Dear brother in Christ,
As we enter the Fifth Week of Lent, I want to speak with you again, my brother priests and deacons. My first words are to thank you all for your endurance, perseverance and continuing ministry in these most strange and challenging of days. Do continue in your essential ministry of prayer, compassion and solidarity, with each other and with your people. We are involved in a long haul. There is no ‘quick fix’ solution at hand. This we know.
Then, I want to ask for your prayers for Fr Bryan Jones, who died late yesterday evening. He is the first priest in the Diocese to die of this virus. May he rest in peace in the Lord.
I am sure that you, like me, were deeply touched by the time of prayer with Pope Francis on Friday afternoon. The images moved me deeply. The sight of the Pope, in prayer, alone in that vast and empty Square, resonated with the experience of celebrating Mass alone in an empty Church. The Daily Telegraph printed a photo of that scene with the headline ‘Preaching to the deserted’. How wrong that was! There were millions sharing in that prayer and listening to the homily. Physically alone: Yes. Joined in spirit and prayer by so many: Yes!
This is our story, too. We may well feel profoundly alone and strange in our prayer or celebration of Mass. But we are not. To priests for whom this may be a new experience, I say: persevere. There is a great richness in celebrating in this way, going at your own pace, stopping when you are moved to do so, knowing that the angels and saints accompany you and that this is always the prayer of the whole Church, for the Church and for our world.
I thank you for all the efforts you are making to keep in touch with your people, to lead them in prayer, to encourage them in countless ways. Accounts abound of the initiatives being taken and the response of so many to their participation in Mass and prayers via the internet. I loved the story of one family whose children serve at the altar. They dressed in their cassocks and cottas as they took part in the Mass at home via the internet!
Our prayer is so important. In today’s Gospel we read of Martha and Mary pleading with the Lord, saying, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ This is our pleading, too: ‘Lord, the people you love are ill.’ ‘The world you love is ill.’ This is our prayer and we know his response. He will come. He gives us the life and light we need to remain faithful to him through this and every trial and to reach, with him, our true way of life, our full destiny. This is our strong and sure faith. These are his strong and sure promises.
You have received many detailed points of guidance and of issues to tackle. I thank Bishop John for the latest of these. I have one point to add, and two simple suggestions.
My one important point directly concerns our priestly ministry. It is the support we can give to our hospital and healthcare chaplains. They are in the front line at the moment. We need to care for them. They need our support, especially in the coming weeks not least so that they find some time to rest and recover.
I am, therefore, asking the younger priests, those under 70 years of age, and those who are fit and healthy and who can drive: please offer your services to be substitute hospital chaplains until the present situation has passed. I ask you to be willing to be on call at least one day and one night per week. I am sure you will be as willing to volunteer as the general public has been in these last days!
Please let your Dean know of your willingness to help in this way. Together with your local hospital chaplain, a rota will be drawn up and hospital authorities duly informed. Obviously, in fulfilling these duties you will adhere to the infection control rules of the hospital and follow the Covid19 guidelines recently circulated to you.
I thank you for your generosity, just as I thank all who are working with courage and dedication in our hospitals and medical services.
Now two small suggestions.
An initiative has been launched (one of many!) to invite Christians to put a poster in their windows as a sign of faith and trust in the Lord in these troubled times. It is attractive and obtainable at this link: www.cte.org.uk/prayersofhope.
Perhaps you could pass on this link to your parishioners and suggest they might print a poster and show it in the street window of their homes. It could well encourage those who are downhearted.
Finally, I have received messages expressing concern about those not on the internet and the lack of opportunities for them to follow the celebration of Mass. One tenacious correspondent has found out that regular celebrations of Mass broadcast by RTE Radio are accessible here on a standard radio, on 252 Long Wave. Perhaps this too could be included in communication with your parishioners, asking those who receive the information to share it verbally with any people who, through lack of internet links, would otherwise not receive it. I understand that the full quota of Holy Week ceremonies will be broadcast on RTE. More detail is available from email@example.com.
When I entered this period of ‘social distancing’ and, for me, staying at home, I expected to have time on my hands. It has not been so. In fact the round of contacts, telephone conferences and messages has been fairly incessant. So I add, as a final word, do take care of yourself. Have a sound daily routine. Include in it deliberate times of silence and prayer. The absence of normal ministry is painful. Yet, the good Lord is waiting for us to come to him with a fresh depth and freedom of heart. He knows the sacrifices in ministry we are having to make. He will use these weeks to enrich us in his own inimitable way. This is an opportunity not to be missed.
God bless you, and please keep me in your prayers. And let us not forget the rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary at midday today!
Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster