It has been suggested to me by a friend, a real friend of mine, who, in his zeal to serve wholeheartedly Jesus in his flock, ardently insisted with me to read it carefully. I was so happy when he told me that in his community the brothers were reading and studying it too so as to try to apply it in their community life and ministry. What a blessing when, God’s Word, as proclaimed through our shepherds, does not fall on deaf ears and a heart of stone!
I am clearly referring to the pastoral letter His Grace, Mgr Mario Grech, wrote on May 6 2020. Its title already says alot: Pastoral ministry after the Pandemic. The Church is and cannot be a slave of the past. And, most of all, of her very past! As the Bride of Jesus she has to follow her Bridegroom wherever He goes! The experience of the pandemic has surely been a shock to, piratically, all of us. We have been set in our ways God only knows for how much time. We have entered life’s routine and pacified ourselves with it. And, we thought that, by so doing, we were moving on, in the right direction. Then, the unthinkable occurred, and we astonishingly found ourselves struggling in a myriad of ways! Even spiritually!
As Bishop Grech rightly says, many, even we priests and consecrated people, found themselves empty and without purpose. Our churches have been shut due to the possible infection of Covid-19. And, when health restrictions came into play, several were the ones who start seeing themselves as useless. As if pastoral care only depended on having our churches full of people to participate in the cultic liturgy and that’s it! It is, as if saying, that pastoral care is only possible if people come to the church I am serving and that is the end of the story.
But, when we reason this way, are we not missing the boat? If one just looks intently and with a humble heart at Pope Francis’ pectoral cross one can easily gets the answer one needs to have in order to be filled with courage and hope for a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1). The specialty of this cross lies in the fact that, instead of Christ Crucified, we are presented, instead, with a Christ who is the Good Shepherd, leading the flock and carries the lost sheep on his shoulders. Obviously, He does this noblest of acts not of his own accord but because He is led by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and communion sent by the Father.
The question that we need to ask, as workers in the Lord’s vineyard, is simply this: Is pastoral care only centred with the Eucharistic cult? What happens when the Eucharist cannot be celebrated in public, as happened in Covid-19? This concern, which beautifully emerges from Mgr. Mario Grech’s soul-searching pastoral letter, made me think alot about my experience here, as lived day and night, as a hospital chaplain at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. When I was not allowed to celebrate the Eucharist at the hospital chapel for the people due to the rightful precautions against Covid-19 infections, does that mean that my pastoral care as a chaplain has stopped short there? Working in a hospital simply means administering the sacraments or rather listening to the Holy Spirit in order to let Him make me His sacrament of loving care and accompaniment to the patients, their families and relatives and the entire hospital staff?
The answer is being given to me by the extraordinary experience I am having daily at the Rainbow Ward, precisely at 5.00 pm. At this blessed hour the children, their parents and the staff gather by complying to the requested social distance as told by health authorities, to pray the powerful and maternal prayer of the Rosary. I could only know about this inspiring initiative because, instead of locking myself up at the chaplain’s residency, as some suggested to me out of sheer fear of the virus when I started ministering at Sir Anthony Mamo, I simply turned to the Holy Spirit and asked Him, on St. Francis’ convincing example, in a spirit of heartfelt discernment: Lord, show me what do I need to do at this Hospital now. Evidently the reply was to go in the wards, to meet people where they are at. Itinerantly! As Christ and, much later, St. Francis, would counsel me to do thanks to their life teaching!
Nowadays, at 5.00 pm, has become a moment, during my working day at the hospital, wherein I can experience God’s grace building me up through these great people of faith. In this situation I simply am and truly feel one of them. Like them I too direly need Jesus and Mary in my life. Thanks to their humble example and solicitude these faithful of Christ are fortifying me in my vocation as a Franciscan Capuchin as well as a hospital chaplain. Moreover, they are enlightening me to live my health condition, as a sufferer from a myeloproliferative disorder, thus an oncology patient myself, in the most flourishing of ways. But, aside from the fact that I am swimming their same waters of illness I got to realise how wise and true was Pope Francis’ advice in his post-synodal exhortation addressed to the Young People and the entire People of God, Christus Vivit, when he said to them:
“Today, thank God, many young people in parishes, schools, movements and university groups often go out to spend time with the elderly and the infirm, or to visit poor neighbourhoods, or to meet people’s needs through ‘nights of charity’. Very often, they come to realize that there they receive much more than what they give. We grow in wisdom and maturity when we take the time to touch the suffering of others. The poor have a hidden wisdom and, with a few simple words, they can help us discover unexpected values” (no.171).
Personally speaking, as a simple Capuchin friar, if I want that my vocation thrives and does not get old and die before my time of passing to the Father’s House, I too need to realize that my life’s mission is that of touching the suffering of patients, especially the ones who are at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. Otherwise, if I lock myself down to what makes me comfortable what sort of a Capuchin am I? What would really be my contribution in this world who is direly and urgently asking that the Eucharist we celebrate on our cathedrals, parishes and friaries altars be translated into the attitudes of mercy, listening, compassion and discernment in accompanying God’s people who are suffering?
As bishop Grech said in his, probably, last pastoral letter at the helm of Gozo diocese, “now is the time to make those choices to give a new set-up.” My choice is certainly for the Franciscan Capuchin charism of working with the sick at our hospitals, and, as guided by St. Leopold Mandic, the patron saint of cancer patients and being one them myself, working at the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre. I pray and want to have that love for God in others, particularly the suffering ones, which St. Augustine describes as vero amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui, that is “love of God to the point of contempt for self”.
Gospel spirituality is incarnated in the love of neighbour, namely the outcasts, the sick, the imprisoned, the lonely and so on. If this love is not given due to the many invented or dreamt spiritual faulty excuses the charism of priestly ministry and consecrated life becomes an ideology that puts into coma the very same people who were called by Christ to be ambassadors of his love in every corner of the world and of our beloved country too!
St. Augustine mentions another kind of love: amor sui usque ad contemptuum Dei, that is “love of the self to the point of contempt for God.” This kind of love is to be avoided and fought against in all possible manners since it hinders others from coming to Christ. Hence, it scandalizes absolutely! Let us pray that pastoral ministry, after Covid-19 pandemic, follow the trail of vero amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap