‘We are the Church’ – Archbishop Christophe Pierre reflects on the pandemic
by JD Flynn
Washington D.C., Apr 16, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Archbishop Christophe Pierre was appointed apostolic nuncio to the United States in April 2016, after the archbishop had served as nuncio in Mexico, Uganda, and Haiti. As apostolic nuncio, Pierre is the Holy See’s diplomat to the United States, and the representative of Pope Francis to the U.S. bishops, and to all Catholics in the country.
Pierre, who celebrated 50 years of priesthood this month, spoke with CNA about living the Catholic faith during the coronavirus pandemic.
Your Excellency, throughout this pandemic Pope Francis has given us beautiful signs of our need for prayer: His walking pilgrimage, the Urbi et Orbi blessing, and his celebration of the Paschal Triduum in the near-empty St. Peter’s Basilica.
What message is the Holy Father giving during this pandemic? What does he want Catholics to remember and to understand?
During these days, we have received a lot of messages on our smartphones. A friend of mine sent me a humorous picture of God talking to the ‘enemy.’ The evil one saying, “With COVID19 I have closed your churches,” and with God answering, “On the contrary, I have opened a church in each house.”
I have been so impressed by the beautiful simplicity and the depth of the Holy Father’s Urbi et Orbi blessing in St. Peter’s Square. His meditation reached out to us to where we are. Consistent with what he has tried to tell us in the last six years, he helped us to understand. This is what a leader should do. As we suddenly rediscover our vulnerability, he invited us to rely on God and one another.
During this pandemic, we know that people are suffering around the world, from the virus and from the economic collapse. Yet while we want to help, we are bound in our homes. What works of mercy can we do from our homes; what good can Catholics do to help during the pandemic?
We are all confined to our homes. And it is quite painful. And the Shepherd wants to reach out to us in our homes, where we are mysteriously obliged to stay to protect ourselves, but also to prepare a new world, hopefully different. The suffering is immense, but we cannot remain alone.
We want to go out, to re-build, and rediscover Christian core values, often forgotten; such as human dignity, centrality of the human person, solidarity, and fraternity.
Yes, we are not able to go to church, but our houses have become ‘church’ – the domestic church, the place where we listen to the voice of God, and his life is received to transform us.
From the empty churches the Good News has been announced and many people have suddenly experienced the power of the sacraments, living signs of God’s presence in our lives…God who accompanies us, forgives us, and has united us to Him and to our mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters.
I celebrated the liturgies of Holy Week in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. Even though the basilica was empty, I was told that a half million households connected to this public prayer of the Church through social media.
Archbishop, the economic collapse will have long-term repercussions in this country. More people are now unemployed than have been since the Great Depression. What role will the Church play as we adjust to a new economic reality, especially one that could be so gravely difficult?
The economic collapse is disastrous; so many have lost almost everything. The economy which looked so strong showed its fragility in only a few weeks. And yet this country considers itself to be the strongest in the world. What about the poor?
There are no other solutions than to rebuild. Together. We are reminded by Pope Francis it is not the time to make arms. He even asked us to stop all kinds of useless wars. The new reality which will come out of this experience will necessarily be built upon a new way of using resources. The Church is made up of those who are disciples of the Prince of Peace and Justice, and who will participate actively in the construction of a new society.
During these days, I have witnessed the extraordinary work of Catholic institutions at all levels – parish, diocesan, and national – involved with helping and sharing. The particular contribution of the Church will always be attention to the poorest and weakest. To live out the story of the Good Samaritan.
The pandemic has led many people to question the wisdom of an ever-globalizing economy. Pope Francis, in Laudato si, wrote about the importance of an economy at which the common good is at the center. What lessons does Laudato si have for the moment?
In his meditation during the recent Orbi et Urbi, the Holy Father said: “This storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedule, our projects, our habits, and our priorities…All those attempt to anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us.”
During the last few years, many people did not appreciate the words of wisdom in Laudato si and many other reflections on the social doctrine of the Church. And yet, [those reflections] repeat basic principles, particularly the importance of an economy at the service of the common good, of economic systems serving the whole person and all people, the respect of God’s creation, the sharing of what is given by God for our own good, solidarity and subsidiarity. These are fundamental ideas for the building of a just society and should inspire all of those who have a human responsibility; that is each one of us.
At the end of the meditation, the Holy Father said: “embracing his own cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships at the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring.”
Across the country, bishops have reacted in different ways to the stay-at-home orders, with regard to sacramental ministry. Some bishops have prohibited pierreconfession except in the most dire circumstances, or baptisms, or anointing. At the same time, many Catholics say they feel a great need for the sacraments to get through the crisis, and some priests have told me they would not be able to deny confession to a person in mortal sin.
What are the principles that should guide the Church right now with regard to sacramental ministry? What has been the approach of the Holy Father to these questions?
I know the Shepherds of the Church have been suddenly obliged to make difficult decisions about the celebration of the liturgy and the sacraments, particularly during Holy Week. Most of the time, they have no other choice than to acknowledge – for good reasons – the decisions of those who have the responsibility for the common good. It was necessary and they have done well. Christians are faithful citizens and are called to live their faith in solidarity with all; to be the “salt of the earth and light of the world.”
For sure, the pope, bishops and priests have had to adjust to new situations. At times in normal circumstances, we may take for granted the sacraments of the Church. Perhaps, we are being led to rediscover the hunger for Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and his forgiveness in Confession.
I have observed that many [clerics] have sacrificed to be with their people and some have even given their lives. The Holy Father is continually encouraging us to be at the service of the people. Thank God for the creativity of the Church in the United States.
There is also another dimension to your question. It is true, in such extraordinary times we have to be creative, to discover new ways of doing things. However, we should never forget that the Church is the sacrament of the presence of God and his love for suffering humanity.
What has your own prayer life been like during these times? How do you see the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church right now?
I am convinced that COVID19 has helped us to become aware of the fact that we are the Church. Each one of us, baptized in Christ, is an instrument of his presence, with a special role for our own salvation and the salvation of others.
My prayer? First and foremost, like many, I have felt powerless, vulnerable, like the disciples in the boat during the storm. Many of my “certainties” disappeared. My prayer has been to trust him, to have faith, and to ask him to be a more responsible and active participant of his body, the Church.