On Holy Thursday Night, April 9, Fr. John Greene, our Columban Associate priest from Dublin, and I celebrated our last public mass so far in 2020 in the parish of Saint Matthias in the Chapel of Our Lady of Hope (Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza) in Chile. That very night the Chilean Government officially imposed a state of strict quarantine for the whole metropolitan region of Santiago, an area of over 7 million people.
As the Coronavirus rapidly spread through the length and breadth of Chile, we quickly found ourselves in a situation where we had to abandon all catechetical and youth programs because any meeting held at church level carried with it the potential to become a source for inadvertently spreading the virus. Hence, in a matter of weeks not only were our usual avenues of pastoral outreach severely curtailed as the deadly virus spread inexorably to all levels of society but we also began to discover that our normal way for touching the lives of our parishioners and the faithful in general, the Eucharist, would have to undergo serious disruptions and adaptations.
Easter, the main feast of the Christian calendar, went by without any of the usual public liturgical expressions of faith, and we soon found ourselves celebrating Sunday Masses at home during the rest of April. While this might have been consoling for us, it left our parishioners bereft of any spiritual help. In order to reach them we decided to test out the possibility of celebrating Mass in some of our smaller chapels with limited numbers of the faithful behind closed doors while trying to make a video of the celebration for wider public consumption.
Our first attempt to make a video presentation of the Eucharist took place in the chapel of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1, the actual feast day of the chapel. There were only five people present besides ourselves, all with face masks. Unfortunately, this first attempt at making a Facebook video of the Mass completely failed. Our own lack of expertise undid all our good intentions!!
Undeterred, we considered celebrating another Mass with limited numbers present behind closed doors in order to make a video of the Mass for the parish in another chapel called Saint Elvira. We thought this chapel was just the right size for filming a video of the Mass for dissemination on Facebook. In doing so, we hoped to be able to keep in contact sacramentally with our widely flung flock. However, this plan came to an abrupt halt when word reached us that the local neighborhood council threatened to report us to the police if we attempted to do any type of liturgical celebration in the Chapel, even with the doors closed!!
This was no idle threat!! An unfortunate priest from Maipu in the Western Zone of Santiago thinking he could celebrate Mass for a select few of his lay pastoral team found himself caught when word of the impending Mass spread and hundreds of Eucharistically starved parishioners turned up on the evening. A woman upon discovering that her elderly mother was attending the Mass promptly rang the police who arrested the unlucky priest while he was celebrating Mass. However, the event that really convinced us to drop the idea of celebrating Mass publicly, even in a limited way in any of our churches, occurred when a local evangelical pastor from an area in the parish called El Volcan (the Volcano) was discovered to be a carrier of the virus. By continuing to celebrate public worship in spite of the ever-increasing restrictions, he not only infected his wife but also twenty of his parishioners. It seemed that our hands were tied in regards to sharing the Eucharist with our people!
However, just when we were coming to the conclusion that there might be no way we could avoid losing Eucharistic contact totally with our people, some of our parishioners in the music ministry of Saint Matthias parish suggested we adapt to the situation by videoing the Sunday Mass in our parish home. This seemed like a good idea since we do not live near any of the nine chapels in the parish. At first, our efforts were very tentative, but bit by bit, we managed with help, to provide a simple but heartfelt Eucharistic celebration using our kitchen table as an altar to reach our isolated and housebound parishioners.
We are now into our fifth month of total lockdown and meanwhile over 10,000 Chileans have died of Coronavirus. We live in a climate of uncertainty and powerlessness in confronting an unseen enemy and still do not know when our long, drawn out quarantine will come to an end? We also find it frustrating not to be able to have simple, facial contact with our people on a regular basis. Nevertheless, we are grateful for finding a way to be present to them liturgically. Our video Masses to date have been simple, homely presentations coming as they do from the pastors’ kitchen table, but we thank God for this humble manner of reaching out to our people of Bajos de Mena (The Hollows of Mena) in one of Chile’s poorest suburbs at a time when isolation and fear are the order of the day.
Columban Fr. George Hogarty lives and works in Chile.