The first Scottish COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 1. Twelve days later, on March 13, Scotland recorded its first death from the virus.
As the public-health crisis grew, the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland was unanimous in wanting to keep churches open and Masses public. In light of ongoing public-health concerns, a pastoral letter was drafted by the bishops, setting out safety measures including: no Sign of Peace, no use of hymn books and bulletins, and restrictions on the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds.
However, events overtook the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland. As the health crisis escalated nationally, and not wanting it left to secular authorities to ban Catholic worship, the Scottish bishops bowed to the inevitable and another, different pastoral letter was issued on March 18. In that communication, the bishops closed churches, suspended public Masses, postponed the sacraments of baptism and marriage, and directed that funeral rites should be restricted to gravesides and crematoriums.
On March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, the last public Masses were celebrated in Scotland. Since then, all Scottish Catholic churches have remained closed.
On April 28, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley and vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, spoke to the Register about these decisions and life under lockdown.
How hard was it to order the ending of public Masses and the shutting of the churches?
It is not easy to take in the magnitude of suppressing public Masses and sacraments and closing our churches sine die [for an indefinite period]. We — the bishops — were all aware of that. It is the first time our people have been deprived of public worship and such means of salvation since the Reformation and penal times. In this instance, it was not the result of state laws, but a decision of the Scottish bishops, albeit a preemptive one. I think I speak for all of us in saying it was a decision taken with a degree of bitterness, certainly of concern and, in the end, of sorrow.
What spiritual resources would you point people to?
Online ministry has become the main spiritual resource of our people, and I have no concern in pointing them there. Of course, everyone understands the worry that this experience could become a comfortable and individualistic form of faith and worship. Every online priest and congregation appreciates that this online presence is no substitute for real physical encounters with fellow Christians in church and receiving the sacraments.
Instead, online Masses and services are present-day “field hospitals” so championed by the Pope, that keep the faith alive until, “war over,” normal spiritual care resumes.
Of course, the distinction between the real and virtual is a pseudo-distinction. Most of what we do online is real and has real effect, for good or ill. In the same way I see no reason why online groups cannot meet for devotions like Rosary and Stations of the Cross, for prayer meetings or catechesis — and I hope some of these groups that have formed can remain.
What about concerns that dying patients will not have access to the last rites?
Our online presence cannot be the be-all and end-all. Even in these pandemic times, each priest knows how to make provision for hearing confessions, privately requested out of necessity, and is ready to administer the last rites wherever hospitals and circumstances allow. When the last rites are prohibited, the extraordinary plenary indulgence made available by Pope Francis is being widely publicized, and our hospital chaplains have made “prayer packs” available to dying patients that take them through the prayers and assure them of the plenary effect of the indulgence to comfort them with the assurance of faith in their final hours.
The most remarkable devotional development of the COVID-19 lockdown has been the re-emergence of the act of spiritual communion. As this custom takes hold, the sensus fidelium (sense of the faith) is rediscovering this extraordinary way by which Jesus really can communicate the substance of his sacramental grace into the souls of the faithful when they do not physically communicate.
The faithful are rediscovering their spiritual hunger, ardent fervor and heartfelt devotion for the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. If it takes a pandemic for that, maybe it is worth it.
Some wonder what if anything good can come out of this?
In this period, I have been struck by how, for the first time in generations, family prayer is reviving in the homes of our faithful as they gather to celebrate the Eucharist. In these days Catholic families and those who live on their own have set up “home altars” and got used to praying at home in online devotions with their parishes.
In terms of embracing information technology and social media, the Church has been accused in the past of moving at the snail’s pace of centuries; in this pandemic it has sprinted into real time and is maybe in the lead.
In this lockdown the whole Church has experienced what it is like to be “housebound.” Hopefully, having walked in the slippers of the sick and elderly housebound, we can appreciate how much more included they now need to feel and be.
So far, our pastoral approach has been to see the pandemic like a blizzard that wreaked unexpected damage but that will be gone as quickly as it came. However, what has just occurred may be only the beginning of a long winter for the Church, maybe even a mini-ice age, after which much of what is familiar will have died, never to return. The Church that emerges will be different beyond recognition.
What message would you have for your flock at this time?
One of encouragement: to trust in God and have faith in Jesus. The Lord anticipated the likes of these days for us: “Be of good cheer for I conquered the world” (John 16:33); and that includes the COVID-19 pandemic.
So my message is to see this not just as a time of lockdown, self-isolation and social distancing, but as one of opening up to God, of abandoning any misguided sense people may have of independence, and of reaching out to reconnect with their brothers and sisters in one common humanity.
How should we respond spiritually to the current crisis?
Time and again, prayer, penance and fasting stopped pestilence in its tracks. When facing wars and famines, floods and pestilence, it is good to be reminded that, as the People of God, who have been around for thousands of years, we have been here before — and not only have we survived such events, our faith has taught us how to live and even grow through such times.
How do you minister to your priests at this time?
It is easy to forget that this is a time of testing for priests, too.
For a while I am sure they will welcome solitude to allow some rest, recreation, prayer and organizing. As time goes on, however, solitude can easily descend into isolation, and the devil knows how to find work for idle hands. So it is important that we look out for each other and see ourselves as our brother’s keeper, so that no priest feels abandoned.
We have been thrown into a situation for which we had no time to plan or bring to prayer. Yet, perhaps it is telling us that we may need to make better provision for our clergy to live life in common with each other as an option. In some ways, this lockdown has allowed us to see more of each other, albeit online, and I wonder if we will keep some of these social spaces alive that we have made for each other, when life resumes again.
Has your life changed?
The pandemic has changed my life a lot. First thing is that each day is actually busier, even if my life is now almost totally online. Up just after dawn and working pretty solidly till dusk, every day since the lockdown, it is all about holding everything together administratively, financially and, above all, pastorally.
But I do not want to give the impression of bemoaning these times — far from it! If there is anything of poor Frodo [the hero from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings] in me who wished the pandemic “need not have happened in my time,” I am much more with [the wizard from the same novel] Gandalf’s perspective: “So do I,” he said, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
How do you think the Church will come out of this?
While it is impossible to predict whether we are passing through some tectonic shift, one way or another, the pandemic is a lightning rod passing though the Church.
Some Catholics will simply return when parishes reopen. Other practicing Catholics, who have disconnected during the lockdown for no particular reason, will be lost. Others will have become more committed. This “good seed” found the lockdown to be rich soil to nurture their faith and devotion, returning to be providential instruments of grace for a New Evangelization. Perhaps this is what Pope St. John Paul foresaw: all of the resources of the Church being dedicated to a mission; new in ardor, method and expression, with a lay Catholic faithful, renewed in their faith, reaching out to the lapsed in their midst.
What we can say is that these times represent both an existential threat and an unimaginable opportunity for the Church. So far, they have proved to be an opportunity. Love of Mass, devotion to the Eucharist and a sense of the sacraments and feasts are undergoing surprising renewal.
The Lord is in all of this somehow.