'Challenges bring out the best in human beings' – Bishop Dónal McKeown
The coronavirus pandemic has sucked the joy, the familiar, the mundane out of life as we knew it, burdening many with ever-present anxiety.
Unprecedented, unrelenting, surreal, scary, we are living through testing times.
In 'Faith Features', Donegal Live is examining how the Church in Inishowen and beyond, which Bishop Dónal McKeown, the Catholic Bishop of Derry, likened to a “field hospital”, is meeting the challenges of life in the Covid-19 epoch.
Speaking to Donegal Live, Bishop McKeown said the Diocese of Derry, which has 52 parishes and 103 churches has responded the ongoing coronavirus outbreak in a variety of ways.
Bishop McKeown said: “Some parishes have or have installed webcam while others have used other platforms. I have encouraged priests and parishes to be as ‘visible’ as possible, within reasonable limits. That can involve using digital media or simply phoning parishioners who are isolated or unwell.
“I am amazed at how well both parishes and parishioners have responded to the new situation. My own digital presence has been mainly in the Cathedral, which is the parish church of the diocese. I have been using the webcam as well as video clips and sermons on the diocesan website. We also have a new diocesan channel on Instagram – derryyouth – which is run by some of our youth staff.
“It is easy to get feedback regarding webcams. On March 25, there were over 3,500 different viewers, following services in the Cathedral for over 12,500 hours!
“That gives the sense that a lot of people are very keen to tune in to and take part in the range of religious services that the Cathedral offers daily between 7.45am and 9.15pm. And we know from feedback that many of the ‘viewers’ are actually families with children, whom will be counted as single viewers. It is not a numbers game but we are keen to give reassurance and opportunities for prayer to people, wherever they are on their own faith and personal journeys,” said Bishop McKeown.
Bishop McKeown said while the majority of the viewers were from Ireland and Britain, the services were being “viewed from Australia to Zambia!”
He also described the current times as “stressful but exciting.”
Bishop McKeown added: “When the normal structures of daily life are no longer available, there is a challenge to be creative in how we offer Christian ministry to those who wish to access it.
“It is challenging for clergy. Many do not feel confident with digital media, though every parish has people who will gladly help.
“But, it can be a difficult time for priests in that they mostly live alone and no longer have the daily and weekly structure of providing Mass, pastoral visits, planning meetings etc. But our focus has always to be on what people need, rather than on what suits us.”
Turning to the lessons the Church might learn from the from the coronavirus crisis, Bishop McKeown said: “Lots of lessons will be learned by everybody: churches, educational bodies, the economy and sporting organisations.
“Pope Francis wrote a very striking document in 2014, called 'The Joy of the Gospel' in which he talked about the Church being a field hospital, and now we know what one looks like! Jesus went looking for those who felt most lost and distressed. That has to be our focus.
“A crisis always makes us clarify the things are important and helps us to leave what is not essential. The Bible is full of stories where people of faith could look back on difficult times and believe that God was in the middle of the confusion, making sense of the senseless.
“Faith does not mean that everything will work out alright. It means that, no matter how things work out, everything will be alright. The entire Holy Week set of ceremonies speaks of a God who suffers on the Cross with us. That will have a special meaning this year,” said Bishop McKeown.
Bishop McKeown was opptimistic Ireland would “come through” the coronavirus pandemic.
He said: “This is a frightening and painful time. The Irish have come through many distressing periods in their history. With faith in God and faith in people, we will come through this too.
“Life is difficult. If we start with that assumption, then we can face the challenges as part of life and see living as a call to heroism.
“If we start with the silly assumption that life should be easy and then complain that we have problems to face, we will spend life being miserable. Challenges bring out the best in human beings. Self-indulgence ruins us.”
Perhaps the hardest thing families who lose loved ones will have to bear over the coming weeks and months is being unable to take part in the 'traditional' wake and funeral.
Considering this, Bishop McKeown said: “Funerals are always difficult. Priests want to put the emphasis on the bereaved families’ needs.
“At present, wakes are very dangerous places if lots of people gather. But it is possible to support the family without being reckless. Funerals are still allowed, North and South, but the numbers attending should be very limited and well-spaced out in the Church, and at the graveside.
But funerals are being kept under constant review by the state, funeral directors and church authorities. And it will be important to find ways of remembering the dead after this emergency is over.
“We are also providing material to parishes to help give the maximum pastoral care to the sick and dying, even when there are strict limits to access and visits,” reassured Bishop McKeown.
Dónal McKeown said he kept himself active through walks and physical exercise.
He added: “My job is to support parishes and to offer leadership. I have always enjoyed walking and physical exerciseand that keeps me active. However, we now have plenty of time for prayer in solidarity with our suffering people and that is a blessing.
“Regarding Easter, we are trying to develop ways of celebrating the Holy Week and Easter events in the Cathedral and in parish churches but finding ways to imagine little liturgies in the home.
“Thus, we will seek ways to get palm crosses out to homes so that they can have them for Palm Sunday.
“Families and children can be supported to make a cross that could be used in the homes on Good Friday. Websites also offer a great opportunity to provide material for all ages on what we understand by the events of Holy Week and Easter,” concluded Bishop Dónal McKeown.
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