United Dioceses of Dublin & Glendalough

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‘The virus has pulled us apart… we have to find ways to come together again’ – Ecumenical Bible Week considers church after Covid–19

‘The virus has pulled us apart… we have to find ways to come together again’ – Ecumenical Bible Week considers church after Covid–19
Clockwise from top left: Fr Kieran O’Mahony, Fr Bryan Shortall, Scott Evans and Pat Coyle.

Like so many other events, Ecumenical Bible Week 2020 moved online. The week long event, which usually sees discussions and talks taking place in parishes throughout Dublin and Glendalough, traditionally runs from Pentecost to Trinity Sunday. The organisers from the Archdiocese of Dublin Office of Evangelisation and the Dublin & Glendalough Council for Mission hope to hold parish based activities later in the year.

Not to be deterred completely though, EBW held a webinar on Thursday June 4 in which panellists looked at where Churches can go from here. Discussing the topic “In light of the C19 crisis and the increased digital presence, where to from here for faith communities?” were Scott Evans, Church of Ireland chaplain in UCD; Sam McConkey, RCSI, Associate Professor in International Health Tropical Medicine and ruling elder in Clontarf and Scots Presbyterian Church; and Bryan Shortall, Capuchin priest and author. The discussion was chaired by Pat Coyle, Jesuits Communications Officer.

Over 100 attendees were welcomed by Fr Kieran O’Mahony of the organising committee who noted that EBW had been running successfully since 2012.

The dynamic of church relationships has been brought to the forefront by the Covid–19 crisis. Scott Evans suggested that it raised questions as to how church communities existed without their gathering point. Bryan Shortall added that the closure of churches meant that they had to find a new way of reaching out to people. “We were already on social media so it was through Facebook Live that we reached out. While Covid–19 has been tough, social media has enabled us to connect in a safe way,” he said.

Early on in lockdown, the UDC Chaplaincy surveyed students’ needs. Scott observed that many students were on study leave at the time universities closed so their year ended suddenly. Their needs changed and some connected with the chaplaincy online. He said church communities had to ask themselves if they were addressing people’s needs or as churches were they trying to further their own agendas. “People are getting to places [online] that are addressing their needs spiritually,” he noted.

In his own church community of Holy Trinity Rathmines, they moved to holding services online when they couldn’t gather. “I was pleased to see how quickly we were able to move online. But there was a slip where it became more about content management and less about community and we had to look at how we create networks of care for each other. How do we meet people’s needs?” he said.

Bryan said the restrictions on funerals had been very stressful. “You’re there at a family’s saddest moment. They’re trusting you to carry off a meaningful service and, in Covid–19, to guide them practically. When we can’t have more than 10 people there, we have streamed services. But to see people socially distant in a place like a crematorium chapel, it’s really tough. The virus has pulled us apart in ways and we have to find ways to come together again,” he said.

He said in some ways in his community in Priorswood, Covid had enabled people to pull together. People have told him how much streaming of Masses has meant to them and in doing so they are ministering to him.

Pat Coyle asked if gathering virtually raised questions on the essence of community and Bryan suggested it brought the focus to the power of the Word to nourish people. “The power of the Word can reach out across borders. There is a powerful and real presence in the Eucharist and the Word. While we may not be able to receive the Eucharist we can receive the Word,” he said.

He agreed that not everyone could access online services but said that ways could be found, children and grandchildren were helping people to connect, people were starting watch parties and the potential was there to ‘go and teach all nations’ (Matthew 28).

Kieran suggested that belonging to church was a matter of habit for many. This had been disturbed by Covid. Scott contended that the life of Christian discipleship could not be done accidentally but there was the potential for people to fall out of the habit. “I feel we don’t need to be afraid of losing people for whom this was a habit. If the best we can offer people is habit, we are not expressing the kingdom of God truthfully and fully,” he said. Bryan said he had great hope for the future and for the Gospel message.

Sam McConkey, who had been experiencing technical difficulties for the earlier part of the discussion, said that there was a national state of fear and crisis and a lack of trust and confidence which science alone would not help. “We need a restoration of faith and confidence. Covid has almost disappeared so now we’re trying to rebuild our shattered lives,” he said.

He offered some biblical encouragement: the Sermon on the Mount, which he said celebrated our human life and cherished the natural world and Psalm 120 which speaks of the power of God to save us. He also highlighted Jesus’s time in the desert and said the period of lockdown was a time to discover who we are and what we stand for. “Each of us needs to explore and rediscover who we are. We need to rediscover the grace in our lives,” he commented.