Fr. Innocent Abonyi, MSP
In his letter of 31st March, 2020, the Archbishop of Southwark, Most Reverend John Wilson, following the Prime Minister’s announcement, and the decision of the Bishop’s conference of England and Wales, directed that with immediate effect, and without any exceptions, all churches and chapels across the Archdiocese, including Our Lady of the Rosary, Brixton, must remain closed to the public until further notice. He further directed that in order to implement this fully, and embrace the ‘stay at home’ policy, the private celebrations of Mass, which may continue behind closed doors, must now be celebrated by the priest alone, without servers, readers or cantors. He warned that the situation was critical and that everyone must play their full part in giving both example and witness to the importance of fighting the spread of the Coronavirus. He encouraged us to continue to do all we can to live-stream celebration of the Mass and sustain and increase online and social media presence, keeping in touch with parishioners as best as possible through the internet, email and telephone. True to his promise, His grace, the Archbishop has been most caring, writing regularly and leading online worships and prayers to encourage and support his clergy and people at this time of pandemic.
As soon as the order was given, Our Lady of the Rosary Church, Brixton, like many other churches in the Archdiocese promptly implement it and adjusted to the new situation in which we must live, work and pray. It should be noted that this change was a huge challenge for both parishioners and friends who love their Church so much and gathered regularly for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist and other devotions. They also gathered for charity and voluntary services; and for social and community events. Our Lady of the Rosary, Brixton feeds the poor and needy. Many people around Brixton and even beyond, gather in our Church Hall for food and for tea or coffee-meet-and-greet every Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Amazing parishioners and a kind French Nun organised these very with extraordinary devotion and love. Early this year, we also introduced a program called “friends of Our Lady’s Brixton” which met at the Cossco coffee Bar every Thursday evening to welcome first time visitors to London. These charities were our pride and we did everything to sustain them. However, the coronavirus pandemic sit-at-home and lock down order meant that we have to put them on hold for now.
A search through history revealed to me that this is not the first time that catholic churches have been shut and services cancelled due to some health challenges. There were other instances of pandemic in the history of humanity but let us focus just on two here. In 1575, when plague hit Milan, the then Archbishop St. Charles Borromeo ordered the closure of churches, although he had altars built outside different churches so that people could still participate in the Mass from the windows of their houses while the priests celebrated from those altars. If online streaming or Youtube transmission were available then, St. Charles would have used them. The Church was still standing after that pandemic. The second occasion was during the era after the Council of Trent and before Vatican II. This was between 1918 and 1920. The Spanish Flu broke out around this time and affected about 500 million all over the world. About fifty million were died of this evil flu. During this time, Churches and schools etc were all closed. This was the era of colonialism and due to movements, this virus was taken to the colonies with very devastation effects on the culture and on peoples’ lives. In Igboland of Nigeria where I come from, prior to the Spanish Flu, women were returned home to their father’s or ancestral homes for burial after death, but the colonial administration had to forcefully stop that practice because it was found that people caught the flu and died while conveying the body of those deceased ladies. In the place of corpse, a trunk of plantain and a cow were sent back to the birth family of the deceased. Today, a stop over of the funeral train is made to those families without offering any gift or replacement. Many other aspects of the lives of the people were affected as a result of that flu.
Life in the time of lockdown and cancellation of Masses
Following our Archbishop’s directive, we set up a youtube, zoom, and facebook media systems for the Masses and devotions; for all sorts of meetings and for catechesis. For instance, although we did not gather in the Church for Last Supper on Holy Thursday, nor keep watch late night at the alter of repose, we had our online Mass. Parishioners participated and held their prayers in the privacy of their homes. Although the Good Friday offered empty pews, silent space and loneliness; although at the vigil mass, there were no fire kindled outdoors, no paschal candle, no singing voices and no flickering lights; like the early Christians who gathered in homes to break bread (Eucharist), share the word and offer petitions, we shared our joys, and sent Easter messages, revisiting our baptismal vocations, focusing on the domestic church, praying for the sick and dead of this pandemic, praying for one another and hoping for an end to this lockdown. I can imagine parents answering countless questions from little kids on why we cross or sing ourselves and why we do what we do. Although Easter was solitary for many people, it was marked, always having in mind the sick and the dead and the huge sacrifice of our NHS, the Government, the Chaplains, Volunteers, medical and emergency services.
We have had night prayer every Monday, Wednesday and Friday during this pandemic. We had also had lines of people calling at the presbytery door seeking help and support with food and money. We only offered what we can afford. Luckily we had quite some sizable donation of food items before the pandemic and we have used it to help some of those calling at our door, just like other priests and parishes are equally doing.
We constantly preached and harped on the need for regular communication through telephone calls, whatasapp groups, facebook and other social media so that we find out how people are doing. The response of parishioners to common solidarity and mutual support have been epic. It has been sources of strength and inspiration.
In the opening words of his Urbi et Orbi (for the city and the world), a solitary Pope Francis said, …for weeks, it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets, and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void; we feel it in the air, we notice it in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. Like the disciples we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. The Holy father said that we were all in the same boat and were called to row together, each in need of comporting the other. As a Church and as a parish, Our Lady of the Rosary Church is trying to row together with the rest of the Church and humanity through active mutual support and prayers, through compassion and sharing of love. We are aware that our lives as a parish may be fundamentally altered at the end of our experience. We may resume and follow familiar patterns but we may come to them as changed people. We pray not to lose our sense of God, sense of the Church and sense of community in the stones and bushes of the hedge-row. We pray to have sustained and very deepened senses of agape love and our need for God and for each other at the end of all these chaos. For now, I suspect that we are called to discern how we are being renewed and reformed to be ever more the community of disciples that Jesus envisioned.