On Ash Wednesday, 26 February 2020,1,000 people came to Three Masses at Saint Joseph’s Church, just a few minutes’ walk from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. People, from all over the world, were signed with Ashes. Since 1869 St Joseph’s has welcomed people wishing to worship in English in this diverse community.
We listened that day to Jesus’ asking us not to parade our good works, prayers, and almsgiving. We could not have known that the world and the church as we have known them was coming to a stop. Churches and schools closed, airplanes stopped flying and restrictions came into force. ‘Lockdown’ arrived and truthfully, I did not like it all.
At St Joseph’s we had a YouTube link and daily Mass and one Sunday Mass was celebrated and transmitted from behind closed doors. The two Passionist priests in the community and Jesus were present. Holy Week ceremonies were celebrated to an empty church building; but a ‘domestic church’ emerged. Messages of thanks and requests for prayers began to arrive from parishioners, but also from families in Malaysia, Australia, Vietnam, and many countries of Europe and a number from African countries. The huge lack was people not receiving Holy Communion and our communion with each other.
Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday were celebrated online in an empty church. God was, I believe, helping us to find time to reflect on what the gift of faith means, how special is Mass, and how much we rely on the warmth and affection of each other. These, I must admit, had become so familiar to me that I almost took them for granted. In my heart and soul, I now thank God for how this year He has changed me more than any other Lent and Holy Week ever did. The huge amount of suffering and the over 400,000 deaths, I cannot ignore. May they all rest in peace and those grieving be comforted.
The ‘hidden graces’ of Covid19 must not be lost as church doors are opening again to a limited number. Among these hidden graces is a sense of how privileged we are to have daily and weekend Mass when many of our sisters and brothers around the world have Mass once a year. I considered our situation pre-Covid19 to be normal. It is not, but calls on me to ask what we can do for these believers? Selfishly, I can focus mainly on how and when ‘my’ church will reopen. For some it never does. Instead of the usual 2,000+ people at St Joseph’s at 5 weekend Masses, we can now welcome at any one Mass no more than 45 people. It is a small start on what may be a long road.
Finally, during lockdown we were to ‘stay home’. Daily callers came to our door asking for help, because their home was on the deserted streets. These people reminded me of how blessed I am and to realise that before my eyes was Jesus, who had ‘nowhere to lay His head’. Keep reading the signs of these extraordinary times and keep well!
Fr Aidan Troy is an Irish Catholic priest who has served in Rome, Ardoyne in Northern Ireland, and Paris. He is a member of the Passionist order