Diocese of Down and Connor
My dear brother Priests and Deacons,
I write to you on this Holy Thursday, prevented, as we are by the coronavirus pandemic, from gathering together, people, priests, religious, deacons and bishops to celebrate the Mass of Chrism. I will celebrate the Chrism Mass in the Cathedral today, Holy Thursday, at 11.00am and I hope that many of you will be able to link in with that celebration either online or privately in prayer.
As we respond together to the current challenges and to the impact on our lives brought about by the virus, it is timely for us to pause and reflect on our vocation and the faith community that we are called to serve. Through its fidelity and witness, this faith community, the local Church of which our people and we are the members, has mediated our vocation for which we give thanks today as we renew our priestly commitment.
Modelling our Lives on Jesus the High Priest (John 17)
St John’s Gospel (John 17) presents the priestly prayer of Christ. This is a very rich and personal intercessory prayer of Jesus offered on behalf of his disciples and for all believers. Portrayed by St. John as fulfilling the role of the Jewish High Priest on the Feast of Atonement within the Temple, Jesus offers his life as the ultimate sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. In this priestly prayer, the words of Jesus proclaim that God sent His only Son into the world so that all may have eternal life and be saved. (Jn 3:16)
Jesus continues this priestly prayer by praying for His disciples. They had journeyed with him from the days of their calling by the shores of Galilee and through the streets of Jerusalem; they ministered with him to the sick and isolated, learned from his words and actions, shared meals with him and came to believe in the Father, as revealed by Jesus, who had sent Him. Jesus prays that the Father would protect the disciples as they continue on His mission, not that they would be removed from the challenges within the world but that God would deliver them, would give them the grace to have faith as His witnesses to the people. Jesus prayed that His disciples would be sanctified by the truth and that they would be unified in their faith in Him. (Jn 17:11)
Finally, Jesus prayed for all who believe through Him. It is the desire of Christ that all His followers would be in complete unity, just as the Father and Christ are one (Jn 17:21). Jesus’ mission is to communicate the love of God, that God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and to let people know that God is with them always: “And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:20). Bestowed and enriched with the gift of Holy Spirit, today we rededicate ourselves to this mission of Christ.
Celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist
Jesus reminds us that our mission, our first and foremost sacred duty, is to intercede in prayer on behalf of the people of God. While our churches are closed, the Church, the Body of Christ is not empty. As we offer daily the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of the Eucharist, we are united in prayer with those at home.
My dear brothers in priestly and diaconal ministry, I commend and appreciate your resourcefulness and creativity in reaching out in prayer to the families in your parishes through the use of new technologies. You have learned to adapt to these changing circumstances with hope and encouragement. These efforts remind all that you are praying with them and for them, their families and their loved ones. This is particularly important for families facing bereavement at this time. Our mission, in Christ, to pray for and with God’s people, brings solace and a hope that will dispel fear.
While unable to attend liturgies, our people are uniting through prayer in spiritual communion with Christ and with his Body, the Church. Unified in prayer, the faith community has also adapted to present circumstances. Parents and families have been celebrating their faith at home with their children and the family circle. I have been uplifted by many who have contacted me to let me know that they are continuing to pray for their clergy at this time. On your behalf, I thank them for their affirmation of your work.
Alongside traditional forms of pastoral support and prayer, new expressions of ministry have emerged as we continue to reach out to the vulnerable, the isolated and the bereaved within our parish communities in difficult circumstances. Visitation of the sick has given way to telephone messages of support and guidance. Community-based initiatives, offers of voluntary service and acts of charity to support those self-isolating are multiplying. Pastoral and spiritual provision to families who have lost loved ones continues through the offering of Masses streamed via webcam and prayers offered at the graveside.
I am particularly aware of the onerous challenges faced by our hospital chaplains who reassure those working in hospital and those who are sick and their families with their presence and the sacrament of the sick. At a time when families cannot be with their loved ones who are sick, there is a consolation in this accompanying presence of the hospital chaplain.
An Outpouring of Grace
Notwithstanding the challenges we face, there are many signs of grace. Selfless acts of solidarity and charitable outreach on the part of many, a renewed appreciation of the gift of communication, and a wonderful spirit of civic responsibility have become the hallmarks of our current reality, most noticeable in the professionalism and compassion of health service staff and those providing key services as they courageously respond to the current pandemic. On behalf of our parishes and the faithful of the diocese I also pay tribute to the diocesan staff both in the curia and in parishes who have worked hard in recent weeks to enable us all to maintain diocesan and parish services. They continue to provide support to our pastoral communities and parishes and we thank them.
The most edifying sign of grace that I have experienced in these days, has been to see and hear the genuine love and care you have for your parishioners and faith communities. I want to assure you of my support and prayers as you continue to minister to all of them.
I encourage us all as a presbyterate to keep in mind our sick and retired clergy. They are particularly vulnerable and living in self-isolation at this time. Our ongoing contact with them by telephone is tremendously important. As I assure you, our brothers who have retired from full-time ministry, of our fraternal support, I recommend all of us to your ongoing ministry of prayer.
I thank and encourage you, our deacons, in the support and example you offer of family living in difficult times. Restricted movement and social distancing, which affects us all, is particularly challenging for your public ministry. The Church, and the faithful of our diocese, continues to benefit from your praying of the Liturgy of the Hours and from the works of charity and pastoral support that it is possible for you to offer within the limits and restrictions that we are all observing for the good and safety of all.
An Easter People
As we approach the highpoint of the Christian Year, the celebration of Easter, we stand before the empty tomb and we are reminded of the living presence of God, the Risen One who conquered death. In these days as we feel the weight of the Cross more acutely, in faith we are an Easter people, united in the hope of the resurrection. The pain and suffering of the Cross gives way in our hearts to that new hope of eternal life given to us in the Risen Lord.
May the Risen Christ enlighten us and energise us with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Yours in Christ,
+ Noel Treanor
Bishop of Down and Connor