Malta has had to close its churches too two weeks ago, so they have already had to experience what we shall now begin to experience here. It is not an easy time. The Bishop of Gozo, who has now been appointed as Pro-Secretary to the Synod in Rome, sent the below Letter to his Priests. I find these words very comforting, and would like to share them with my brother priests here that they may offer guidance and consolation in these testing times.
Kind regards, Jean
LETTER TO PRIESTS (in Gozo)
This evening, as a Church, we have started to live a very difficult experience as our churches remain silent, bereft of the congregation that usually gathers to praise God and as our ‘sacrificial table’ remained empty, because the congregation stayed at home. This instils a sense of deep sadness in the hearts of many, especially us priests. These days we will be going through an experience we have never seen before, and will be filled with numerous thoughts and questions. Some will wonder whether, when we were struck with this pandemic, instead of asking people to stay at home and, worse still, denied them the Eucharist, we should have encouraged them to come and kneel in front of the Blessed Sacrament. This decision was not taken lightly. We were advised that in these circumstances, in order to control the virus, social isolation is essential.
I am convinced that, although our churches are silent, we cannot say that the Church (the community) is tongue-tied. There are no prayers in our churches, but the Church is at prayer, especially the ‘domestic Church’ (the family). This has been confirmed by certain witnesses we heard and saw recently. Moreover, I would like to add that even among those who are distant from the faith, and those who do not consider themselves as members of the Church, there are many who are asking us to beg God to protect our county.
Although we will not be leading our congregations in our churches (because this has been temporarily suspended), our priestly ministry does not cease. We still have the duty to pray for our community. Prayer is the first ministry that the community expects from us. We do this in various ways, especially when we pray the psalms (Liturgy of the Hours) and during Mass.
During these difficult times, I exhort you to pray ever more fervently and with more devotion, especially in the Eucharist. When we celebrate Mass on our own, we may be tempted to celebrate in a hurry. Instead, let us make use of this time, when we are free from other ministries, to celebrate the Eucharist in a more devoutly. The Eucharist offers us an intimate experience with Jesus and places us, and those we represent, closer to God. Although the community is not going to be physically present at the Eucharistic table, we need to do our best that, when we approach the altar, we carry our community in our heart. Together with the offering for the sacrifice, at Mass, let us place on the altar the sufferings, the fear and the disappointments of the community. Let us listen to God’s word, allowing it to give us a message of hope for our sisters and brother.
Since, due to the instructions that have been issued, we will have fewer pastoral duties, I recommend that we spend more time in prayer, especially in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It will not be easy to talk to people about Jesus, because we will not be preaching as usual, but it will be easier for us to talk to Jesus about the needs of our neighbours, especially by placing in front of him the special intentions we have been asked to pray for. While respecting the instructions given by the health authorities, I recommend that we find ways how, as priests, we can come together in prayer, even using the internet. We can come together to pray parts of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Let us try to stay close to our congregations, especially those who are weak. As we walk with them on the road of fear and uncertainties, let us offer them words of courage and hope. Let us not let fear overtake us, and keep us locked inside. It is essential that we are available to offer spiritual direction and the sacrament of reconciliation. We are facing is a very dire situation, but let us make the best of this time. I can give a few examples. The limitations of science and our own weakness can help us place our priorities in their right order. Having to stay at home helps us appreciate better the value of family life. A sense of national unity seems to have arisen in our country, something that many were yearning for. Above all, some have been challenged to re-evaluate the value of their faith, in the words of the psalmist: ‘fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps 111:10).
For us priests, this can also be a time of grace. These events help us reflect on what is most essential in our priestly ministry. Secularism has deeply affected us and our pastoral ministry. In these circumstances, both as individuals and as a presbyterate, our examination of conscience should help us develop within us a true pastor’s heart, which is more important than our ministry, which at times can become excessive work, to make us feel useful!
If this pandemic places individuals or families in difficult situations, let us be generous with them, both on a parish and on a diocesan level. May I remind you of Pope Francis’ words last Tuesday: we should have the courage to visit the sick and offer them the Word and the Eucharist. In cases of serious illness, the presence of the priest can be comforting. In order to avoid the spreading of this virus, we may need to consider whether, in these circumstances, there may be a member of the family who can take the Eucharist to the sick relative.
We cannot forget the priests ministering in our hospital. I understand that your ministry exposes you to greater risks; at the same time, you are nearer to the vulnerable who, in these circumstances, want Christ to speak to them and to be close to them. You make Jesus present in their midst; your word, your gaze and your smile are the voice, the glance and the smile of the Lord. I am aware that as part of your ministry you also journey with the hospital staff. Now, more than ever, hospital staff need your presence. Be present to them. I invite all diocesan priests to assist you in any way they can.
We also had to give a directive regarding funerals. I feel for those families that have to bury their deceased relatives in these circumstances. Let us be close to these families more than before. Let us assure them that when they do not celebrate the funeral in the usual manner, they are not, in any way, showing any disrespect to their relatives. We suffer with them and, in the name of the parish community, parish priests will accompany these families by offering Mass in memory of the deceased on the day of the burial, and by offering the appropriate Church rites before the burial.
Above all, I recommend to you that, at this difficult moment we are going through, we pray with the intercession of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu, of St George, St Ursula and Pope St Gregory. We remember that our ancestors were comforted when they prayed with the intercession of these saints. Within our limitations and uncertainties, we too turn to them. Let us remember that our Lenten journey does not end on Calvary, but on Easter Sunday, when Christ is triumphant over all that is negative.
12th March 2020 ✠ Mario Grech Bishop of Gozo