God’s grace and mercy abound, despite closed churches
For the first time in six weeks I went for a cycle over the weekend. I’m sure that many of you, who could finally venture out in the mornings, will know and understand the sense of relief and new-found freedom that pulsates through your mind and heart as you do this. It is something to be grateful for as we, for the most part, continue to live in lockdown conditions.
I spent most of the time on the bike thinking about an essay I had returned to read last week by one of the greatest theologians at Vatican II, a Jesuit companion, Karl Rahner.
In 1966 Rahner was invited to give a lecture to the seminary in Innsbruck. In this lecture Rahner looks forward to the Church of the future – we could be forgiven if we thought it had been written in recent weeks!
Rahner asks a pertinent question: “What will tomorrow’s priests have to be, what will they look like, if they are to be more or less up to their vocation?”
At length he answers this question. It struck me that his answer speaks just as much to all the baptised, as it does to the ordained – although it is clear that he was talking to those who were moving towards ordained ministry.
In a powerful line, Rahner says that the priests of tomorrow “will still see God’s grace at work where they themselves can no longer bring it with word and sacrament in such a way that precisely in the bringing it is accepted. They will not measure the power of grace in terms of membership statistics, and yet they will know that they themselves are a very part of God’s own service and mission, even if they are also convinced that God’s mercy can do its work without them.”
Our churches are shut. We have sought many ways of staying connected and building community. Yet, at the same time, we know that it is not the same. Millions of people have not had access to the sacramental ministry of the Church for months as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world.
This has enraged some, who claim their rights to sacramental ministry have been violated. It has caused anxiety for others who are worried about not receiving sacraments and the impact on their salvation. In some circles it has awakened an awareness to those who have, for many years, because of the shortage of ministers, been deprived of sacraments – those we easily forget about when we have opportunities and access.
Rahner invites us, I think, to consider two important things as we live in this time of lockdown: how God’s grace is at work when we can no longer bring it directly to people, and how God’s mercy is at work in our lives without us having do be or do anything.
Grace is the love of God at work in our lives which sanctifies, inspires and strengthens us wherever we may be. God is always at work in our daily lives. Our challenge is to look for signs of grace in our everyday experiences and not to think that grace is limited to attending church or receiving the sacraments alone. Paradoxically, we are being invited to expand our own understanding of how God is present in us and to us as we live through COVID-19.
We are also being invited to see how God’s mercy is at work in new ways. In his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius Loyola offers us a gem: he says that the person directing the Spiritual Exercises must not get in the way of the person doing them, they must allow the Creator to deal directly with the creature. God’s mercy is much greater than the parameters we sometimes set. We do not control God’s mercy, that is the Good News!
God’s mercy is working directly when we choose the path of patience with ourselves and others, forgiveness of ourselves and others, love rather than vengeance and charity rather than selfishness. God’s grace is at work and God’s mercy is abundant. Our task is to broaden our horizons and recognise God at work in the places that, until now, we may not have thought of looking.
Despite all the trauma and struggle of COVID-19, like all things in life, one lesson we are being taught is to courageously open ourselves to discover God where we may not have thought to look. God is at work even if the doors of our churches remain closed and the sacraments not available. God is bigger than we think. Discovering this is a new-found freedom for many. Let that pulsate through your heart and mind.
Last Friday the series The Journey came to an end. We begin a new series today called Accompanying which will be broadcast on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Tune in to our YouTube channel to find out more!
Let us continue to pray for each other, for those who return to work, for many who are sick and for those caring for the sick. Let us also pray for those who have died.
Finally, many of us are feeling annoyed and angry with some of the restrictions that we continue to live with. The temptation can be to lash out angrily. While we do not want to negate our feelings, let us also ask the Lord’s grace to keep before us the best we can do, not for ourselves, but for the common good. That too is a sign of grace and mercy.
May God bless you all!
Fr Russell Pollitt SJ
Director: Jesuit Institute South Africa