Having read all that, I would like to say a few things. First, some practical things, I have made copies of the statement available down the back. Second, this situation is obviously developing. I will endeavour to keep the parish updated as best as I can. Third, I have put some prayers in the bulletin that might be of use. A prayer of spiritual communion, and Pope Francis’s prayer to our Lady on this issue.
With that said, I also want to give you my own thoughts. I had a homily ready to go on the woman at the well, but after speaking to a few people this week, and reading the news from Italy, I felt like I should say something on the virus. My apologies if you already tired of this topic, but I think it is important.
Now, it should be obvious that I am not a medical specialist, and that I only have access to the same news as most of you, perhaps more in the some cases, perhaps less. With that in mind, let me say this.
There seem to be two truths about this sickness. First, it is serious. Second, it seems manageable if we are sensible.
First, it does seem serious. These days it is hard to get to the bottom of things, since different news outlets seem to push different ideas. Some seem to say that this is really, really bad; while others says it is no worse than the normal flu season. However, the news out of northern Italy seems to indicate that it is definitely worse than the flu. The seriousness seems to come from the rate of infection. If the rate gets too high, then the medical system struggles to cope. The key then is reducing the rate of infection.
The second point, then, is just as important. It does seem manageable if we are sensible. This seems to be the lesson coming out of Taiwan, South Korea and parts of Africa. Where people have followed the advice of professionals in terms of personal hygiene and reducing contact – what is called social distancing – the rate of infection seems to occur within manageable rates, and doesn’t get out of hand.
The message therefore seems to be: treat this seriously; but seriously means take the necessary precautions. It does not mean panicking.
We as Christians, though, have a further responsibility. We have to be reservoirs of calm and care in our community. One of the dominant themes in the New Testament is the experience of fear, followed by God telling us: Do not be afraid. This does not mean: be stupid and foolhardy. Jesus does not say: do anything because who cares?
But, given all this, how should we approach this issue?
I would like to start by looking at a section from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He is giving advice on whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. St Paul knows that idols are nothing. They are fake gods. Therefore, sacrificing meat to them is meaningless. He therefore has no problem eating the meat. But, his analysis doesn’t stop there. He focuses on other people. He says, even though we know eating such meat is meaningless, others do not. They think that eating such meat is wrong. St Paul, therefore, says our actions should be based on what is best for them, not simply on how free we might feel. If we might scandalise such people, then we should avoid the action. In time, they may come to understand more, but right now, they need protection, and it is our job to think of them first.
Why do I say this? Well, as Christians we believe that God has conquered evil and death, so we have nothing to fear. Through prayer and the sacraments, we are safe in God’s hands. However, others are afraid, and therefore our first thought should be them. We need to be caring and prudent in our interactions.
The obvious way we can show care is to follow the medical advice regarding personal hygiene and interpersonal contact. We can be human shields who prevent the vulnerable from being affected. We can be firebreaks within the community. This not only manifests care for the other person’s physical health, but it also helps reduce any fear that could arise through higher rates of infection. Being sensible encourages calm in our community.
Another way we might show care is by thinking ahead. Who around us is vulnerable? And: how are they vulnerable? Obviously, we are not all medical experts, but we are neighbours. The problem with this issue is that the normal way of being a neighbour – namely, personal contact – might become difficult. So, how can we be good neighbours in such circumstances? We might begin to think about how connected we are, and how connected our neighbours are. Is there someone we know who needs help learning how to stay connected in a case of quarantine? Can we help them use skype, or whatsapp or one of the other internet messaging services?
Also, I read a statement put out by a rabbi who emphasised the importance of language. He mentioned that we should be careful about the term social distancing which I used earlier. He said there already was social fragmentation, and so we should be slow to use a term that encourages us to think that way. His suggestion was that for every step back we take from contact, for every embrace that we forego out of prudence, each of these should be a reminder to make a phone-call, write a text message or say a prayer for someone.
And thinking about vulnerability also stretches to economic stress. Are members of our family or local community feeling under pressure? Might we be called in the next few weeks to be a little more patient, a little more imaginative, a little more generous? You are all better placed than me to think through this. But it is something to consider.
The other obvious steps we can take are the traditional Lenten ones: prayer, fasting and charity. Perhaps as a parish, we can all set aside an extra 10mins each day to pray for our community, for wisdom and calm. If we are healthy enough, we might also try to give up something as an act of solidarity.
On the prayer front, I also want to say something quickly about Mass. As we just heard, the bishops’ statement is clear on this, so there is no need to worry if you don’t think you can make it. In the case of any developments, we will obviously follow the direction of the archbishop. I will say a bit more about prayer resources at the end of Mass.
Finally, as believers, we are uniquely placed to help our neighbours. Just as Christ lives in communion with us, experiencing and revealing our thirst as is own, so we too are asked to live in communion with those around us, sent to them in love. We can use our own lives and feelings as an insight into what others might be going through. But equally importantly we can also use our faith as a rock to lean on. We know this rock is Christ, and that he will not fail us. We can draw strength from him for others. We also know that when we bring our own concerns, our own thirsts to Christ, he transforms them into fonts of living water for the whole community who thirst in the same way.
So, let us heed God’s message, not to be afraid. Let’s also think first of the vulnerable members of our community. Let’s be sensible so as to protect them, let’s be imaginative so we can remain united, and let’s place all of this in God’s hands, knowing that he will never leave us.