The Church has an example of how to respond to COVID publicly and liturgically in Pope Francis who, in the depths of Italy’s COVID crisis last April, stood alone in a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square, crosier in hand, praying for mercy urbi et orbi — for the city and the world. CNS photo/Vatican Media

With a year of COVID there will be plenty of reasons to seek healing in liturgy

By 
  • March 14, 2021

A year into COVID and Martyrs’ Shrine director Fr. Michael Knox is looking ahead, imagining how we might pray after the pandemic comes to an end.

“Everyone is so separated. Wouldn’t it be interesting at the end of this if an opportunity came for everybody to come together, and I mean everybody?” the Jesuit asked.

Even beyond the 22,000 deaths and counting, Canadians have plenty of reasons to lament, ask for mercy, offer their gratitude and seek healing in liturgy, Knox said.

“We’re talking about job loss, financial insecurity, poverty, homelessness, separation, isolation, breakups of families — a lot of things that have been a result,” Knox said. “To have a common space before God at the altar, to articulate those (losses) almost in a psalm sort of fashion. But not just leave it there, not just sitting on the suffering and the loss and the struggle. Where have been the moments of grace that are little indicators, or perhaps great indicators, of how we can grow and be better human beings?”

“We should strive for that kind of visible witness,” said Christian McConnell, a liturgy professor at London, Ont.’s St. Peter’s Seminary.

The Church has an example of how to respond to COVID publicly and liturgically in Pope Francis who, in the depths of Italy’s COVID crisis last April, stood alone in a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square, crosier in hand, praying for mercy urbi et orbi — for the city and the world.

“In that moment, with the eyes of the world on him, it wasn’t about him,” McConnell said. “It was about those who suffer and about Christ who walks with them.”

A liturgical response to COVID is impossible if we just think of liturgy as ceremony divorced from life, said liturgy professor Fr. Warren Schmidt of Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s College. If our liturgies about COVID aren’t matched by on-the-ground, real-life responses to all who suffer, from the ill to the isolated, then our liturgies will ring hollow.

“If your liturgy doesn’t impel you to do something practical about it, then your liturgy is dead,” Schmidt said.

There’s no reason to wait for a perfect vaccine rollout and herd immunity before the Church answers COVID in its liturgical life.

“Liturgies should be frequent and smaller scale,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, we’re not at the point in most jurisdictions where we can have a big shindig kind of liturgy. That’s just not going to happen and we can’t wait for it. It would do the faithful and it would do the world a disservice if we wait for the time when we can all gather together for this big event.”

In Montreal the Centre for Ecumenism organized an online, multifaith commemoration of over 10,000 deaths in Quebec. For the centre’s co-ordinator Denitsa Tsvetkova it was of utmost importance that this liturgy be as inclusive as COVID-19 has been. After all, the virus killed Christians, Muslims, Jews, people of all faiths and no faith.

“In a more pluralistic world… we want to stand beside everyone who suffers, both those who profess Christ with us and those who do not,” said McConnell.

Though the medieval Church had no trouble mounting plague liturgies, lamenting the dead, petitioning for mercy and giving thanks for surviving, modern Catholics are less comfortable with mourning, said McConnell.

“Liturgy usually has a harder time with lament. Because we proclaim God’s saving acts in the face of suffering, we can be tempted to jump too quickly to the solution,” he wrote in an email. “Even as it proclaims Christ as our saviour, liturgical prayer should sometimes embrace a kind of silence: naming before God what the suffering is and waiting patiently.”

In the here and now, while the pandemic is not yet over, Schmidt hopes our instinct for grand and spectacular liturgy doesn’t blind us to small-scale, intimate prayer. The Basilian leads a group of nine people in vespers over Zoom. COVID lockdowns are a good time for ordinary, lay Catholics to discover the Liturgy of the Hours, he said.

“It’s fine to have large-scale events and focus on the Mass. It’s what Vatican II calls the source and summit of our faith, the Eucharist,” he said. “But if that’s all our liturgy and our life of faith is about then I think that’s a tragedy on par with the virus.”

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