This article was first published on the Times of Malta on 15th March 2020 …
A young man approached me a few days ago in an agitated state, upset that the Church had issued directives to remove holy water from the fonts inside churches. “It’s not right,” he insisted.
Much as I admired his honesty and sympathised with his passionate plea, I explained to him we had only taken such a step due to the situation thrust upon us by the COVID-19 virus, and sought to set his mind at rest by promising to bring him holy water myself if he could not do without it.
I am grateful for this encounter, because it reminded me how strongly some people feel about the blessings they obtain from the Church and how important these graces are to their daily lives. I can assure everyone they are no less important to me, especially in the period of Lent when we should be preparing for Easter, one of the most important occasions in our calendar.
Last Thursday, my brother bishops and I felt constrained to go one step further and halt all religious functions, Holy Masses and catechesis, as well as closing Church schools until further notice, while leaving churches open for private prayer. This decision pained me greatly – because we are not only depriving people of spiritual sustenance.
We are providing alternatives, of course – televised and online transmissions of Mass and the Rosary, in lieu of services and blessings during burial – but I fully appreciate these measures can never replace the live liturgies our people have known for their entire lives.
I never contemplated for a moment that I would be faced with decisions of this nature as archbishop, but after consulting the health authorities I recognise – as we all should – that we must do all we can to combat a virus that has spread across the world at a concerning rate and become a threat to our communities.
My duty as a bishop is to respond with a sense of civic responsibility. However, our actions must go deeper than that. We have an obligation to show through deeds as well as words that we care for one another – which means being prepared as a unified society to abide by what health experts are telling us.
Certain people have voiced the opinion that the steps we are taking place a limitation on their expression of faith. Yet the contrary is the case. Displaying mutual respect, particularly to our elderly citizens who are the most vulnerable to this disease, is a most profound expression of Christian charity. I feel this very deeply in my heart. Moreover, we have a moral duty not to do anything that needlessly places either ourselves or others in harm’s way.
Perhaps we can use this difficult period to reflect, certainly on our spiritual selves through solitary prayer but also on other aspects of our lives: to be more considerate towards one another, not to hoard items that are in short supply which may be depriving someone else in need, to set aside political point scoring for the sake of the common good, and to refocus our attention on what really matters in life.
We would do well to be prepared for a scenario where things get worse before they get better. We also need to offer as much support as we possibly can to our elderly community who, as well as being at risk, may feel isolated and lonely. In the meantime, I urge everyone to continue to follow the advice of our health authorities and put into practice all the measures that can limit the spread of this disease.
Amid our own anxiety at this unprecedented situation that evolves on a daily basis, we would also do well to think of the suffering and sacrifices in recent weeks made by our Italian brothers and sisters who have witnessed the effects of this virus first-hand. Pope Francis has nevertheless reached into the hearts of those suffering from the disease and to many others who are facing hardship and uncertainty.
I echo the words of Pope Francis, who thanked hospital personnel, doctors, nurses, and volunteers who have been close to people who have been suffering in their time of need and pray we may be blessed with the gift of health in spirit and in body so that we may be able to resume our physical and spiritual lives in the shortest possible time.
✠ Charles J. Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta