God going viral

Many years ago before I had the opportunity to travel to Italy I asked a friend who was visiting to Rome to say a prayer for me at the Holy Spirit window of St. Peter’s basilica. On his return he assured me that he had done this and gave me a postcard image of the window.

Some years later when I made the visit myself I was moved by the beauty of Bernini’s work at the Altar of the Chair in the basilica, bronze and marble sculpture surrounding a window made not of glass but of the translucent stone – alabaster.

I noticed that many who are drawn closer to see the window have found themselves spending more time in this church than they probably have in any church in recent decades. There is something captivating and contagious in the art and architecture, and in the at home-ness, transcendence and beauty that people of all faiths and none feel when inside these walls.

This weekend’s Pentecost celebration marks an easing of lockdown restrictions enabling many parishioners to once again enter church buildings to participate in worship.

Most Pentecost reflections focus on the disciples being fired-up to go out to others as an eruption of the life of Jesus Christ reaching to the ends of the earth.

However the eruption of this vibrant divine life through us can only happen because of the irruption of the Spirit of Jesus that is offered ready to be received in every human breath. The life of Jesus Christ can only go out from us because Jesus Christ is, in every moment and every breath, coming to us and into us.

We have experienced this in the lockdown weeks. In the midst of the insecurities, tensions and struggles of the lockdown and in the social, financial, work and family consequences, we have had moments of noticing the presence and action of Jesus in unexpected and even unwelcome events and encounters.

While we are enthusiastic about being able to return to worship, we appreciate that simply returning to Mass is not the solution to all of our problems.

Three months ago before the lockdown we were already deeply concerned that many of our Catholic family and friends no longer saw the Mass as an essential part of faith. Perhaps there is something of an explanation in the tragedy that the  Catholic Church is experienced by many good and faith-filled people as a closed room.

Sadly many of those who seek to connect with the sacraments are left feeling as though they are not welcome and do not belong. For many good and faith-filled people the Church is experienced as a room closed with the door locked.

These lockdown weeks have changed us. While in the past we may have protected ourselves against predictable and visible threats, in these days we are especially shaken because something so small that it can only be seen under a microscope has brought us to our knees.

Naturally, like the first disciples, we experience fear. Now we are freshly acquainted with our vulnerability and we have lost some of the over-confidence that masks our uncertainty about ourselves and our future.

While this is not a comfortable feeling, it is the environment in which the Spirit of Jesus is manifest in the world, the Pentecost point at which the first disciples of Jesus matured from religious adherence to faith-filled living in an often-confused world. The first disciples gathered full of fear yet emerged filled with hope knowing that their health and happiness in life on earth could not be found in projects and possessions but in the person of Jesus Christ who is God living among us.

A few days ago I was encouraged and inspired by an Italian bishop’s letter to parishioners returning to Mass after lockdown. He concluded his letter reminding Catholics to not be…

“…communities that are closed in on themselves and their own organisation, but communities that are open, humble, full of hope; communities infectious with passion and trust. Not a Church that goes to church, but a Church that goes to everyone. Full of enthusiasm, passion, hope, love. Believers like this will regain their desire to go to church. To go to Mass, to be fed.” 

The closed room of Pentecost is not an environment that we escape and then avoid. Instead it is a place of intimate encounter with the Spirit of Jesus, a place that we must often return to. Jesus reminds us that we must daily go to our room, close the door, and pray in this secret place. (Matthew 6:6).

Without this intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ life within the church will become an empty and burdensome ritual, a joyless moralism.

But without Sunday worship in the community of faith, our personal faith risks becoming a private hobby, a religion-in-a-bunker with fear and isolation as inevitable consequences.

Let us take up the challenge of Pope Francis, not simply acknowledging that we live in a changing era, but embracing a change of era that the Spirit of Jesus Christ us unleashing among us anew this Pentecost.

A few days ago a friend sent me an encouragement from a bishop in Italy. Here is the text of his message.

From a pastoral letter from the Bishop of Pinerolo, a small city in northern Italy.
Bishop Derio Olivero contracted COVID-19 but is now cured.

… Now, I would like to say a word to believers. Going back to celebrating Mass is not enough for us to think we have solved everything. “This time is not a period we should try to forget!” We must not go back to the Church the way it was. Either we start changing the Church now or it will stay the same for the next 20 years. Please listen carefully to what this time of pandemic is whispering to us and what Pope Francis tells us so wonderfully. Do you remember what we were saying in our meetings at the end of February (just before the lockdown started)? Every meeting we would complain that people don’t come to Mass any more, children in catechism don’t come, young people don’t come. Do you remember? And now we think we are going to solve everything by starting celebrating Mass again? I believe in the importance of the Mass. When I celebrate the Mass, I “immerse” myself, I put my heart into it, I am born again. I know it is the “source and summit” of the life of the believer. And I dream of having the strength to preside at the Eucharist again, when it is allowed.

