God is always with his People and accompanies and consoles them in every crisis. Here in Australia Catholic hospitals have rightly joined the government’s effort for the whole health system, government and non-government, to confront the menace. Some thousands more beds are available for patients.
Bishops as Chief Priests have to be at the head of the flock at this time. The virus took society by surprise and Church leaders did not have the chance to elaborate policy beforehand and to call parish communities together to prepare for the difficulties ahead. Like society at large Church activities have largely shifted to the net. Thus prayer, meditation and educational programs can transfer well to social media. Charity and help for the most vulnerable can be organised efficiently on the net so that no one is abandoned or goes without.
For Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne this crisis is a call for us to commit ourselves more deeply to the Church’s mission to evangelise. For years the Church had sought ways to reach out to families. Now parents are cast into the front line in the education and instruction of their children. Modern communication media are a golden opportunity for families to grow in the faith. There are wonderful prayer, catechetical and sacramental programs available that parents can use with their children.
The pandemic confronts priests with pastoral challenges never seen before. Archbishop Comensoli, I understand, is organising a specially trained group of priests to assist the dying in hospitals at the height of the pandemic. Of course, they need not just the appropriate protective clothing and equipment. In a secular society they have to be able to work with the government and with medical staff. The anointing of the sick cannot be allowed to become an occasion for spreading the disease. It is better for patients to receive the sacraments beforehand while still conscious and while they can participate actively in the ceremony. It would be good to do this in the parish before being sedated when taken to hospital. In as far as possible, no one should die alone, without the consolation of their family and the Church to accompany them. This applies also to funerals.
In Italy the Sacred Penitentiary recommended that Bishops give general absolution and a plenary indulgence to all who wanted to receive them in hospitals with Corona patients. This could be done by loud speaker from the hospital entrance. This recommendation has general application throughout the world. General absolution has traditionally been used in extreme situations, for example, for soldiers before going into battle and facing death, or for those being bombed in German cities during World War II. In canon law the communities that suffered in the recent bushfires would seem to be appropriate candidates. It remains to be seen how this situation might develop in the present circumstances.
The virtual media introduce some difficulties in the administration of the sacraments. For St. Augustine, a sacrament is grace made visible as in the Incarnation. For us a sacrament has to be perceived by the senses, of sight, sound, hearing, taste and touch and so on. Here we encounter the realism of the sacraments which presuppose physical presence or real contact. This year most people will celebrate the Easter ceremonies on inter-net and not in Church. While people can participate from a distance, they will not be able to receive Holy Communion. Where sacramental communion is impossible, the practice of spiritual communion, communion by desire if you will, might be recommended and taught to the people. It goes without saying, that absolution in the sacrament of Penance cannot be given where the priest and penitent are not physically present to each other. This excludes sacramental absolution over the telephone or by other forms of the virtual media. In this circumstance God forgives a person’s sins when they truly repent and return to him in their heart. This is usually done by turning to Him in a fervent, honest and sincere act of contrition. Of course, the social media offer wonderful opportunities for parishioner to remain in contact with each other, with parish activities, and with the clergy. They can be used in creative ways in seeking counsel, advice and spiritual direction.
As we come into Holy Week the image of the Corona virus cannot but suggest the Crown of Thorns that people bear who accompany Christ along the way of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. As St. Paul urges us, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6: 2).
Terence Kennedy, C.Ss.R.