knocking from inside the church and wants to get out.”
Is it possible our Churches can become Churches without walls in a world more sensitised to the needs of the vulnerable, more aware of the fragility of our lives, our dependence on one another, and on our need for God?