But I am telling you clearly that I no longer want a Church that just tells you what to do, what to believe and what to celebrate, but forgets to take care of relationships, inside and outside. We need to rediscover the beauty of relationships inside the church, among catechists, church workers, volunteers, practising Catholics. We need to make the parish a place people want to come to, where you can say, “This feels like a community, it’s good to be here!”

And on the outside, with those who do not attend Church or just come along for baptisms and funerals. I dream of Christians who love non-practising Catholics, agnostics, atheists, believers of other denominations and religions. This is the true Christian. I dream of Christians who don’t think of themselves as Christians because they go to Mass every Sunday (though this is an excellent thing to do), but Christians who nurture their own spirituality with moments of reflection on the Word, with times of silence, moments of wonder in front of the beauty of the mountains or a flower, moments of prayer in the family, an offer of coffee made with kindness. Christians who are not “devout” (in an individualistic, private, abstract, ideological way) but believers who believe in God in order to nourish their own lives and to help them believe in life, whatever comes their way. Not communities that are closed in on themselves and their own organisation, but communities that are open, humble, full of hope; communities infectious with passion and trust. Not a Church that goes to church, but a Church that goes to everyone. Full of enthusiasm, passion, hope, love. Believers like this will regain their desire to go to church. To go to Mass, to be fed. Otherwise we will continue to waste the nourishing food of the Eucharist. Woe betide anyone who wastes their daily bread (our grandparents used to say). Woe betide anyone who wastes the “food” of the Eucharist. It is only with this hunger that we will be able to rediscover how fortunate we are to have the Mass. This is the only way to rediscover the desire to become a gift to others, for good of all.

I wish you all a happy journey. Together. I carry you all in my heart.

With affection and esteem + Derio, bishop.  Pinerolo, 18 May 2020

 

An Invitation:

  • Spend a few moments reflecting on the bishop’s letter. Which part encourages you most?
  • You might like to share a comment about your personal growth in faith during the lockdown weeks.
14 Responses to "God going viral"
  1. What a powerfully written description of our mission as disciples. “We need to make the parish a place where people want to come”. Let us be fuelled by the Eucharist in a new way. Let us leave the closed room with enthusiasm and conviction, and a commitment to welcome and reach out to others. Not from a place of superiority, but from a place of joy and compassion.

  2. The warmth of this letter is reassuring for many. I know people who imagine they are unwelcome in the church because they have tripped over some rusty old law. Once, in that position, I was told by a wise cardinal, “Canon law is not law. It is guidance.” I now know that he church founded on Christ Jesus is a church of loving welcome because Jesus never turned anyone away. He even gave Eucharist to the man who was about to betray him.

  3. Thank you this is so inspiring I fear going back to our community gathering of Mass that we have learnt nothing and that we will be as we were closed in fearful for our own salvation missing the point of who we are and why we are church. I’m trying to remember the God spell song that says “to much heaven on their minds”.

  4. The Divine picture of the Dove soaring in the light of the world encapsulated my imagination.

    When I was young I had a speech impediment that caused me a sense of sadness and loneliness when I was a teenager. Sister Catherine, Sister of St Joseph, was my classroom teacher and accepted to be my speech therapist too. She corrected my disability and taught me how to live again and to release the emotion that was oppressed deep within me.
    “My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my senses” … Ode to a Nightengale by John Keats, was one of many exquisite, unforgettable poems she taught me that enraptured me and moved me beyond myself.

    In the same way, Bishop Derio Olivero’s Pastoral letter to believers encouraged a sense of journeying within me when he emphasized the importance of caring for relationships inside and out. I identified with his philosophy of life and love and experienced the light of Acceptance, Affirmation and Aroha in my work as a counsellor, ‘somewhere in the shadows of the trees’.

    Thank you for your happy and compassionate sharing of faith today, John +

  5. A very good commentary today on what Church should be. Lots to think about on this feast of Pentecost. I pray that we will be more open to the Holy Spirit and live our faith by sharing our lives with believers and non – believers alike.

  6. May the Holy Spirit renew us so that we are a church of passion, enthusiasm, hope, love. Thank you Fr. John.

  7. Thank you Father John ,we love your faith filled comments,your encouraging words have been an inspiration to both my husband and myself.

  8. Thank you Father John ,we love your faith filled comments,your encouraging words have been an inspiration to both my husband and myself.

  9. I have been, And am,amongst, atheists,unbelievers,daily,
    and paint in ways, that unbelievers,Can relate to, to get their attention,”but” there are hidden meanings, they seem to
    “Understand” when seeing it
    In a picture,rather than read
    A God Word”,as they would say.
    The bishop of Italy, letter was
    A reminder,”To Break Free”
    Show “HIS”Light To All.

  10. Big Thanks, Fr. John. I will respond to you more reflectively about what is happening here in the Philippines in light with your and Bishop Olivero’s reflection. But two preliminary notes: What’s happening now is a challenge to the Filipino mindset of Christianity more or less like a ‘cultural’ heritage. And in this circumstance Christ’s Spirit is moving to “rediscover humanity.”

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