ROME – Over the weekend, the heads of European bishops’ conferences held a virtual pow-wow to discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on both the Church and society, highlighting new forms of poverty and reduced numbers at Sunday Masses as key areas of concern.
In his opening Sept. 25 address for the online gathering, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet said that the mass-scale death caused by the coronavirus, as well as “the missed parting from our loved ones, the deprivation of the sacraments for many communities, the social and economic crisis due to the lack of work,” has left many feeling “lost, disoriented and in need of help and solidarity.”
This is especially true, he said, “in witnessing the fate of the poorest ones in misery.”
Pointing to the long suspensions of liturgical life in many countries, including a ban on public Masses and the celebration of other sacraments, Ouellet lamented that “the long Eucharistic fasting has made us lose the habit of Sunday Mass.”
“A new evangelization is urgently needed to make Christians discover that the Eucharist is not only a spiritual nourishment for our journey, but our joyful witness to the encounter with the Risen One, who gives us the Spirit of life and courage in difficult times,” he said.
Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, spoke on the opening day of the Sept. 25-27 annual plenary assembly of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE), titled, “The Church in Europe after the Pandemic. Perspectives for Creation and Community,” which took place virtually due to the coronavirus.
Participants included 35 presidents of European Bishops’ Conferences, who spent their 3-day virtual conference discussing the repercussions of the pandemic, the changes it has set in motion, as well as its religious, pastoral, and environmental consequences.
Ouellet is not the first prelate to voice concern about the long-term impact of the coronavirus on ecclesial and liturgical life.
In an interview with Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano earlier this month, several weeks before the plenary, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg already had this on his radar, saying he believes the Church will emerge weaker in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Pointing to his own country, Hollerich predicted practicing Catholics “will be smaller in number, because all those who no longer came to Mass, because they came only for cultural reasons, these ‘cultural Catholics’ of the left and the right, will no longer come.”
“They have seen that life is very comfortable. They can live very well without having to come to church. Also First Communions, catechism for children, all this will go down in number, I am sure of it,” he said, noting that things were already trending in this direction, but the coronavirus accelerated it.
In essence, what secularism had already started suddenly went into overdrive, as many Catholics have gotten used to watching Sunday Mass from the comfort of their living rooms, and catechism courses, if not found irrelevant entirely, have been replaced by online resources.
Faced with this diagnosis, Christians must work to be better, “otherwise this culture of Christianity, this merely cultural Catholicism, cannot last over time,” he said, and, like Ouellet, called for “new missionary structures” to be put into place.
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This concern was also brought home during the European bishops’ plenary discussion, during which participants called for “a rediscovered trust,” without which, “it is not possible to look to tomorrow.”
“The reason for our trust as believers is Christ who assumed the human condition and, through death, redeemed life,” they said, noting that “Every day Christ is present in our midst in the Eucharist, the source of trust and apostolic and missionary zeal that invites us to go out, to go out to all.”
“The lack of the Eucharist in the recent past,” they said, “is a call to return to full communion in the liturgical assembly of today.”
During Italy’s coronavirus lockdown, once public liturgies had been suspended, Pope Francis began livestreaming his daily morning Masses in the chapel of his residence at the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse so that faithful could still access Mass and make a spiritual communion.
However, once the ban on public Masses ended, Francis stopped livestreaming his morning liturgies, insisting that the decision was made to encourage a physical return to the pews.
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In a message to the European bishops ahead of their plenary, Francis noted that the experience of the pandemic “has left a deep mark in all of us, because it dramatically affected one of the structural requirements of our existence – relations among people and in society – thus upsetting customs and relationships, and changing the conditions of our social and economic life”.
“The very life of the Church been significantly impacted; we were forced to refashion our religious practice, and many pastoral activities have not adjusted to this new situation yet,” he said, noting that priests and religious have had to look for “creative ways” to provide pastoral services.
“Faced with the explosion of new forms of poverty, this work of creative charity must continue, while showing an increasingly attentive and generous closeness to the weakest,” he said.
In addition to their concerns over the impact of COVID—19 on liturgical life, the bishops also called for a “renewed solidarity” among individuals, cultures and nations, particularly in light of the new crisis of unemployment.
“Universal experience shows that every human being needs others, that no one is self-sufficient: that an invisible virus is enough to bend the illusion of our being ‘invincible,’” they said in their final message.
“If relationships are part of our nature,” they said, “then any closure to others in order to defend ourselves, any individual interests, to the point of profiting from misfortune, is against personal dignity, against the community: ultimately, it is against human rights.”
Calling on world leaders to defend the life and dignity of each person, they echoed Pope Francis’s insistence governments ensure coronavirus vaccines reach poor countries, saying, “no one must be excluded, even in the distribution of a vaccine.”
They also appealed for a peaceful solution to current uprisings in Belarus and assured of their closeness to the people of Lebanon, “who have been deeply wounded by recent events.”
“We want to express to our communities our admiration and affection for their urgent response during this crisis situation, and we urge them to take heart,” they said, noting that “the resumption of the lives of believers will also require patience and perseverance.”
“The Lord Jesus works in hearts; he melts fears and draws in with His Love. If there are still new situations to be faced, perhaps unexpected future difficulties, we must not be afraid. It is up to us to be faithful disciples of the Lord,” they said.
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