By Pamela Walsh

Introductory note from Archbishop Donald Bolen:  There are voices of suffering that we don't often hear, voices that we don't want to hear. There are hurts which we have helped to cause, and wounds which we would rather ignore. I encourage our readers to take time in the silence afforded by the pandemic to listen to voices of suffering around us, including those outside the church, who we should be listening to. The article below is an invitation and challenge to do that.


As the COVID 19 pandemic continues its grip on the world, so many things have changed. Governments made state of emergency orders forcing businesses to close, some people to work from home, reducing gathering numbers to 10 or less. All denominations of worship have been faced with the dilemma of how to reach out to those in their congregations. Easter, often one of the main church celebrations, was eerily silent with 10 or less in the worship space and some present through livestreaming. The norm of going to mass at church has changed to watching at home. Spiritual communion, or spiritual fast have been terms used to have people try to still be with each other.


The term spiritual communion was used in the early days of the pandemic. Recently the term spiritual fast has been used. The pandemic has definitely changed the way that people worship in the Catholic Church. COVID-19 has taken people’s lives, has made people ill and made social distancing the norm. It has made group work all but impossible and changed the face of how people interact, called the new norm. Even through these difficult times people are looking at ways to help - from some parishes calling their parishioners to see if they require assistance, need groceries or errands done, all great things.


What happens when it is not the pandemic that has kept people from receiving communion? What about those that have been thrust into the troubled waters for days, months and years, not because of the pandemic, but because they were deemed not worthy to receive communion?  There are many examples of this happening, both in the past, and still today. This may include those that have left abusive relationships, then went on to find healthy relationships, but considered to be living in sin and denied communion or told to leave. What of those who have been abused, physically, emotionally, sexually and spiritually by a priest and exiled because they dared tell the truth. Has anyone in a parish reached out to see if they were all right?  What happened to them? Are they alive, or dead, did they move on or are they still struggling? Does anyone really even care? What about those families that have been shunned, but once were thriving members of church communities?


In this time of a pandemic people are working hard to find a solution that will lift the spiritual communion, the spiritual fast, and that seems, at least for small groups to be closer to reality. Has there been any movement or desire to even discuss those that the church tossed aside? What happens to those who the church walked away from? Where do they fit into this new norm, or are they not to be thought of anymore? Does the church even care about the damage they caused? Many of these people live in the same community in which the harm occurred, maybe the same house, or having the same phone number.


There is very little good that this pandemic has offered, but one is a great opportunity for the church to reach out to each person it has cast aside - at the very least to see how the person is. Do they need help? Is this happening? Not that I can see. There is a desire to create dialogue between pastoral centre workers in order to bring a proposal to the council of priests to find a work around for the faithful to receive communion. Yet there is no dialogue, not even a whisper, of how to mend the great wounds that so many carry.


It has been over two months since people were no longer allowed to have mass gatherings and church services were suspended. People were thrust into spiritual communion or a spiritual fast, not of their own doing, yet they have to tolerate and believe that at some point things might return to a new normal and communion returned. People have been told this is not their fault. As each day of the pandemic ticks by, the mounting time in spiritual communion and communion fast increases, leaving people to yearn for something they are told they are not allowed to have.  It begs the question, what happens when it is years that a person is thrust into darkness and not allowed to receive communion.


When this pandemic comes to an end, and it will, that spiritual fast will be broken, the church will open its doors and welcome those faithful back. Will anything really change for those who have endured years of spiritual fast, in much the same way as the pandemic, not through anything they did, but because someone in power told them they were not allowed? When will the church begin to have an open dialogue with those it has deeply hurt, or will the doors remain forever closed to them? Many people have had the doors locked and bridges to the church burned to the ground; is now the time for priests and the church to begin that rebuilding process? 


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