(Source: Mario Menin, Xaverian missionary, Viandanti; translation: Novena)
Last year, before Easter, we witnessed in astonishment the fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. This year, we participated in an Easter live-streamed from empty churches. Thousands of empty churches! What to do? It’s being discussed at all levels. The Italian bishops even raised their voices to the government to reopen them for celebrations with the people.
Why this frenzy to reopen? To return to normality? Which, after this pandemic? Wouldn’t it be better, first, to read this emptiness as a sign that reaches us from further and higher than the coronavirus?
What if God – the God of Jesus Christ, I mean – wanted to tell us something with the absurd language of empty churches?
It is certainly embarrassing to accept the emptying of our sacred spaces – and times – as a prophetic warning.
We should have more penetrating eyes, like those of the biblical prophets, who saw beyond the fears of the people, the yearnings of the kings and the formalism of the priests.
We should enter into a process of spiritual discernment, to which our Christian communities are not accustomed, unfortunately – even those of consecrated life, often prisoners as they are of religious emotions and visions that have little in common with contemplative and disarming listening to the word of God.
Why then not recognise in the empty churches a sign of what may happen in the not too distant future, if we do not reform – more evangelically – our communities?
And why blame the coronavirus, which has only highlighted – in a certainly unfortunate way – the emptying that was already underway?
We have been hearing alarm bells from the Second Vatican Council onwards, especially in Europe and much of the West, where many churches, monasteries and seminaries have been emptied or closed.
We snub those warnings as if they were not aimed at us and our communities.
Instead, we have stubbornly attributed the emptying to external causes, especially the phenomenon of secularisation – in its various dimensions and stages – without realising, as Pope Francis recently stated, that “we are no longer in the time of Christendom”.
Perhaps this time of empty churches can help us to get rid of the hidden emptiness in our communities, the Tridentine liturgical nostalgia which makes it more problematic for the Church to reconnect with today’s society and compensate for being “200 years out of date”, as Cardinal Martini denounced.
The time has come to reflect
Perhaps we too, the missionary institutes, have been too preoccupied – yes even we, the missionary institutes – with converting the world and too little with converting ourselves, putting the Gospel of Jesus Christ back at the center: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, if he then loses or ruins himself?”
We should accept the present abstinence from religious services and pastoral activities as a kairos, an opportunity for more radical discernment, before God and with his Word.
The time has come to reflect on how to continue on the path of reform, constantly indicated by Pope Francis with unequivocal words and gestures.
Perhaps we should give more credit to the words of the Gospel: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them”.
They teach us that the problems of our communities are not so much the lack of vocations or the shortage of priests as much a new way of being Church, where the ministry of the laity, women and families is recognised as constituting the very Church.
For this reason we should take more seriously, also in Italy, the proposals of the Pan-Amazonian Synod.
Is not that ghostly silence that has enveloped the solitary liturgies of these last two months shouting out the new – synodal – face of the Church? For whom does the bell toll in times of empty churches?