Bishop Brendan Leahy "The three months (of lockdown) seem like a year"
The three months seem like a year. As I came off the altar after a Confirmation ceremony for the children of Gaelscoil an Ráithín on March 12, I was greeted with the news, “The Government has announced the schools are to close”.
We knew it was brewing but it was a jolt when it happened so soon. Immediately there was a decision to be made: “So what about tomorrow’s Confirmation?” It was clear: it had to be cancelled.
Since that day, it’s been a topsy-turvy of new developments and questions, consultations and zoom conferences. Fairly soon, it became evident we would have to suspend the public celebration of Mass and the sacraments.
Unimaginable up to now but we had no choice; lives would be at risk.
The ruthless and capricious nature of the virus was brought home to me when a friend, just a few years older than me and quite fit, was suddenly struck down by the virus.
He spent a total of 71 days in Mullingar Regional Hospital, 32 of those days unconscious on a ventilator in ICU. I was one of many who hounded heaven in prayer for him.
His wife wrote him a letter every day which the nurses read to him. Thankfully, he recovered.
I was soon to get to hear of many such cases. I know from my involvement in St John’s Hospital, in particular, also from chatting to the chaplains in the Regional, and our priests generally that the staff in hospitals and other healthcare facilities in Limerick really were heroes in how they had to adapt and cope.
Though it brought out the best in people, I know it wasn’t easy, not least accompanying those dying from the virus.
The wounds of bereavement and the trauma of the circumstances of how people died and were buried have marked family members deeply.
At a personal level, I did my best to abide by the guidelines and worked from home as much as possible, apart from Mass in the Cathedral transmitted via the webcam and the occasional checking-in on the Diocesan Centre. I enjoyed a more regular morning walk and cooking more for myself. The good weather helped me re-discover the healthy diet of melons, imaginative salads and stir-fries!
There would be so much to say about these weeks. Certainly, Covid-19 reminded me as, I’m sure it did many, of the fact that we have only one life and it’s precarious.
I drew up a new will and cleared a backlog of files, hoping to make it easier for others if anything should happen me. A different type of spring cleaning.
With the lockdown, the Bishops of Munster started having a weekly teleconference as a way of reviewing issues as they arose.
It became an appointment I looked forward to each week as indeed the zoom conferences and calls with clergy of the Diocese.
A personally moving highlight was Pope Francis’ extraordinary Urbi et Orbi on March 25 which I watched on RTE. St Peter’s Square was empty, it was a wet evening in Rome, and darkness was falling, with the pavement in St Peter's Square reflecting the fading light in a gun-metal shimmer. There was an eerie feeling with no sound of traffic, no people, no conversation. No noise except for the sudden blare of an ambulance siren as if to remind us of the emergencies around us.
In comparing what we were going through to a storm, he noted how it exposed our vulnerability and uncovered “those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules” laying bare “all those attempts to anesthetise ourselves”.
Yes, what he said is true. Before Covid, our world had become so frenetic that we risked losing touch with reality – the true value of people and nature, family and friends. We hardly noticed anymore all the ways people offer services that we really need – from truck deliveries to shop assistants.
Each week I celebrated the 12 noon Mass in St John’s Cathedral and offered a statement commenting on some aspect of what we were going through. The priests of the Diocese really re-invented themselves with all kinds of telephone and on-line pastoral contact for which people were very grateful.
The staff at the Diocesan Centre working from home also did great work in keeping services open, and the numbers on our website and Facebook page rocketed. Over 17,000 participated in our virtual Diocesan pilgrimage.
As the weeks went by, I became increasingly aware of the many people, young and old, whose lives were turned upside down to a greater or lesser degree so I sent messages by letter or by video to them. I made contact with local charities. I visited the prison.
Together with the Church of Ireland Bishop Kenneth Kearon and representatives of the Sikh, Jewish and Muslim faiths, we made a video of prayers and greetings in connection with the worldwide day of prayer on May 14. It was great to feel part of a world at prayer.
As time passed, as well as remembering those who lost jobs or whose jobs were at risk, I thought also of those in the developing world. I heard, for instance, that Malawi has one intensive care (ICU) bed for every one million people. I was keen to help promote Pope Francis’ Covid-Emergency fund.
Of course, we still have a Covid emergency here and we all need to do what we can to stop the virus resurging. I hope the images in media of social abandon in our capital over the weekend aren’t typical.
If we let our guard down, a second wave is inevitable. It will be hard to justify that night out in the event it ends up bringing Covid-19 back into someone’s family, not least if a loved one gets seriously ill or, worst of all, dies as a result of this. It couldn’t possibly be worth it.
Throughout these months I got to hear of many inspiring examples of “love your neighbour as yourself”. I’m thinking of the Limerick Covid-19 Community Response and umpteen simple neighbourly initiatives.
Yet many people missed going to Mass so it is great that in the past week or so, after an incredible amount of preparation to make sure everything is as should be in accordance with public health guidelines, public celebrations have started again.
Several people, including priests, have commented how it has been an emotional experience coming back into the churches and being together for the celebration of Mass.
No easy task when you consider the many unknowns as regards numbers etc. in churches going forward.
There are many lessons from Covid and maybe one of them is if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
As I’ve been learning since that Confirmation Day on March 12, we’re certainly not as much in control of things as we thought.
And, as we know, as regards the coronavirus we’re certainly not by a long shot out of the woods yet.