“Mother and Teacher of all nations—such is the Catholic Church in the mind of her Founder, Jesus Christ; to hold the world in an embrace of love, that men, in every age, should find in her their own completeness in a higher order of living, and their ultimate salvation” (no. 1).
These are the opening lines of one of the great encyclicals, written by Pope Saint John XXIII, on 15 May 1961. The encyclical Mater Et Magistra explores the Church’s role amid the relentless efforts to attain social progress as well as justice in the world. After the political and economical turmoil of the Great Depression coupled with World War II, the cold war entered the international arena. The latter was one wholly dominated by a stunning paradox. Whereas on the one hand there was increased productivity which was piloted by technology, on the other side of the spectrum vast poverty kept growing in our world. Hence, Mater et Magistra sought to highlight the Church’s mission not only to care for souls till it leads them to their eternal salvation but also to show genuine concern with the livelihood, education, and wellbeing of humanity as such. Was not Jesus concerned in, first and foremost, humanity’s eternal salvation without though excluding, as part of his ministry, to feed the hungry and care for the worldly needs of others?
The present wellbeing of humanity is highly eclipsed due to the coronavirus crisis. Whole economies are crumbling down. Even politically the world, once more, got more destablised. It is not something to be encouraged when entire nations have been locked down. We know very well that social distancing is so painful! Thank God nowadays for the invention of social media that can, in a way, compensate, to the interactive loss we are presently experiencing as humans. To add insult to injury, social distancing is leading certain people to loose hope in life since they are feeling themselves prisoners of an unwanted situation. Even if this means to curb the wave of infections, that is unfortunately spreading in many countries, including ours, towards that eventual victory and prevention against this malicious virus.
In all this difficult situation the Church emerges, once more, as the Mother who cares for humanity she is called to serve. As the quote from Mater Et Magistra rightly puts it, the Church does so because, like Jesus Christ Her Founder, she also has the mission of “holding the world in an embrace of love.” Yes! Even in this situation where we are directed by politicians and scientists, out of the co-responsibility we have for one another’s health, not to come into contact with other people unless we need to, and which, in reality, it is also implying no more visitors at our houses, visits to other people’s houses, going to restaurants, pubs, clubs, sport events, and even to religious services in church or at any other place of worship.
Even if the social climate is heavy the Church is called to reach out to us. She cannot simply abstain from embracing us, human beings, from that embrace of love that, ultimately, is not hers but that of her Founder Jesus Christ. That is why Pope Francis, in his morning Mass at Casa Santa Marta on Friday 13 2020, which also marked his seventh year from his election at the Chair of St Peter, highlighted the fact that we priests, during this coronavirus pandemic, are to keep accompanying God’s people. In his homily the Argentinian Pope said: I would also like to pray today for pastors who need to accompany the people of God during this crisis. May the Lord grant them the strength and the ability to choose the best ways to help. Drastic measures are not always good. Therefore, we pray that the Holy Spirit might grant pastoral discernment to pastors so that they might perceive measures that might not leave the holy, faithful people of God alone, and so that people of God might feel accompanied by their pastors.
Pope Francis’ message has surely been acted upon by many priests. To begin with, several are the priests who are using Facebook to air the celebration of the Eucharist as well as posting posts and clips that greatly comfort the afflicted. Such a holy initiative is certainly the fruit of pastoral discernment wherein the pastor can recognize and respond authentically to the loneliness that is increasing amongst us, by living the Messiah’s saving programme, as heralded at the Capernaum synagogue by Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Lk 4:18-19).
News from our neighbouring country, Italy, are constantly showing with how much seriousness Pope Francis’ appeal to priests, namely, to walk with God’s people in the via dolorosa of our time, the coronavirus pandemic, is being lived. The number of Italian priests who are paying the costly price of becoming infected and die of coronavirus simply because they remained with their flock, is undoubtedly impressive. The powerful witness of Don Giuseppe Berardelli, the only priest in the town of Casnigo, near Bergamo, who died some two weeks ago, who gave his respirator away to a younger patient, brings clearly before our minds and hearts that Jesus’ words: Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13) can be lived even and especially during these troubling times. The applause that the Casnigo residents gave from their windows and balconies as Don Giuseppe’s coffin was taken for burial shows already that the flock feels the leading example of its authentic pastors.
The heroic attitude of these priests of the spirit and not of the letter is to be detected in the comments of Monsigor Giulio Dellavite, the secretary-general of the diocese of Bergamo, a region which is the hardest hit from this deadly pandemic. “A priest is always close to the people. For good or bad, it’s his raison d’etre.” This helps to explain why Don Giuseppe and several priests in the country, continued to work by being present among God’s people.
The Church keeps embracing us, who are struggling on a daily basis. The recent statement by her various local entities so that solidarity with the most vulnerable will be more intensified in this time of crisis, is a case in point. While emphasizing their commitment to willingly collaborate with the authorities to promote services that promote solidarity these Church entities affirmed:
“We believe that policymakers should echo this same message of hope, by putting people at the centre and prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable among us. This call to action is based on our firm belief that the only equitable response to this global pandemic, which underscores the inequalities in our society, must be one based on justice and solidarity. In the words of St John Paul II, solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.” (Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 38).”
Let us extend and complete the Church’s maternal response to those afflicted by the coronavirus pandemic by helping and supporting each other as brothers and sisters of Christ would do! And, as our common humanity definitely dictates!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap