Reflections on Lockdown – Challenges, Perspectives, Benefits & Vision

Reflections on Lockdown – Challenges, Perspectives, Benefits & Vision

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Dublin Council of Churches – Annual Forum Day


Statement of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin

15th October 2020


“This time last year, none of us could have imagined how 2020 would be so different.  Very few of us had any understanding of what a global pandemic could be like, although I remember my parents talking about the 1919 flu pandemic.

A younger generation than I would have been vaccinated in early childhood against the series of the infectious diseases that everyone in my generation contracted.  Later on, terms like Ebola and SARs may have appeared on our radar screens but they were something that occurred in remote parts of the world with poorly developed health services.

When I worked as the Vatican Diplomatic Representative at the UN Organizations in Geneva, I got to know leading epidemiologists and they were in no doubt over a decade ago that a worldwide pandemic was possible if not probable and that countries should be prepared.  Most countries were not.

Most of us grew up in a culture where we felt that “come new disease” it would not take long for a cure or a vaccine to appear.  We were over trusting in science.  We had forgotten that in public health terms, human behaviour is as important as clinical medicine in fighting infectious diseases.  This time last year if someone had asked us how you would fight a disastrous global pandemic, very few of us would have placed hand washing and maintaining a safe distance from others at the top of our list.  We over trusted in a particular view of medicine.

Thank God, people in Ireland reacted quickly and responded responsibly and generously to restrictions which were truly life changing.  We knew what our responsibilities were or at least we were sufficiently frightened to go with them to the full.  Frontline workers earned our respect, gratitude and admiration; public health authorities emerged from the corridors of government offices and became trusted public figures; schools had to close but soon a creative response of on-line home schooling emerged.   Crosscare, in the Catholic Archdiocese, responded to the special needs of the homeless and as a result, the incidence of the virus among the homeless in Dublin was held within surprising limits.   These are just some examples of how citizens and our religious communities responded.

It would be wrong, however, not to note the emergence of some negative trends in Irish society.  When you look at some of the protests against mask-wearing and other restrictive measures, behind outward talk of respecting individual liberties there was also a strain of negation of the virus.  Some of those who took part in these anti-mask demonstrations were the same groups that attempted to overturn my car when I attended an Islamic gathering in Croke Park. There are voices out there who do not understand, or do not want to understand, what religious tolerance means in the Ireland of today and that should concern all of us.

Obviously the pandemic brought specific challenges for Churches.  Believers were rendered unable for lengthy periods to gather for religious services.  There can be a justification for the closing of Churches, especially at crucial moments or to protect vulnerable people.   Such measures should however be limited to the minimum period necessary.

For Catholics, the celebration of Mass and the Sacraments is at the very heart of what it means for us to be a Christian community. These are not simply “gatherings” of people, but profound expressions of who we are as a Church. For parishes and individual Catholics the loss of these spiritual supports can be a source of great anxiety and fear and can have a detrimental impact on their overall health and well-being.

The current WHO guidance for religious bodies in the COVID 19 pandemic notes that “religious leaders are a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social service, for the communities they serve. They can provide pastoral and spiritual support during public health emergencies and other health challenges and can advocate for the needs of vulnerable populations….Religious-inspired institutions can promote helpful information, prevent and reduce fear and stigma, provide reassurance to people in their communities, and promote health-saving practices”.

It is important that society is helped to remember the contribution that public religious practice makes to the spiritual and personal wellbeing of believers.  Religious leaders can be powerful agents of fostering responsible behaviour.  They should also be in the forefront in addressing new needs as they emerge.  In the very near future, we will have to face serious problems of unemployment.   New mental health challenges will emerge.   In our consumerist society, losing one’s job and ending in debt can damage self-worth even to the point of leading to suicide (and this not only among poor and homeless people but also in wealthier sectors of society).  Lockdown leads to limited human interaction that then depletes wellbeing.  Social restrictions hit young people disproportionally at a moment when they need broader interaction.   How can our faith communities be agents of hope and support in such complex situations?

There is also a danger that our Churches become gripped by their own problems and fail to lead outwards.  I was impressed by comment of the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops on how at times when we are deprived of the Eucharist “there is need to explore how the Eucharist is not the only possibility that the Christian has to experience the mystery and to meet the Lord Jesus”.

He noted that “many pastoral initiatives in this pandemic period have been centred around the presbyter alone” and he added even more provocatively, “During the pandemic a certain clericalism emerged.  We witnessed a degree of exhibitionism and pietism that has more to do with magic than an expression of true faith”.

We have to use the current situation to reflect on what kind of Church we need during the pandemic and afterwards.  There will be no rushing back to Church services.   The inability to attend public worship has led to creative use of social media to make services available on line.  There has been less emphasis on fostering the ways in which the encounter with Christ can be fostered in daily life.  When we reflect on situations in which people have been or are today prohibited through persecution to attend public celebrations, the faith is maintained in other ways especially through fostering faith in the family.

I remember the Saintly Vietnamese Cardinal Francois Xavier Van Thuan, with whom I worked closely for many years.  Arrested by the communist authorities in Vietnam, he was being transferred by prison ship towards lengthy incarceration.  As he lay there, he lamented being taken away from his cathedral where he had just begun an intensive pastoral ministry. Then he realised that from that day onwards, as he put it, “this prison ship is my Cathedral”   For each of us in this pandemic and onwards our Cathedral is found in the bareness of wherever I find myself.

We can rightly lament the loss of our ability to celebrate in our Cathedrals but we must also remember that the Lord has placed us in the unexpected new Cathedral of the harshness of human suffering.  That is where we are called to be and to minister, and these new cathedrals will be strikingly more authentic and remarkably less clerical and institutional.”