Looking Back in Order to Move Forward

Sunday marks the 200th anniversary since the arrival of Frs John Therry and Philip Connolly as the first official Catholic priests in Australia.  Prior to that, some priests (mostly sent as convicts) were allowed at different times to minister to Catholics in New South Wales.  Their tenures, however, never lasted long.

The last priest prior to Therry and Connolly was Fr Jeremiah O’Flynn, who, when ordered to leave in 1818, left behind the Blessed Sacrament at the home of pardoned convict and Lay Carmelite James Dempsey.  Dempsey turned the best room of his house – already serving as a social and religious centre – into a chapel for prayer and Eucharistic adoration.  Another Lay Carmelite, John Butler, was among those who assisted Dempsey in helping Sydney’s Catholics keep their faith alive.

Fast forward two centuries and now, although for very different reasons, we find ourselves today in similar circumstances to Australia’s first Catholics for much of the first thirty-two years of British colonisation.  We find ourselves deprived of participation in the sacraments and looking forward with hope to when we can go to Mass once more.

Screenshot of YouTube video of Pope Francis celebrating Mass live streamed from Casa Santa Marta during COVID-19

Their experience helps to remind us that we can continue to sustain and nourish our faith in trying circumstances.  What is more, they did so without modern technologies that would have allowed them to access prayer material online or view live streamed Masses!  They were completely self-reliant on their own prayer and devotion, and whatever printed material they had with them.

In addition to their example, we have the benefit of understanding liturgy, and our place and role in the Church in the light of the Second Vatican Council.  All of us who are baptised are called to fulfil our rightful role as liturgical participants.  We are reminded of the presence of Christ within us who celebrate, and in the proclamation of the Scriptures – both of which can continue despite coronavirus restrictions.  Much effort has been made over the last fifty years to introduce us to the rich liturgical and prayer life of the Church that sustains us and extends beyond the Mass.

So, while we cannot gather in our church buildings, let us be inspired by those who went before us.  Let us continue, not just to observe Mass from afar, but to engage in the liturgical and prayer life of the Church that we as the baptised can continue to actively participate in.  Our own resources for Celebrating the Word of God on Sundays, as well as a selection of other liturgical and prayer resources are available on our website for you to use now.

During COVID-19, do we watch the Church, or be the Church?

In many parts of the world now, including our own Diocese, the global COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it something that we have never experienced before in our lives – the complete suspension of liturgical celebrations in our church buildings, including the Eucharist.

The digital world that we live in has made it much easier than in the past for our parish organisations to support communities through this isolation. Websites and social media platforms now abound with prayers, material about making a spiritual communion, and live-streamed Masses, all in a very genuine and noble endeavour to meet the spiritual needs of Catholics.

There is no doubt that viewing Mass in these times, when going to Mass is impossible, can be a good thing. If not, Pope Francis wouldn’t be broadcasting the Masses he’s celebrating around the world. Yet if that is all we do, are we doing all we can to fulfil our responsibility as Catholics?

The Second Vatican Council taught clearly that the participation of all in liturgical celebrations was essential:

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit…

Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14 (emphasis added)

We are called, through baptism, to be more than observers of liturgical celebrations led by the priest, whether they are on a screen, or whether we’re sitting in the pews. We are called to be full and active participants in liturgy that we celebrate together, in union with Christ:

Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.

From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 7 (emphasis added)

So how do we continue to celebrate and honour Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in our homes while we cannot participate in our parish Eucharistic celebrations? The answer lies in remembering that we are nourished by Christ’s presence in the proclamation of God’s word in the liturgy.

As a parish, we are producing and sharing a resource to enable families to participate in a Sunday Celebration of the Word of God in their homes. Similar to celebrations that may occur in parishes without a priest, the proclamation and reflection on the Sunday biblical readings is central to the ritual. To help break open the word, these celebrations now include a video recorded homily from one of our priests.

Our Carmelite province of Australia and Timor Leste also has a resource page with a Celebration of the Word and resources to meditate on the scriptures through the ancient prayer practice of Lectio Divina (Divine Reading).

Another way we can celebrate Sunday, and in fact the sanctity of every day, is by praying Morning and Evening Prayer of the Church. These are the key celebrations within the daily liturgical prayer called the Liturgy of the Hours, or Divine Office. While well-known and prayed by priests and religious brothers and sisters, it is a form of prayer, grounded firmly in the scriptures (particularly the psalms) that we are all called to participate in. Our resource page has a link to a Liturgy of the Hours resource for these times of isolation from Diana Macalintal at Liturgy.life, as well as the texts for the Divine Office from the website Universalis.

Again, it’s not a bad thing to watch Mass when you cannot go to Mass. It’s fair to say, though, that it never feels quite the same as being there. Lately, we’ve seen sporting events without crowds and television shows without their usual studio audiences, and it feels weird. The lack of ‘participants’ is discomforting.

So please, take advantage of the ways the internet can keep us connected with our parish communities and the wider Church (there are live stream links on our resource page as well). But don’t forget that that Church is, in fact, every single one of us. And while we can’t share the same church building right now, we’re still called to, and can, make Christ present amongst us through prayer and the proclamation of God’s word. For as Christ himself reminded us, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).