Apart But Not Alone: Hope and Strength in a Time of Crisis and Fear
Pastoral Letter 27th March 2020
Bishop Dermot Farrell
Diocese of Ossory
“How will people know that you are my disciples? By your love for one another.” (John 13:35)
We are now living in an Ireland that we could not have imagined a few short days ago. In a very short period of time the ways we move, interact, and live with each other have radically changed. Suddenly, we are conscious of our environment in a way that a few days ago we were not. Our language also reflects this seismic shift, with words and phrases finding, for us, new combinations and a resulting new meaning: social is now about distancing—and our standing together means, in real way, that we must stand apart. But the space we thus create will keep us safe; it is, as it says in the poem, “the light from the lighthouse that protects as it pushes away.” (John Ashbery)
Our Actions Matter for Each Other
We are, then, learning many things in these days. We are learning about the fragility of our lives. We are learning about the depth of our resolve. We are learning about our profound community spirit and, in a real way, we are learning about how we need and depend on each other. We have come to realise that our true strength is our strength to carry the weak, and our true dignity is our capacity to value every person. Solidarity and global action are absolutely crucial to bringing this pandemic under control. We are seeing the selfless dedication and the immense work of those on the front line. Of course, these women and men not only do this in times of great trial, but in ordinary days as well. We appreciate, anew then, the contribution of so many—the nurses, doctors, paramedics, care staff, clergy, Gardaí, fire personnel and so many more. In the words of the French novelist Georges Bernanos: “Grace is everywhere.” It is time for us to support them and to encourage them. As St Paul reminds us we are always to encourage one another and build one another up (1 Thess 5:11). In doing this for the other we are collectively stronger. We see the importance of media, local and national—print, radio and TV—in conveying for us important, life-saving, messages. “All serious and upright human conduct is hope in action” (Spe salvi, 35). We are learning, too, of the fragile nature of our economy and of how businesses and those who work in them can suffer. We are learning that our big world is, in fact, quite small, and that small actions, and simple things, are truly life-saving. Ultimately and importantly, we are learning—and learning in new ways—that our actions matter for each other. The safety of each one depends on the safety of all. Safety knows no favourites.
We are heartened, then, to see the actions of those who have stepped up, those on the front line, but also those who in recent days have responded to the call to help – we love with actions and not mere words (1 John 3:18). It is wonderful to hear of the great numbers of people willing to volunteer, to offer their time and talents to help others. Men and women asking what they can do for each other. It is this other and not the self which lies at the heart of our Christian faith. We are, throughout our history, a people for others. In these days then, let us continue to remember the other. Let us continue to remember those who are poorest and weakest in our communities, their plight has not lessened in these troubling days. We remember our neighbours for whom simple gestures might now matter, remember those who live alone and who might at this time rejoice in a phone call, remember those afraid who might need reassurance, and remember those around us who might need reminding.
Prayer is Hope in Action
Love is the life of the Church. The Church lives to the extent that we love. Love is the life of the Church, and prayer is the lifeblood of that life. As we pray, we express not only our need, but also our care. To pray for someone is to love someone. To pray for our child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend is to express our love for that person. To pray is to love. When we pray together—as couples, as families, as communities—our individual voices come together, and unite us as one, to call on God. But our prayer is not only our prayer; our prayer is also our response to God’s promptings, to our trust in his hope, our faith in the Lord’s abiding presence. Life teaches us how we depend on each other; our faith shows us how we depend on God. Pope Francis reminds us of the true power of our prayer: “prayer always changes reality…: it either changes things or changes our hearts, but it always changes” (Papal Audience, 9th Jan 2019).
My sisters and brothers, let us all pray anew in these difficult and frightening times. Real prayer comes from the heart; real prayer comes from real life. So let us pray as we can. Pray in your own words, pray in the words of others, pray in the words of the Mass, pray in silence. As our country and our world is convulsed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we know that our lives spill over into others, for better or for worse, and we remain, in these times, united by prayer. So often when we gather to pray together we do so for a specific purpose, intention, occasion or anniversary. In these extraordinary times, when we cannot gather as a faith community to celebrate the Eucharist, our Diocesan Adult Faith Development Group have arranged that we can continue this basic togetherness of our Christian prayer life. I invite you, then, to email firstname.lastname@example.org or text 085-8313100 any prayer intention that you may have in these days. These, then, will be remembered when we come together to celebrate Mass on the radio each Sunday morning. A real coming together of our prayer. We pray because we place our deepest hope in a goodness and in a power that transcends our own capabilities. Prayer is hope in action.
Faith the Wellspring of Hope
The Bible is filled with stories of how women and men found in God a wellspring of hope. Their trust in God and their confidence in him—in other words their faith—became their wellspring of hope. Out of this hope they were able to transform the present. “Faith draws the future into the present” (Spe salvi, 7) so that our future is not just something down the line. As the light before the dawn permits us to see, so our faith and its hope permit us to live in new ways. The news about this fast-moving virus is frightening and depressing. In this hour of great need, the real hope our faith gives us, calls us to a new sense of ourselves—to see ourselves as a community sharing hope out of which we live. This may seem farfetched, but that is exactly what we are called to be: people of hope. “We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow on us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain” (Spe salvi, 31). Our God is a God of hope (see Rom 15:13). Trusting in God calls us to action. Hope gives us the strength to overcome selfishness and indifference. Indeed hope that does not matter to one personally is not true hope. True hope always calls attention not only to life after death, but also to what is essential to life on earth.
The Lights and Light of Hope
In these dark days, I have been helped by an image used by Pope Benedict XVI: he writes that that life is a journey “a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route.” (Spe salvi, 49). In the night, it was the stars that guided the seafarer. “Certainly,” the Pope continues, “Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by—people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.” (Spe salvi, 49). Let each of us, then, live for the other now, let us be a star, let Christ’s gentle light shine through each of us; let us open the door of our world to God: volunteer, reach out, pray for each other and care. Let us show each other, that though we may be apart, we are not alone: “your love for one another will show to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35).
We are stronger when we are together, and though apart in these days, we are with each other now in a new way. May Christ, the one who lived most for the other, support us in that task. Let us pray with St Augustine,
Watch, O Lord, with those who wake this night
or watch, or weep;
give your angels and saints
charge over those who sleep.
Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ,
rest your weary ones,
bless your dying ones,
soothe your suffering ones,
pity your afflicted ones
shield your joyous ones.
And all for your love’s sake.