Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, on April 23, 2020, heralded the National Health Service (NHS) and social care staff who are on the front line looking after the sick during the ‘epic struggle’ of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Preaching at the first of a series of special Masses for the sick, their families, healthcare workers, and carers, Cardinal Nichols said the bishops wanted to underpin the Thursday evening displays of appreciation and applause for the NHS to be underpinned by public prayer.
The Masses are celebrated by a Catholic Bishop at 7 pm every Thursday in one of our cathedrals. Subsequent Masses are planned for Arundel, Leeds, Newcastle, Shrewsbury, and Middlesbrough.
In this land, a lovely custom has developed of going to our front doors, windows, balconies, or front gardens at 8 o’clock on Thursday evening and giving a heartfelt round of applause for those who care for the sick and the dying during this terrible pandemic.
To this public applause, we wish to add public prayer. So this evening we pray for all those who day by day come face to face with this virus, in our hospitals, in care homes, in house visits; in research laboratories and surgeries. We thank them for their courage and generosity of heart which sustains their efforts. We salute their great commitment to their patients whom they serve so unselfishly.
We pray also for those whose families include people with special and demanding needs, that within the confines of their homes this same courageous and generous spirit will be strengthened and sustained. We pray for those who are suffering with the effects of this dreadful virus, for those who have died and for their grieving families and friends.
Those on the front line of this great effort know so vividly how devastating this virus is to human health and life. They see it every day. And every day they return to the front line. For most of us, our part in this effort is so different. Yes, deprivations are placed on us, including not being able, as yet, to return to our churches and sacraments, a deprivation we feel very deeply indeed. Yet we should be wary of any sense of self-pity as we play our part in these life-saving disciplines.
In all of this, we are comforted by the unwavering presence of our Blessed Lord. We must have eyes to see him in every place and in every moment. Our prayer must be steadfast, for there is no doubt that the power of God is both needed and moving in this epic struggle. This evening we renew that prayer for God’s strength and inspiration for these quiet heroes of today even as we get ready to applaud them.
Frontline workers among the sick stand in a great and noble tradition. That tradition bears the hallmark of the Christian faith. Its characteristics of self-sacrifice and courage and its commitment to caring for all, especially for the poorest, sprang forth from the determination to follow the teachings of Christ who said that he is to be found, and served, especially in the poorest, the most needy and those least able to help themselves.
Care and assistance for the poor, sick, and dying was very restricted throughout the Roman world, which is the Europe and Middle East of today until the disciples of Jesus began to provide it. The poor were often simply left to their fate. But the vision of Christianity altered that. To serve the poor and the sick was to serve the Lord himself. Slowly that conviction would become expressed in institutions. We know of St Basil the Great who led the way in the 4th century, building centers for the care of the poor and the sick, as did Fabiola, a noblewoman in Rome who, at that same time, made similar foundations. We remember, too, the hospital of St Bartholomew which has stood on the Tiber Island in Rome for over 1,200 years and led to the followers of St Augustine of Hippo founding London’s oldest hospital, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the 12th century, followed closely by St Thomas’s.
I recognize that many today who serve generously do so for many good reasons. They are of many different faiths. When asked why they go back to or remain, day after day, at their dangerous task, some answer ‘It is who I am. I am a nurse, a doctor.’ They recognize a calling, a vocation, that lies deep within them. What we do in our prayers is not disrespectful to them. Rather, in our prayer, we are watering the very roots of their inspiration, roots that come to us across the centuries, and whose fruit is now embodied in our remarkable workers. May our prayers strengthen their instinct and inspiration, and assure them that they are held deeply in our hearts for the nobility of spirit that they show. We salute them with the eyes and heart of our faith because we know that the treasures of the Kingdom of God are to be found hidden in the field of the world and in so many human hearts.
As St Clare of Assisi taught: ‘Only the faithful soul is his dwelling place and throne and this is possible only through (the soul’s) charity which the wicked do not have’ (3rd Letter to Agnes of Prague, 22). We thank God for so many deeply charitable souls, seen so clearly in this time of need and, we trust, deeply strengthened by our prayer today.
In our prayers this evening we look to the company of the saints that their voices may be joined to ours. We say with unabashed faith: St George, Patron of England, pray for us; St Luke, patron saint of doctors, pray for us; Saints Cosmas and Damian, patron saints of pharmacy and medicine, pray for us; St Agatha and St John of God, patron saints of nurses, pray for us; all you holy women of God, who cared for the poor and the sick, pray for us now in our hour of need and with us beg of the Lord a time of healing and new strength.
Today, as we pray on this feast day, we also confess our faith in saying together the Creed. This prayer, in the company of the saints, is the finest complement to our applause, in the company of each other, at 8 o’clock. So let us profess our faith anew.