One of the interesting features of this Gospel reading (John 4: 5-42) is how for much of the time Jesus and the woman seem to be speaking and thinking on a different level to one another. For example when Jesus speaks about giving her ‘living water’ she responds with a very practical question, ‘you have no bucket sir, and the well is deep, how could you get this living water?’
We could make a similar mistake as a community in our response to the current COVID-19 emergency, thinking only about what practical steps we need to take without facing some of the deeper questions that this emergency raises.
The practical steps are very important, so I will begin by outlining these, but I also hope to invite us to ask some deeper questions of ourselves as well.
What has now changed? We will no longer exchange the sign of peace and Communion will be distributed only under one kind. Everyone is to receive Holy Communion on the hand. We will also no longer use the hymn books and no longer pass the collection baskets around. You will have been asked by the welcomers to place your offering in the basket as you arrived in church. Likewise with newsletters, please don’t take one per person and then return them to the basket at the end of Mass. Please take one per family or household and take them home with you when you leave church. Another thing that you will notice is that parish social gatherings, including tea and coffee after Masses, are suspended. I know that these are important to a number of people and a part of their experience of coming to Mass, but I hope you will understand the reason for this.
It is also important to remind people once again that if they in any way feel ill, or if they have any underlying health conditions that leave them vulnerable, or even if they feel themselves to be of the age which is highlighted as being particularly at risk from this virus then there is no obligation to attend Mass, and that they can spend time in prayer at home, even making a ‘spiritual communion’ using the prayer in this weeks’ newsletter.
At the moment no one knows how long this situation will last for or what further measures will be required but based on what has happened over the past couple of days further changes might happen very quickly. For example there are no public Masses in parts of Ireland, Poland, and Italy this weekend. This may happen here sooner than we realise. Obviously neither I or anyone will be able to give a homily if and when that should happen so I can only urge you now to keep your commitment to personal prayer, to try and participate in the Mass remotely making use of radio, TV, and the internet as best you can, and to keep checking our parish web site where we will try to keep information as update as possible.
This leads me on to the deeper questions which I hinted at at the beginning of this homily. This crisis will be a test not only of our faith, but also of our hope and our charity. So for example if you are struggling with the idea of missing Mass because you have what you feel is a ‘minor cold’ think of it as an act of charity to your fellow parishioners and offer up your
absence for that intention. Likewise if you find the idea of taking Holy Communion in the hand difficult, then again please think of it as an act of charity to your fellow parishioners.
Even already we are a community that is experiencing a degree of separation as no doubt some people are staying away to protect others and to protect themselves. Being able to follow the Mass remotely and to be able to make a spiritual communion is important but is not the whole picture. People will miss contact with co parishioners and the sense of community which that brings.
It is important that we remain as united as possible certainly through prayer but in acts of kindness and charity too. Our Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion do wonderful work in visiting the sick and housebound, but we can’t leave this just to them. If you notice that someone you know isn’t here today and you know them well enough to pick up the phone and ask if they are OK please do so. The nature of a large parish community is that a lot of people will be fairly anonymous and not known to others, and that maybe is their choice. However I do ask that if you find yourself having to go into self isolation please ring or e-mail and leave a message for me. At the very least you will be included in prayer. If there are further ways in which you could be helped then please say so. If we don’t know then there is little possibility for us to be able to do anything. This keeping in contact with one another and praying for one another will become even more essential if none of us are able to gather together here.
To return to the Gospel reading, Jesus offers to us ‘living water, a spring inside us welling up to eternal life.’ For most of us our weekly or daily participation in Mass is our principal means to draw on that living water. It may well be that we will be deprived of this privilege for a short while. It may make more mindful of those many Catholics throughout the world who may only get the opportunity to participate in Mass once or twice a year, if even that. However, even without the Mass that spring welling up within us will still continue to flow, especially if we keep it topped up through prayer and acts of charity to one another. Once this emergency has passed and we are able again to celebrate Mass with full solemnity, hopefully we will be even more grateful for the opportunity to be able to do so.