TheCity.ie’s Ruadhan Jones hears how priests and lay Catholics have been finding innovative ways to connect with the faithful online.
Though the long Lent is over, we are still in isolation and masses continue behind closed doors. As a result, how to participate in Church life remains a pressing question for many Catholics.
Fr Conor McDonough has been particularly active, giving up his Lenten fast from Facebook to join in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think all Christians feel a call to find ways to bridge the ‘social distance’ we’re currently enduring,” he says. “As a Dominican I feel that call particularly keenly: we’re preachers of the Word of God, we’re always looking for open ears and open hearts.
“Right now, lots of people are in their homes, spending time looking at their screens – which are inevitably filled with bad news. I came back to Facebook to try to counter the bad news with the Good News of Jesus Christ,” McDonough continues.
“I’ve had lots of positive feedback from people who appreciate being pointed to good online resources. People like the lighter side of things too, stories about community life and the strange things we find ourselves doing during lockdown.”
As part of his effort, McDonough gave a talk as part of a weekly webinar (online seminar) series called Catholic Voices Connect. His contribution to the series, titled ‘Coronavirus & the Church: keeping connected in a time of crisis’, took place on March 23rd.
His talk, he explains, is part of his and the Dominicans’ effort to minister to the needs of the faithful, particularly their desire to gather as a community.
“It’s such a strong instinct for Christians to gather. Jesus gathered groups around him, calling them away from their daily occupations to spend time in his presence.
“Since then, Christians have continued to assemble, above all for the Eucharist, even at times of persecution, and especially during times of suffering. This is the fundamental reason it’s so painful for Catholics not to be able to attend Mass at this difficult time.”
While he sees the pain it causes, McDonough says the bishops made the right decision in postponing masses.
“We know so much more about how infection spreads, and it would be irresponsible and imprudent not to apply this new knowledge to our situation.”
McDonough draws on his knowledge of the early Church in order to inspire his new, virtual mission.
“I’m reminded of a moment in the life of St Paul. He had lived and ministered to the community of believers in Ephesus, but then was called to leave them. He gathered the people and told them he was leaving. He encouraged them and consoled them, they all knelt down in prayer and, as Paul left, the little community wept freely (Acts 20:37-38).
“But even when Paul was absent from his congregations he continued to write letters, and we should have the same attitude. Most ministry will have to be by phone calls, texts, livestreamed preaching and prayer, and social media updates. But this ministry of encouragement is so vital at this time of physical distance.”
McDonough encourages people to take part in Church life in the ways which are open to them, such as online Masses and adoration. A recent survey found that 27% of respondents had watched mass online.
“Watching online is definitely a good way to participate in the Mass, and to welcome the presence of Jesus into your home and your heart. It’s not exactly the same as attending Mass, and we naturally feel that lack.
“But if someone confined to their home but desires and welcomes Christ in prayer, they’re actually living the Eucharist, as union with Christ, in a far more intense way than someone who attends Mass with little faith or love.”
But these are not the only ways we can fulfil our roles as Christians during this difficult time. McDonough sees the current crisis as an opportunity for the laity to remember their call.
“It’s a good time too to remember the call of the laity to identify and use the particular gifts given to them by the Spirit, and to minister to each other in new ways now that priestly ministry has been interrupted. Here I’m thinking of all the kinds of charitable works being carried out around the country: collecting shopping, walking dogs, even organising bingo!”
Having spoken about the call outward, McDonough’s last piece of advice is to also take this time as a chance for reflection.
“It’s important not to be constantly communicating. This time of isolation also gives us the opportunity to be silent, to meditate, to read the Scriptures. These are the deep wells where we’ll draw water for the weeks to come.”
Though this is indeed a dark time for religious and non-religious alike, McDonough speaks of the need to “let the light of our faith shine brightly on the digital continent”. It is this work that he and many other priests, religious, and laity are attempting to do.