As the Bishop of Rome pilgrimed by himself in the empty square of the Vatican, the world stopped. It stopped because the human heart felt for that old frail man struggling to walk in the adverse weather making his way up to the seat to celebrate a liturgy in the same square, from the same passage, which normally would have seen him flooded (and even pulled) by people to grab his attention. But that night he was alone. Or was he?
It is very easy to say that since he was witnessed by over 11 million people, he wasn’t alone. But I think we are barely scratching the surface. That walk, amidst the pandemic we are living, was a liturgical one, a mystery one. In him, the human heart tasted God. He wasn’t any frail person walking that square, he was the Vicar of Christ walking to the Golgotha to intercede for the world. In fact, to my mind, he should have worn the stole for that walk, because what he did, was Priestly.
In a world which is dominated by fear and anxiety, the best imagery is what we are currently reading in the Office of Readings. We are wondering where God is. Most parish priests are feeling distant from their flock, and their flock is feeling lost. But as Scripture rightly teaches us, the desert is always a holy space. We are called to discern this sacred space and live it in hope. Our human hubris forces us to take out our compass, GPS and what not to find our way out, but God reminds us to discern: discern God’s will and more importantly God’s presence.
Several digital theologians are currently reflecting on how we can digitalise the Church: amongst of which Peter Phillips who promotes the idea of virtual Communion; John Dyer outlined a number of arguments for and against digital communion; Jonas Kurlberg questions whether the online is real; Katherine Schmidt reflects on the pain which COVID-19 has left us in; and Deanna Thompson who encourages the church to consider the potential power of real presence in the digital culture, a power which heals and nourishes.
In this reflection I do not want to enter the debate whether the Sacraments online are still valid or not. As St. Ignatius of Loyola guides us through his rules of discernment, one should not make life decisions in a time of affective or spiritual desolation. And, I believe, such decisions are much bigger than mere life decisions so let’s just hang on to the two thousand years of Tradition for the time being, and ‘enjoy’ the desert.
More importantly whether the mass is still valid or not, I think we need to reflect on the final words, usually proclaimed by the deacon, of the mass: ‘Ite missa est’. I think that these words summarise the Eucharist we celebrate, because we are charged to live that what we have just celebrated.
As explained earlier, this period is a pilgrimage period of walking up towards the Golgotha. As a Church, we are invited to partake in the sacrifice of Christ by feeling abandoned and lost, a spiritual desert, while we think of one another, intercede and make ourselves available for others. We are called to be the Simon of Cyrene.
This is a time where the priesthood is highlighted, not as a liturgical role, but even more so maybe as a ministry of accompaniment? The Catholic priesthood is received after, and builds on the reception of the ordination of the diaconate. It is high time we retrieve that role. The liturgical role of the deacon is a reminder to the whole of the assembly that one cannot separate the Communion from the communion of people. Both are intrinsically linked.
Hence, every Christian, by virtue of their baptism are charged with helping the most marginalised: satiate the thirsty, welcome the stranger, and care for the sick (Mt 25). This period is a reminder to retrieve this important commission we received on the day we were claimed for Christ and recollected by the deacon at the end of every mass.
Simon of Cyrene is the deacon to Christ in His final struggles. The body of Christ, today, in 2020, is shaking and shivering under the pain of the pandemic, and the psychiatric effects it is leaving in all strata of society: from the elderly who are afraid because it might be them, politicians and economists balancing resources, health professionals knowing that every intervention they do is a risk to them and their family, and family members trying to work from home while keeping their children entertained. This stress, this pain, needs the Deacon Church.
In becoming the Deacon Church we truly become the Sacrament to the world. Liturgically the deacon purifies the ciborium from the broken Eucharistic crumbles, and Sacramentally, as the Deacon Church, amidst this horrid situation, we are called to aid in the purification of this broken world. As the Pope prayed last Friday, “we carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.” But, this pandemic paused us, and we realised that we are all sick, and this sickness challenges our hubris and grounds us, and points us to the Cross.
However, the Cross is a fertile ground. It bears the fruit of Spring. And, as a Church we are called, broken as we are, to retrieve the sense of pilgrim people, who aid each other, become Simon the Cyrene to each other, and walk towards that fertile ground. We are called to offer our brokenness as help to others, and become ourselves the broken crumbles which made the twelve baskets leftovers in John 6, that probably still fed other non-present people. As Christians, this pandemic is a fertile ground to realise that this is a time to minister to each other as the diakonos, and minister to the psychological brokenness from our broken selves. The servant’s eyes are fixed on the master, and our Master is hidden in those suffering from anxiety, are afraid, and in distress, shouting for our attention.
Thus, let us not pause our reflection on whether we should stream masses or not, but keep our attention to the broken world, which we are called to be ministers of healing despite our broken status. Moreover, we are called to retrieve the Johannine sense of friendship, where we walk with each other.
Given our digital culture, one would have imagined that social distancing wouldn’t have been a problem. Churches have resorted to online streaming for masses and other pious prayers, some are offering virtual call-ins, bible studies, daily Breviary and Lectio Divina. All are good initiatives, but social distancing still spears deep into our hearts. In this world where we are alone together (Sherry Turkle), this pandemic opened wide our existential need to crave for each other.
Now that this period is making us realise this craving, let us not forego this grace to realise this craving and build on it. This calls for a deeper understanding of the ecclesiology of the pilgrim people of God, where each broken pilgrim supports the other. Let us allow the Holy Spirit to baptise the digital culture which has brought us to this aloofness. The Spirit’s presence is a fertile ground, which at the Spirit’s discretion, can change our pilgrimage to the Golgotha, symbolised by the sombre walk of the Bishop of Rome, to the Easter joy. In the meantime, we pray in exile.
Article first appeared on Matthew’s Medium account on Apr 9th.