Learning to move forward in trust, in a world we cannot control

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Learning to move forward in trust, in a world we cannot control

Posted: Wed, 02 Sep 2020 18:26

Learning to move forward in trust, in a world we cannot control

Fr Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB reflects on what he has learnt about pastoral care, community and finding strength and peace, during self-isolation in rural Ireland, and urges us to come together to find new ways of 'being church', inspired by what we have all learned during the pandemic.

I write these lines as the rain is lashing down outside making me feel grateful for the security and safety that I'm lucky enough to enjoy. Due to Covid-19 related issues, I have had to self isolate away from a Salesian community in my family home, nestled in Ireland's west coast. In itself that has been a challenge - those who know me are well aware of my need for social living and my love of city life. I've been forced to live in my shadow and that is not such a bad thing, as it has taught me so much.The pandemic has influenced the entire global community in ways we could not imagine as we saw the new year of 2020 in. Friendships have been damaged; we have had to grieve alone; masks and sanitisers are now a way of life; social life at the pub and foreign holidays are now a dim memory; children's education has been massively impacted; we have had to discover a new way to be Church.I am grateful to Sr Madeleine in primary school who taught me about the need to go to Mass EVERY Sunday and Holiday (of OBLIGATION); Covid told me that I, as a priest, could celebrate mass and that the community could watch online, joining in from the comfort of their kitchen or sitting room. However, it hurt me that while I could receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing, the majority of my brothers and sisters of faith had to make do with their 'spiritual communion' - the Church was denied the Body and Blood of Christ.There is a real need for us, as a whole Church, to re-assess how we are 'Church' in these days, as we slowly break out from the lockdown. I worry that too many pastoral leaders will want to return to the safety of the pre-pandemic community because "we've always done it this way!" There is need for a serious conversation for all of us to see where we are going. I commend my colleague and great friend Mike Bennet for his exploration of how schools and Catholic education can make an essential contribution to the conversation.These days of solitude in the rugged beauty of Mayo have taught me that there are other ways of being community. Last Christmas instead of the usual socks or a diary, my family bought me a donkey! Milo and his companion, Millie have been my lockdown friends; with treats of carrots, apples and oats, we have walked the land of my ancestors. We know that donkeys have the cross on their backs-a reminder that this humble animal carried Mary and the unborn Jesus to Bethlehem; that same animal brought Christ the King into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Both Milo and Millie, with their big and trusting eyes, have helped me through my wobbles and upsets that we all have to share, as we come to terms with searching for the 'new normal' that politicians promise WILL be ours - eventually!Our lovely cocker spaniel, Bailey, has taught me patience: he is happy if I throw the frisbee or ball again and again and again! He never gets bored! He has taught me that I need not rush as I normally do; he has taught me to take time, to waste time and NOT feel guilty. I'm learning to listen to nature and to what God is saying to me through nature and life. Bailey helps me to appreciate the loyalty of my friends, especially those who I cannot contact - the mobile phone 'bars' here are not good! In this pandemic time, when Zoom and Skype are the order of the day, people can still be very lonely-they miss that physical meeting up. Please, I beg you, do not be afraid of reaching out to those you care for: let them know that they are valued and important to you. I'm reminded of wonderful birthday present that I received from loving friends this year: they sponsored 'Daisy' in my name. I will probably never meet this lively puppy as she is being trained as a hearing dog for a deaf person. I pray that the lucky new owner of Daisy will share that patience and joy that Bailey has taught me.As soon as I open the kitchen door I am rewarded by the hens and ducks running to greet me: I do suspect that it is the bread, oats and kitchen scraps that make me more welcome! Like the donkeys and the dog, they are a constant of my new rural, albeit temporary, life and their presence is much appreciated. I've noticed that the majestic Barney, our rooster, not only acts as my alarm clock but he has taught me so much about pastoral care. As I throw the food to them, Barney makes sure that all his hens are fed first - he deliberately steps back so that the hens have enough - he cares for them so much. I've seen this again and again with parents and good teachers: they stand back to make sure that the children in their care are fully nourished.As I leave the cottage for my 'socially distanced' walk through the fields, I'm greeted by the sheep and lambs - I'm reminded of those words of Jesus, "if you love me, feed my lambs!" I am grateful for that care I've received from confreres, colleagues and so many young, and not so young, friends that I've met along the road of life. As Salesians, we are all called to share Don Bosco's unconditional love for the young. What is the Lord asking of YOU in these days? How can you share that simple pastoral care for them as they begin their return to school in the most strange circumstances. As I gaze on the distant Mount Nephan, the mighty River Moy, teeming with salmon, and fields of green in between, I realise just how blessed and lucky I actually am, even in the face of international pandemic.In the evening it is lovely to read and listen to music - everything from the Saw Doctors to Mozart, as I am very catholic in my musical taste! At the minute I'm reading two excellent books that I highly recommend. I first met the sports journalist, Mitch Albom, in Los Angeles some years ago; perhaps most famous for his moving and riveting story of his relationship with his former teacher in "Tuesdays with Morrie". I remember sharing with him the simple educational philosophy of Don Bosco, and how it resonated with him: Morrie was a 'Jewish Bosco!' At the moment I'm reading Albom's 'The Next Person You Meet in Heaven', the story of true friendship. God places people on our life journey for a definite purpose. We are blessed by them and we bring blessing to them. I have learnt about the importance of those people: I've received help and support from the most unlikely of sources, while those you might expect it from are strangely silent!The other book can be obtained from Don Bosco Publications. It is by that wonderful Salesian, Michael Winstanley SDB. Michael was my scripture teacher during my study of theology; he was the most amazing of teachers: his classes were like going on a retreat, yet had the necessary academic rigour essential for priestly formation. His latest book, 'Salesian Gospel Spirituality' is a masterclass in those Salesian attitudes, based on the central Gospel teachings of belonging, freedom, unconditional love, reconciliation and forgiveness. Each chapter is subdivided into sections that allow for positive and enriching spiritual reading. Michael gently shares his deep knowledge in the most engaging and caring way - a true pastor.These past few months have taught me so much, with my new teachers coming from the world of nature. It is a world that I cannot control, but it is a world that has helped me to move forward in trust and with growing confidence. As we begin a new school year, I pray that students and teachers everywhere can move on from the experience of these past six months. May the peace and strength of Mayo go with us all, a peace and strength that I have discovered through lockdown. While we need each other and are made for community, if you get some 'me' time over these days, I urge you to use it and get to know yourself far better. Self care is not selfishness; take time to love yourself as you cannot pour from an empty jug. The great mystic and poet from nearby Clare, John O'Donohue puts it far better than me:
Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become ...As your tears fall over that wounded place,May they wash away your hurt and free your heart.May your forgiveness still the hunger of the woundSo that for the first time you can walk away from that place,Reunited with your banished heart, now healed and freed,And feel the clear, free air bless your new face.(John O'Donohue: 'To bless the space between us')

Tags: COVID-19, Homepage, Salesian Spirituality, Salesians of Don Bosco