Nottingham Cathedral was the venue for this week’s special Mass offered for the sick, their families, NHS workers, and social care staff of England and Wales.
On the feast day of St Barnabas, the saint after whom the city’s Catholic Cathedral is named, Bishop Patrick McKinney held up the witness of Saint Barnabas as a man who always desired to encourage and support people.
In his homily, Bishop McKinney shared a conversation he’d had with one of his diocesan deacons who works for a Hospital Trust. This gave a fascinating insight into the unprecedented challenges faced by the NHS and hospital staff as they battled to cope with the rapid spread of COVID-19.
To help me prepare what I wanted to share with you this evening, I spoke with a diocesan deacon who works full-time in a Hospital Trust. He told me something of the immense changes that took place, earlier in the year, as the hospitals geared up in preparation for the expected surge in patients suffering from coronavirus.
Many of you will be able to identify first hand with aspects of his experience, whether you work in hospitals or care homes, or have had loved ones’ resident there, or you work in other important and stressful frontline situations during this time of lockdown. For the rest of us, I think it provides a helpful insight into the work, and the heavy personal costs on so many, of those who provide these key services.
He spoke of the dramatic changes in the hospital as some staff were told that they couldn’t come into work because they needed to shield themselves; of others being rapidly redeployed to work in new and unfamiliar areas of the hospital where they were urgently needed, and of some others being re-skilled to return to clinical practice; whole teams of people learning to work together in unfamiliar settings.
As the country got used to the daily government briefings, so too did the hospitals, where it often seemed that new rules and procedures were being introduced on a daily basis. In an environment where staff are usually distinguishable by their uniforms, all of a sudden everyone was wearing scrubs, even the chaplains! In the ward areas everyone was wearing face masks; staff and patients alike – so a whole new way of communicating, without the usual non-verbal facial cues, needed to be quickly learned.
The chaplaincy team had to adapt and learn new ways of responding to the increased need for spiritual support. For the patients who were often feeling isolated, vulnerable and afraid, with no visitors able to come into the hospital, the chaplains set up, from scratch, a Family Liaison Team made up of volunteers who wanted to help out while furloughed or unable to study; ipads were used for Skype and Facetime calls to help keep patients in touch with family, who were naturally worried but comforted to know that the chaplain had spent time with their loved one in the hospital.
As the daily pressure on staff increased and began to take its inevitable toll, a listening ear, a safe space to come and talk, words of encouragement and appreciation became increasingly important. In response to what the chaplain has shared with me, so typical of your own very professional, generous, and selfless commitment as NHS Staff care and other key workers, may I say a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ to each and every one of you.
By way of deep appreciation for your commitment and service to the wider community, I’m delighted to offer this Mass for you and to encourage you in your ongoing work by holding before you the witness of St Barnabas, whose Feast Day it is today.
Why? Because I find that what we know about Barnabas, from the Acts of the Apostles, can be helpful in terms of your work. Barnabas wasn’t always his name. Joseph was his birth name, but the apostles quickly gave him the name Barnabas, which means ‘son of encouragement’, presumably because this name reflected his character – that he liked to encourage and support people.
In tonight’s first reading we hear of Barnabas being sent by the Church leaders in Jerusalem to make a judgment on what was happening in Antioch among the followers of Christ. Why was he sent? Presumably, because his judgment was trusted in terms of being able to recognize where God was at work. Barnabas is, after all, described as being ‘a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith’. As we heard, he recognized that God’s grace was very much at work in Antioch, and so he warmly encourages these new Christians to stay strong in their faith and commitment to the Lord.
In that same spirit of St Barnabas, I want to offer each of you encouragement this evening. You are disciples of Christ, beloved sons and daughters of God our Father; you too, like St Barnabas, are ‘good people filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith’. So I would like to encourage you to see your work, whether it be in the NHS or care homes, or elsewhere, as your way not only of serving Christ but of being the presence of Christ there; to see your workplace as the environment where God is at work, and where he wants you to be, like Barnabas, sons, and daughters of encouragement and hope to others, and generous channels of Christ’s love, care, and compassion.
In a prayer attributed to St Teresa of Avila, this is expressed well: “Christ has no body now but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks Compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good; Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands. Yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes. You are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
I would guess that each of you is already very tired, physically, emotionally and spiritually; the lockdown has gone on for longer than most of us first thought and, while there are now signs of it being gradually relaxed, a new spike in the numbers of those affected by the virus remains a threat; your frontline work will continue to be needed. So tonight, during this Mass, may I encourage you to rest awhile in God’s love, care, and compassion for you, so that you might feel refreshed and renewed to begin again. May God continue to bless and hold you in his love and care.