Pastoral Letter by Bishop Egan

Here is a pastoral letter published recently by Bishop Egan of Portsmouth.

29th March 2020

Bishop Philip writes…

I want to offer a few reflections on our situation. I address these thoughts to all of you in our Diocese of Portsmouth, clergy, religious and laity, along with my prayers for you and for speedy resolution of this crisis.

I don’t need to say how difficult a time this is for our country, for the Church and our Diocese, for our parishes and schools, for clergy, religious and laity, indeed for everyone. However, I do believe that God is offering us many great graces. As Catholics, our response to the COVID-19 crisis and the severe disruption it is causing, must be prayer, turning to our loving God and Father. The Lord is offering us all the spiritual resources we need to fight and overcome this virus, to contribute to the common good and to care for the sick and those in need. We need therefore to be faithful to God’s Word, preaching the Good News, administering the Sacraments upon request and offering pastoral care to God’s people. Our clergy and our people will have to find new and creative ways of doing this. It is already heartening to hear of the inventive ways clergy and people are responding using many different electronic means to communicate virtually such as live-streaming Masses, liturgies, prayer and meetings or simply a ‘ministry of the telephone’ to the needy.

A central concern to me is the need to pray for everyone who is sick, for the protection of the elderly and the vulnerable, for those in self-isolation, for all who are suffering anxiety and worry, for the NHS medical staff and all who care for the sick, and for the repose of those who have died. We should also pray for the well-being and financial security of all. 

Whilst hand-gels etc. are certainly needed, I do believe that the essential approach we should be adopting to this crisis is one of complete and confident trust in our loving God, our Father and Creator. After all, He is on our side. I find myself constantly returning to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried, or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked. … These are the trials by which we triumph by the power of Him who loved us. Indeed, we can be certain that neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power or height or depth, nor any created thing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8: 35-36, 38-39).

I continue to reflect upon the two Decrees I sent out to the Diocese over the last weeks. It was an agonising decision as a priest and as a Bishop to mandate the cessation of the public celebration of the Sacraments and to close our churches. Regarding the latter, there has been a bit of confusion. In his address last week, the Prime Minister spoke of the closure of places of worship. Yet another arm of government seemed to suggest that they might be kept open, not for gatherings for public worship but for visits. Over the last days, as I have been going out for my (government permitted, once a day) walk, I’ve noticed that supermarkets and a few shops are open and of course some people are going out to work. Some synagogues and mosques are open. It’s not a complete lock-down, although this might change at any moment and it’s possible that there will be more restrictions as the situation develops further. Many people are proposing a complete lock-down. I issued the Decree to close our churches very reluctantly in order not to be out of step with other dioceses. Yet it is a great sadness to me that people cannot have access to the church (with the usual safeguards of social distancing, regular cleansing etc.) to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.

Funerals are an area too that we may need to seek clarification about. My first Decree mandated that as churches were closed, funerals should take place at the graveside or in the crematorium only, and of course be limited to the immediate family. This was in line with what the Bishops’ Conference recommended. However, the Prime Minister in his address has suggested that funerals could go ahead in places of worship, with social-distancing etc. The Decree remains in place, yet I need to take advice as to whether it might be possible to permit a Requiem liturgy in church with the immediate family only present.

I worry about the pastoral care of the dying and how to administer to them the Last Rites and the Apostolic Pardon. In relation to our major hospitals, our chief hospital chaplain, Fr. Joe McNerny, has been working with the NHS authorities across the Diocese to ensure that Catholic priests called in to hospitals and care homes will be given access and provided with the appropriate protective clothing in order to reach the dying. However, visiting those who are being cared for in places other than hospitals has to be on a case by case basis. We all know how crucial this ministry is. Please pray that no Catholic dies without the help of Mother Church.

The Decrees mean that in effect sacraments can only be administered for the moment in extremis. Yet, the sacraments are central to the Catholic ‘economy.’ I worry that the current restrictions might inadvertently imply that “receiving sacraments is not important – just pray at home or make a spiritual communion”! We need therefore to continue giving and receiving sound catechesis, to ensure wrong messages are not being sent. Again, if someone asks for a sacrament, say, Confession, I’m sure that most priests will find a creative way of responding, within the necessary safeguards.

A further point – and I am sorry to add it to this list – is finance. This is now a very serious concern for the Diocese and for our parishes, indeed, for all of us. COVID-19 will have a deep financial impact upon the Church. Our Chief Operating Officer, Heather Hauschild is currently working with our Trustees to plan a strategy to secure the situation going forward. Urgent action is needed. I can only ask everyone reading this to continue with their usual generosity towards the Church in our Diocese. There are of course many opportunities to donate online, including here in e-News.

All of us are probably finding we have a bit of time on our hands. We could do no better than take a lead from the religious communities of our Diocese, who have an horarium that orders their day around the liturgy: time for prayer, for study, for relaxation, for fun, for work. Given the isolation we can feel, please more than ever make the celebration of the Eucharist the centre of your day and your life. You can do this online through the live-streamed liturgies that a number of our parishes are now offering. You can also join me each morning in my chapel here in Bishop’s House (see article below). Thank God for our Catholic faith, which provides us with a calendar of feasts and fasts. I suggest that we all try to establish a routine that gives a rhythm to our day.

The pandemic is a wake-up call to our society. It calls us back to basics, to the things that really matter: life, death, health, security, family, happiness and love. Over these last decades many in our British society have been on an investment holiday with regards to their spiritual life. Might this pandemic be an invitation for many to rediscover their Lord and Creator? When we return to ‘normality’, I hope it will not be the same normality as before, but a renewed and refreshed normality, one less frantic and burdensome, a bit more relaxed, with real compassion for neighbour, and more space for faith and charity.

Let us pray for God’s mercy and a speedy resolution of this crisis. Meanwhile, please do accept my prayers and best wishes to you, your families and your friends.

+ Philip

Bishop of Portsmouth

29th March 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.