The debate about keeping our churches open for public worship continues to rage in circles, minority circles it must be said. When I tune into the debate there are several scripture passages that spring to mind.
Like so many others I think of Jesus reminder: “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matt 4:4. Taking this verse it seems safe to suggest that in the mind of Jesus, his person and his teaching are essential, at least of equal value to the food that we purchase from essential retail. The fundamental problem for Heaven therefore – brought into sharper focus by this pandemic – is that so many people do not consider the person of Jesus and his teaching to be as essential as their visit to the supermarket.
Of course, this is a faith position flowing from my relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. Realistically, at this point in salvation history I do not expect Government and its agencies to get this – and I certainly do not expect it to apply to all the people of Ireland. Faith in Jesus Christ and all that flows from faith, that which is often disparagingly referred to as dogma must be found within or it is not found at all. For every piece of dogma there must be a corresponding interior recognition in the depths of human freedom, a moment of transforming spiritual insight. I cannot stress this enough; dogma is found within, and insisting that people abide by a dogma that they have not found within will almost always result in rejection, even hatred. This has been the particular error of Irish Catholicism. A foundational tenet of the Christian faith is that God always respects human freedom. In the realm of God, respect for human freedom – even unto hell – is non-negotiable. As St. Augustine said: “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.”
Obviously, my freedom is convinced that Jesus and his teaching are essential. Indeed, I believe that humankind rises and falls according to our relationship with Jesus and his teaching. As Simeon said of the child Jesus: “you see this child, he is destined for the fall and the rising of many in Israel…” Lk 2:34. There is nothing as essential as Jesus Christ and his Gospel and since the Mass is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, his very person, I believe that Mass is therefore essential. As Padre Pio once said; “the earth could exist more easily without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
Nonetheless on balance I am inclined to support the moving of worship to online forums in accordance with NEPHET advice. It is important to stress that worship has not been banned and comparisons with penal times do not stand up to critique, no more than the idea that this is persecution; this is so far removed from persecution that it belittles the meaning of the word and the reality of true religious persecution in many parts of the world. Furthermore, for people prohibited from attending Mass all the effects of Holy Communion can be received through spiritual Communion. I do believe that we can gather safely in our Churches – I do not doubt it at all – but by remaining open for worship we might unwittingly facilitate after-worship gatherings that have potential to become super-spreader events. For me, the moral weight drops on the side of caution and online worship until NEPHET advises otherwise.
If our lives have been curtailed, they have been curtailed to teach us, and to prepare us for the future. These are not random meaningless events – these are soul teaching moments – another step toward our common future that is being determined one step at a time by our relationship with Jesus Christ and his teaching. These events might look like obstacles but in truth are stepping stones toward a time when humankind will fully understand that “the lamb will conquer and the woman clothed in the sun will shine her light on everyone.” Seriously do we really think that God is going to be defeated, removed from the face of the earth? The same God who standing before Pilate said: “You would have no power over me… if it had not been given you from above…” Jn 19:11. Why can’t we view the current restrictions in this way? The same God of whom John reminded the people coming for baptism: “God can raise children for Abraham from these stones.” Lk 3:8.
Similarly, those believing we are now seeing the end of the Catholic church in Ireland, or anywhere for that matter – the comment sections on social media are full of such remarks – are a version of those who observing the destruction of Jesus believed they were seeing the end of Him and his movement. It was a toxic mix of unbelief and sin that caused the destruction of Jesus, and it is another toxic mix of unbelief and sin that is causing the destruction of the church in our time, but the destruction of Jesus gave way to the risen Christ and the destruction of the church – or more accurately the destruction of all that is not of God in the church in our time – will give way to a risen Church.
So much about this debate reminds me of Peter who drew his sword to defend Jesus and his belief in Jesus because he could not see the bigger picture. Jn 18:20. There is a question here about the proper recognition of these events in salvation history, about our recognition that the civil power always functions unwittingly in the plan of salvation. Peter has an excuse for not seeing the bigger picture because the seminal action of God that we call the resurrection had not yet happened, but what is our excuse? That, as Ronald Rolheiser observed, our awareness of God and God’s plan borders on agnosticism?
God is almighty, totally in control, suffering, enduring, correcting, leading, even allowing restrictions on the public celebration of Mass, bringing human freedom to value Jesus and his teaching as much as the food purchased from essential retail, or he is not God at all. God’s victory is certain, but the victory is nothing more than the turning of hearts and minds to God. Even allowing for an act of God – an act that must respect human freedom – this is not likely to be an easy journey!
This journey is as certain as Jesus’ declaration that “till heaven and earth disappear not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the law until it’s purpose is achieved.” Matt:5:18. The only real unknowns are the exact contours of our journey toward valuing Jesus and his teaching. Make no mistake, this is our common future. This is a journey that will slowly – and somewhat painfully – shatter humankind’s propensity toward unbelief. Of course, some will always resist. It is going to be a seismic struggle between Heaven and hell, belief and unbelief, incarnate in history, possibly involving the persecution of religious practice for a time – are we not currently being prepared? – and undoubtedly paschal in nature. As it unfolds the proper role of the church will become evident; our primary role is not about putting the kingdom here and there – remember the lamb will conquer and is conquering – but to act as a bridge, for sure a compromised bridge, but a risen bridge capable of providing difficult passage for human freedom to reach the place where Jesus and his teaching is valued as much as the food purchased from supermarkets. Can we imagine a struggling and bewildered humanity in the future, including future Irish leaders, looking to the Catholic church – albeit a risen Church – for help and direction? No? Like Peter we are in for an unforeseen and unexpected fulfillment. We must let humanity walk this walk, we must respect our place in salvation history knowing that God is far from finished with us.
“Your kingdom come” we say in prayer – even as I write, even as you read, it is happening, right now, right here. Let us not seek however creatively or ingeniously, but very naively, to find ways around the soul lessons that this pandemic is intended to teach.
In my next blog I will try to tease out the soul lessons that come packed inside the current pandemic.