15 March 2020

‘We are surrounded by such
a great cloud of witnesses’

When do we stop celebrating the sacraments? … in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In almost 20 years of ordained ministry, I cannot remember missing a Sunday celebration, apart from one Sunday when I was in hospital.

When I have been on holiday in Turkey, I have managed to visit abandoned churches in places such as Levessi, outside Fethiye or the small village of Çavuşin, near Göreme, bringing bread and wine from the breakfast or dinner table and celebrating with a small cluster of people.

Even when the rules of the Greek Orthodox Church exclude me from receiving Holy Communion, I have sought out Sunday celebrations of the Liturgy wherever I am staying.

Perhaps one of the most unusual but uplifting places to preside at the Eucharist was on top of Mount Sinai at sunrise, bringing bread and wine from the dinner table the night before in Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

The charges to a priest at ordination include to ‘preside at the celebration of the Holy Communion … to lead God’s people in prayer and worship, to intercede for them, to bless them in the name of the Lord, and to teach them by word and example.’

For almost two decades, it has been a natural part of my expectations on a Sunday, any Sunday, to be present in a church, any church, for a celebration of the Eucharist.

It is heart-breaking that the Covid-19 or Corona Virus pandemic means that all churches in the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe have been closed for public worship today, and for the immediate Sundays that follow.

This situation is being reviewed constantly in consultation with the bishop and the archdeacons. But it is a wise decision in current circumstances. Christ says, ‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10: 10). Covid-19 is like a thief that comes to steal and kill and destroy, and any actions that we take as priests, in word and example, must affirm our belief that Christ has come that we may have life and have it abundantly.

Inside an empty Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

And so, this morning, I strolled down to Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, at the normal time, opened the church on my own, placed the bread and the wine on the altar on a paten and in a chalice that were presents from the Middle East, donned a purple stole from Barcelona, reminding myself that I am in communion with the Church around the world, and lit the candles.

I read out loud today’s readings, the sermon and intercessions I had prepared for this day, and the propers for the celebration of the Eucharist.

It was a lonely experience, but if we believe in the presence of Christ in word and sacrament, if we believe the Gospel is worth proclaiming, the people are worth praying for, and the sacraments should be celebrated, then the ‘numbers game’ has no significance. It was encouraging, as I read the Gospel reading, that only two were present at the well in Sychar throughout most of the Gospel story this morning … Christ and the Samaritan woman.

I am reminded of the story of an elderly priest who trudged through winter snow for a lonely celebration of the Holy Communion. When he returned to rectory, cold and wet, his wife asked him how many people turned up. He reminded her ‘we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, [therefore] let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us’ (Hebrews 12: 1).

I am reminded of how Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the jailed Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johnannesburg, was held in solitary confinement, was refused bread and wine, but decided to celebrate a daily spiritual Eucharist in his cell. Each morning, he stood in front of a piece of wall between two barred and grilled high windows, and imagined himself before the cross. ‘I faced it as I would an altar and said what I could remember of the Mass.’

From that first morning, he said the Creed, prayed generally, made a short confession, said the Sanctus and made a spiritual communion. ‘This is something I have never really experienced before, though I have read about it and advised people to do it,’ he recalled later. ‘But I can say with complete certainty that the communion that I received then was as real as any communion that I have ever received sacramentally.’

And I am reminded too of the story of the Revd Henry Irwin, ‘Father Pat,’ who died a martyr’s-like death in 1902, trudging through the snows of Canada to provide pastoral and sacramental care to his people.

Walking to the church on my own on a bright and sun-kissed morning, is not a difficulty. But we are charged too ‘to minister to the sick and to prepare the dying for death.’

Hopefully, this pandemic is going to run its course in short, quick time, and that normal Sunday services resume in time to celebrate Easter.

But already the Greek government has ordered tourist accommodation to close in Greece until the end of April. It looks like my plans to celebrate Orthodox Easter in Crete have been cancelled too.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10: 10) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2020)

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