As media and others press government over when to loosen the Lockdown Rules, how is God reshaping our understanding of how we, the colony of heaven on earth, emerge?

Clement of Rome

Walk like a Christian

I, together with my friend Stuart, am looking at the Pre Constantinian church in some detail. Form the few surviving texts, it’s encouraging and challenging to discern how those first Christian comunities lived. Let me quote from St. Clement of Rome writing to the church in Corinth, perhaps as early as 65 CE.

‘…a complete absence of self assertion were common to you all…giving was dearer to your hearts than receiving…you paid careful heed to His words, treasured them in your hearts, and kept his sufferings constantly before your eyes.The reward was a deep and shining peace, a quenchless ardour for well-doing, and a rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you all.You were full of aspirations to holiness…you harboured no resentments; any kind of faction or schism was an abomination to you. You mourned for a neighbour’s faults, and regarded their failings as your own. Never did you grudge a kindly action; always you were ready for any deed of goodness. In the beauty of a pure and lovely citizenship, whatever you did was done in the fear of God, and the statutes and judgements of the Lord were engraved on the tablets of your hearts.’

In the economic ‘crisis’ introduced through the Lockdown, many churches, charities and Christian events have been looking to find some safe economic harbour to secure their future. Yet, this is an opportunity to take stock. The future will require a people of faith who have the courage and the conviction to return to living after the pattern of those early Christians.

‘It’s no longer I who live…’

These first followers knew no earthly security. They banked upon Christ’s message of hope alone. They lived to illustrate the truths they gave voice to. They enjoyed no earthly security. I ask myself can I dare to live in that way? If not what do I truly believe of the Christian message I espouse and claim to practice? As Bonheoffer stated in his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘,

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

A message for those on the front line

So it was that I was struck by what Pope Francis wrote to all those working in popular movements and organisations in encouragement and support of those on the margins of our society. That number may greatly increase following the economic hit of Lockdown. I quote,

If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting the marginalised“.

Is this not the same ‘invisble army’ that St Clement describes? Is it not the same ‘invisible army’ that you and I, as disciples, are members of?

As Pope Francie goes on to say,

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

Practical response

Perhaps the best we can do during Lockdown is to engage in a serious audit of our lives with God. Here we can determine our lifestyle choices, how best we might live in service of the belief we hold, once we emerge from Lockdown. There will be enormous pressure to resume business as usual. There will be a great temptation to turn a blind eye to the many casualties who stumble out of Lockdown. A significant opportunity will present itself to recalibrate the life and message we as church present to a troubled post pandemic world.

I’m remeinded, in this American Presidential election year, of the ianaugral address of President John F. Kennedy,

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country‘.

This is the very moment when we, the church, we who have chosen to shoulder the cross of discipleship, to carry the reputation of God upon our shoulders, must decide how we might live if we are to make any sense in the world and become something other than a clanging cymbal of futile sounds with no impact upon the eveils of our world.

I have included the full text of the Pope’s address, which I commend for a reflective reading and a provocation to prayer. Do let me know, stcuthbertsoratory@gmail.com, how you are arising from the ashes of the pandemic lockdown, and be assured we are praying here in the Oratory for a bright and blessed future.

Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday Letter, 12 April 2020

To our brothers and sisters of popular movements and organizations 

Dear Friends,
I often recall our previous meetings: two at the Vatican and one in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and I must tell you that this “souvenir” warms my heart. It brings me closer to you, and helps me re-live so many dialogues we had during those times. I think of all the beautiful projects that emerged from those conversations and took shape and have become reality. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, I think of you in a special way and wish to express my closeness to you.

In these days of great anxiety and hardship, many have used war-like metaphors to refer to the pandemic we are experiencing. If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are
solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing
problems afflicting the marginalized.

I know that you nearly never receive the recognition that you deserve, because you are truly invisible to the system. Market solutions do not reach the peripheries, and State protection is hardly visible there. Nor do you have the resources to substitute for its functioning. You are looked upon with suspicion when through community organization you try to move beyond philanthropy or when, instead of resigning and hoping to catch some crumbs that fall from the table of economic power, you claim your rights. You often feel rage and powerlessness at the sight of persistent inequalities and when any excuse at all is sufficient for maintaining those privileges. Nevertheless, you do not resign yourselves to complaining: you roll up your sleeves and keep working for your families, your communities, and the common good. Your resilience helps me, challenges me, and teaches me a great deal.

I think of all the people, especially women, who multiply loaves of bread in soup kitchens: two onions and a package of rice make up a delicious stew for hundreds of children. I think of the sick, I think of the elderly. They never appear in the news, nor do small farmers and their
families who work hard to produce healthy food without destroying nature, without hoarding, without exploiting people’s needs. I want you to know that our Heavenly Father watches over you, values you, appreciates you, and supports you in your commitment.

How difficult it is to stay at home for those who live in tiny, ramshackle dwellings, or for the homeless! How difficult it is for migrants, those who are deprived of freedom, and those in rehabilitation from an addiction. You are there shoulder to shoulder with them, helping them to make things less difficult, less painful. I congratulate and thank you with all my heart.

My hope is that governments understand that technocratic paradigms (whether state-centred or market-driven) are not enough to address this crisis or the other great problems affecting humankind. Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the centre, united to heal, to care and to share. I know that you have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. You do not enjoy the superficial pleasures that anesthetize so many consciences, yet you always suffer from the harm they produce. The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard. Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady
income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once
so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.

Moreover, I urge you to reflect on “life after the pandemic,” for while this storm shall pass, its grave consequences are already being felt. You are not helpless. You have the culture, the method, and most of all, the wisdom that are kneaded with the leaven of feeling the suffering
of others as your own. I want all of us to think about the project of integral human development that we long for and that is based on the central role and initiative of the people in all their diversity, as well as on universal access to those three Ts that you defend: Trabajo (work), Techo (housing), and Tierra (land and food).

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so
individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

You are the indispensable builders of this change that can no longer be put off. Moreover, when you testify that to change is possible, your voice is authoritative. You have known crises and hardships … that you manage to transform — with modesty, dignity, commitment, hard work and solidarity — into a promise of life for your families and your communities. Stand firm in your struggle and care for each other as brothers and sisters. I pray for you, I pray with you. I want to ask God our Father to bless you, to fill you with his love, and to defend you on this path, giving you the strength that keeps us standing tall and that never disappoints: hope. Please pray for me, because I need it too. Fraternally,

Vatican City, Easter Sunday, 12 April 2020