These past weeks have witnessed some remarkable events within the life of the Church. Edicts declaring the cessation of the public celebration of the Mass, the closure of churches and the prohibition of requiem Masses have become the norm. Each of these decisions (and the policies which underpin them) are founded upon concerns for public health. Meanwhile, in one diocese of the United States, there was a marked concern for private health too: prompting the Diocesan Bishop to “confer” the right to anoint the sick upon nursing staff (reportedly an error which was short lived).
It does not require the expertise of a Church historian to detect that something is amiss. Those with a passing (or even waning) acquaintance with the Catholic faith will readily call to mind those within the communion of saints famed for their ministry to the sick. Within these islands too, modest reflection will prompt recall of familiar names. Those of Frs. Henry Morse and John Southworth remind us of the personal cost which many assumed to take the sacraments to those suffering from contagious disease, isolation and social abandonment; a cost which extended not merely to the risk of infection, but prosecution and execution. More recent examples of those who have demonstrated the same preparedness to make the ultimate sacrifice include St Damien of Molokai.
Whilst most frequently deployed in the context of physical health, the term epidemic may be taken as extending to a sudden and widespread phenomenon which is harmful to the community. In our own times, there has been no shortage of ideologies and regimes which may fall within this definition. Without exception these same ideologies and regimes have failed to extinguish the faith. Indeed, in some instances the very attempt to eliminate the practice of the faith has only served to fuel the fervour of the faithful. The life and work of St John Paul II is proof positive of this proposition. In such circumstances, the Church – and more particularly its pastors – have stood in opposition to that which is harmful to the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to them. One might legitimately ask: how might this venerable tradition be translated to our own times?
To answer this question, it is necessary to acknowledge that in the case of each of the examples mentioned, the individuals had come to a deep appreciation of the indispensable nature and character of the sacraments for the salvation of the faithful. Put simply: their work was Christ’s ministry; not their own. Their interaction with those entrusted to them was driven by an acceptance that their priesthood was a grace by which they, through the sacraments, administered the Eternal Word. Their purpose: to harvest souls.
The notion of the priest as participant in the Lord’s harvest is familiar enough. In his 1989 publication: “Ministers of Your Joy – Reflections on Priestly Spirituality”, Cardinal Ratzinger (as he then was) observed:
“God’s harvest is growing: however much there are also fellow-travellers who run away as soon as this seems advisable; however much is done in vain, somewhere the word is ripening. Even today…”
The 2001 Instruction “The Priest, Pastor, and Leader of the Parish Community” begins with an exhortation: “Lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest” (Jn.4:35). Within the opening paragraphs it reads:
“The priestly ministers of Jesus Christ, invested with the character and grace of the Sacrament of Orders, and constituted witnesses and ministers of divine mercy, voluntarily undertake to serve all in the Church. In whatever social, cultural or historical circumstances, including contemporary society, heavily marked as it is by an ethos of secularism and consumerism which erode the meaning of Christianity for many of the faithful, the Lord’s ministers should always be mindful of the victory that overcomes the world: our faith”
Words such as these are apt to be read as a call to arms, or, battle cry. Venerable Fulton Sheen provides a different perspective. Speaking of the forces hostile to the Church, he observed:
“It is not our business to prove they are wrong, however satisfying that might be; it is not even our business to prove that we are right, as if the truth were our making, and not God’s. It is our business to preach Christ and Him Crucified and let that truth conquer by its own right…We need not reprove their error, nor show we are right, but present the truth of God and with the help of His grace it will nourish them until Life everlasting.” (The Cross and the Crisis)
These passages communicate a single message: the events of the world must be viewed through lens of faith. This vantage point equips us with the perspective to discern what is real. It calls us to embrace the reality which is “the primacy of the spiritual”. It is a reality which may only be received in contemplation.
What better means to contemplate and bear witness to this reality than in the presence of the Divine: The Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament? In these days when the faithful are deprived of direct access to the sacraments and the Real Presence, the need for the visible witness of the priesthood could not be greater. To view remotely the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration within an otherwise unoccupied Church is one thing. To be able to observe a priest before the Blessed Sacrament is something quite different. It is not ostentation. It is instead, a physical reminder that the Lord is our strength, our consolation and our hope. It is the priest fixing his gaze upon Christ on behalf of all who are entrusted to him. It leaves us in no doubt of the truth which we proclaim: Christus vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus imperat. It is the Lord.
By this means, the priest is affirming to all the faithful the same witness and consolation of John Southworth and others in different times. He is, after all, in his prayerful presence before the Blessed Sacrament, bearing the faithful to Christ as their spiritual father.
St Joseph – Father of all the faithful, pray for us
Our Lady Seat of Wisdom – pray for us
St John Southworth – pray for us