Third Sunday of Lent, 15th March 2020
My dear brothers and sisters,
We are aware of growing anxiety regarding the coronavirus and the developing global pandemic. Public health measures being taken in church today and across society are aimed at serving the common good and the care of the most vulnerable. Whether in the form of personal hygiene or changes to parish practice, these measures should be embraced as expressions of Christian charity for the sake of our neighbour and can form part of our Lenten observance. As Pope Francis declared on the day of prayer and fasting in Rome this week, “The journey of Lent is one of charity towards the weakest.” This country has long been noted for its calm, good order and sense of duty, these qualities and the human virtues they represent will surely help us in our care for each other. Yet, I want us to reflect on our response to this public health crisis in the light of the faith, hope and love we share.
In this past week, the words of the Apostle John have come to my mind: “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). Saint John is speaking of fearing the final account we must give of our lives; however, his words may also be applied to this health crisis in which we might be overcome by fear or by charity. We have already seen ugly scenes of panic buying that appear to have created the very shortages people feared. This shows how selfishness never enables humanity to flourish. The Gospel shows us how it is only by self-giving love that human society flourishes. This is a lesson we must re-learn in these days. We hear the Scriptures today calling us “not to harden our hearts” (Psalm 94); and with the Samaritan woman drawing the human necessity of water we are led to recognise a still greater gift. For Jesus tells her, “If only you knew the gift of God and who it is who speaking to you” (John 4:10). Saint Paul today describes this gift as “the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Rom.5:5) At a time when we are naturally concerned about health and well-being, we must never allow ourselves to close our hearts to the call of Christ and to the need of others.
Today, I want us to especially recall Saint Paul’s words, “Remember the poor” (Gal. 2: 10). Let us be mindful at this time of the elderly and the most vulnerable. Let us not forget those on low incomes, families who are dependent on food banks, and the homeless on our streets: they cannot share in panic buying and may even be deprived of necessities. May no day of this health crisis pass without us giving thought to their need. It good to already see initiatives developing in parishes for the care and support of those who may be most vulnerable and isolated in the days ahead.
As Christians, we can never lose sight of Christ’s preferential love for the sick which the Church has expressed in her mission through the centuries. This compassion led Jesus to so identify Himself with all who suffer, that He says: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt. 25: 36). No one who suffers during this epidemic must be beyond our care or charity. However long public health concerns last, this time must call us to grow in charity, so that perfect love may overcome fear. And if we fall sick or must self-isolate ourselves out of concern for our neighbour, then let us embrace this time as not as wasted days rather as an opportunity to live and offer those days in such love. The Church’s Catechism reminds us how illness invites us to unite ourselves to Christ’s own Passion (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic n. 1505). This is not alien to the path of Lent which begins with the mark of ashes and leads us to celebrate at Easter Christ’s victory over sin and death.
We have seen the removal of some optional practices in the celebration of Mass. Public health recommendations on the care with which we must receive Holy Communion can also help us approach Holy Communion not merely in a mechanistic way to avoid infection; rather, with all the care and refinement of love, for it is Christ Himself we receive. We must always avoid contact between the hands of the priest and the hands or the mouth of the recipient. We have received advice and encouragement recommending us to receive Holy Communion on the hand at this time. This provides an opportunity to prepare our hands in the shape of the Cross and offer them perfectly flat to receive the Sacred Host. In this way we can renew the internal dispositions of faith and love of which our outward preparedness is but the sign. If you receive Holy Communion on the tongue according to the universal norm, then please do so with special care, and it may help where possible to kneel. I have suggested some possibilities to the clergy which may help us approach Holy Communion in a calm and reverent way.
I dearly hope measures to restrict public gatherings will never require us to suspend, even temporarily, the public celebration of Mass. For we surely need in these times to draw even closer to the Holy Eucharist and to frequent the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. In the Holy Eucharist we come to know the perfect love “which casts out fear” and leads us to give ourselves in generous service of others. May this time marked by public health concerns always be marked by the generosity of self-giving love. To Mary, the Mother of Beautiful Love I entrust us all in health and sickness and in all of our generous care of each other.
With my blessing,
Bishop of Shrewsbury