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Diary of a Limerick priest: Fr Pat Hogan

Fr Pat Hogan explores what Covid-19 has taken away and how it might help us to look at things differently.

Brexit is a serious matter. But not too long ago, we were wondering when would it ever leave the news headlines. Little did we think that it would be replaced by something else, far more frightening and life changing. Little did we think that something could come that would stop all the traffic and so much commerce throughout the entire world.

Now we are wondering not just when will it leave our news headlines, but how are we going to continue living our lives and protecting ourselves?

My areas of responsibility are the parish of Moyross and linking in with members of the Travelling community. In the early days, when the reality of the coronavirus began to set in and the more serious restrictions were put in place, we had two fears. One was the school was closed and the school is a vital part of children’s lives. They are safe there and they are fed there. Very quickly, a scheme was put in place to distribute the food that came to the school for the children, to their homes. Limerick City and County Council were very much involved in getting this to work. Contact is also maintained with the children, as it is in other schools, with social media, phones and the use of the internet.

The second area of concern was how people will do ‘distancing,’ if anyone was to get sick when homes are pretty full. This applied especially to members of the Travelling community. But luckily to date, there are no great illnesses that we know of. A question that we now have, is how are children going to transition to secondary school, when they have been out of school for so long. Children find such a transition a great challenge and usually quite an effort is made in helping them prepare. Our local primary school would make a big effort in helping sixth class transition to Second level. We are not too sure where that is now.

Parents have put lots of work into First Communion and Confirmation and the cancellation of those is a real disappointment. Parents enjoy those days perhaps even more than the children, as it is a day for them to be proud of their children. As we know, the Church building is closed, but the Church is much more than a building. When I see the concern and care of school staff, personnel of other organisations, Council staff and the excellence of so many community people, I know that there is no shortage of love, care and concern. At the Church itself, we were lucky to have a webcam system installed, so we made some effort with the Easter ceremonies and broadcast them. We also used Facebook, which is more easily used by the people of Moyross. It was an opportunity to reassure people and remind them of taking care. It is also amazing the people who connect in and make contact. Using such media devices, we were also able to bring groups of people who practice Christian meditation together and offer them some support.

We were also able to offer anniversary Masses, which are so important to people. They looked in at home, no matter where they were. This brought them together on their special and poignant days. A large part of the work is staying in touch with people by phone. It is not easy for those in hospital for whatever reason, who can’t be visited and it is certainly not easy on family members at home, to be separated in such a way. There is great pain there and I am sure many a sleepless night. The same we can say for people in nursing homes, people are feeling guilty, as they wave at their loved ones through windows.

Funerals take time and now there is no time. There is great healing in taking the time, mingling with family and friends. It is important to take the time, to hear the stories that you have never heard, concerning your deceased relative. There is great healing in moving slowly through funeral days, in celebrating the deceased life with thanks, appreciation and giving ourselves a chance to see those things that can only be seen when someone dies. Now there is no time, no people, no stories. It is hurting people. The coronavirus has stolen that from us. I imagine there is going to be a lot of stored up grief and anger, no effort at farewell, no public getting together.

This time of coronavirus, reminds me of working in Nigeria in the early 1980s. I was there for four years. One of the Kiltegan Priests said to me, that living and working here was like being under a microscope, as your strengths and weaknesses are exaggerated. He was right. You end up doing things that you never thought possible, and then the loneliness and being away from family and friends for such long periods, gets to you. So it became a massive learning curve from the point of view of facing up to all the new challenges and also dealing with the more difficult personal part.

So this time nationally everything is under a microscope; what do we do well and what are the real challenges that it has exposed. It has exposed a great deal of good will and of people willing to do whatever possible to aid family, friends and community. It has also revealed the massive commitment of our health care workers. It also teaches us that what we neglect in the good times, becomes our achilles heel in challenging times like this. But we are also challenged on a personal level; it might be wonderful to have some time off, but who am I when I have no work to go to? What is it like to spend so much time at home? Have my relationships with my wife/partner and my children improved? It is a good time to build self-awareness and not be afraid of no matter what I see in myself. I can only grow personally, when I am prepared to be aware of myself, my life, what challenges me. At that stage, I can make choices to help myself, make life easier for myself and others. There is no point in blaming others, or making them suffer, for problems and frustrations that are genuinely my own.

These days also remind me of a statement made to me by a young man in prison some years ago. He was serving a life sentence. He asked to see me and when we met, he said to me that the best thing that ever happened him, was getting a life sentence. It is not the thing that you hear every day. He said that his life sentence introduced him to education and he was really enjoying it and progressing. He began not being able to read and was now studying at Open University. He gave me an image that has stayed with me. It was the image of a saucer. His early life was like living in a saucer, lots of mayhem, violence, drugs and he learned to survive in such a world. And there is only one way to survive in such a world, by being violent yourself. But the life sentence and the introduction to education, was like looking out over the rim of the saucer and being introduced to a very different world. He said that he would guarantee that his young children would all go to college.

I would imagine that the experience of the coronavirus is challenging us to see our world in a totally different way. There seems great concern among some world leaders, to get back to what we were used to, the only measure being used is economic activity. Prosperity and economic activity are important.

But surely, this is a moment for our world, where we look out “over the rim of the saucer” and see things differently. Many people realised that they were living lives at a frantic pace, with little time for children and no time for themselves. How can we reduce the speed at which we live life and perhaps achieve more. It is also time to look at our exploitation of the world and its natural resources, much of what we are at is actually killing us slowly. Is it also time for us to see that inequality, injustice at a national and international level is caused and will always be our undoing? Inequality and injustice are only solved by proper investment in education and opening up employment routes for all. But for that to happen, mind sets need to change.

The two words that I hear much of over the past weeks, are ‘fragile’ and ‘vulnerable’ and indeed we are fragile and vulnerable as individuals and as a world. But we have good systems in place, which help us face the challenge. But many in Limerick are quite familiar with other parts of the world, where people are not as well protected. Many around Limerick have great friendships in Calcutta/Kolkata and in other places, and are greatly afraid of what will happen to those who have no savings, no great access to hospital care and live from day to day. We ask, will life go back to normal? Perhaps it is best to say there is going to be a new normal and our strength in being and working together nationally and internationally. It is best to remember that there is no one really safe, until everyone is safe and the world is not safe, until every country is safe.

Will the coronavirus be the catalyst to such change nationally or internationally? Will it push us to see over the rim of the saucer?