As I was taking our Bernese Mountain Dog, Lucy, for a stroll at the weekend, it struck me that one of the tragedies of the Covid-19 crisis is that medics have said many will die alone without relatives at their side. It turned my mind to church folk who as yet are without comfort in Christ: I mused on the way back that there must be something we can do as pastors before it is too late.
Not long after this, some friends called round with cake: we made a pot of coffee, conversed while distancing, as we sat in warm spring sunshine on the backyard patio. My adult-lifelong friend, who was reared as a catholic before his conversion, explained that the Bishop of Rome seemed to have beaten me too it.
Spurred on by the pandemic which has ravaged Italy, in a timely, pastoral, sermon, he urged the roman flock not to panic about last rites. He gave an indicator that should they lack a priest, they can pray directly to God and expect a warm welcome from the Father.
He's capable of transforming us, of changing our hearts, but we need to take the first step returning. It's not even going to God. No! It's simply returning home ...If you don't find a priest to go to confession, speak to God. He's your Father. Tell Him the truth. 'Lord, I did this and this and this. Pardon me.' Ask His forgiveness with all your heart, with an act of contrition, and promise Him, 'Afterward I will go to confess.' You will return to God's grace immediately.
Many will be relieved that God is able to forgive us. They will not be overly worried by a classic semi-Pelagian confirmation that God asks us to assist! They will, no doubt, heave a huge sigh of relief that, in isolation wards, catholic nurses do not need to summon a priest to the bedside. God, they are promised, will make space to pardon if we pledge confession in advance! Wholeheartedness is prized, at least when it comes to a contrite, merit-winning act. If it is not so reassuring that a soul may fall from grace so quickly, in more optimistic tones they get rapid access back.
What worries me a little is that there seem to be some good men who are clapping hands with joy: I can see how superficially this sounds like a nod to the truth, or a swift about-turn in the direction of Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin. If I am not mistaken , it just looks like old Rome dressed up in Black Death cloth - what else could Francis do when sheep are dying in priestless panic excluded from last rites: if extreme unction has no place in the Covid-19 pandemic, another means must be found to keep the catholic conscience on-board.
I'm sure that you'll agree that it is a rather interesting intervention, although perhaps, if we check Middle Age history books, we may discover contingency plans are often implemented during plague. Not to be too harsh, the Coronavirus crisis has forced even the Ultra-Reformed to have a re-think about church. It seems that weightier matters of Law take precedence over rites, even if that involves outward regular assembly of saints (so an inward, spiritual, core is preserved in a plague).
Yet, with souls at stake, it is not a time to gloat but weep: the Scriptures which Francis shares preclude plague 'wriggle-room': no flesh can approach God if we do not have His priest (the Mediator, appointed and anointed, is mandated by Yahweh Himself - this rudiment which Moses clearly taught should not missed by any serious Bible student). Aaronic priests were the heartbeat of the Tent that the Exodus set up: the whole book of Leviticus revolves around this priestly office and task.
Peace-time catholicism seems to stress, if I read it right, that God (our home as Francis might say) is so far off that we need another earthly priest (hyper-transcendence). Plague-time romanism lurches to the other, equally-serious, mistake: the Father-home is so near that we need no priest at all (hyper-immanence): or at least we can delay ritual payment during a mediatorial vacation.
These two extreme errors fall into the trap of missing the Via Media of Christ, the God-Man, Heavenly-Earthly, Great High Priest appointed by God: Jesus, and He alone, is sufficient for sinful sheep: through faith in Him male, female and little lamb-like believers are justified, pardoned, welcomed and adopted into the family of God. Jesus told us plainly:
I am the Way, the Truth and the Life: no-one comes to the Father except through Me - John 14:6
Was it not the apostle Paul who gave up Temple rites, so convinced was He of the supremacy, sufficiency and anointed, appointment of Christ.
For there is one mediator between God and man: the man Christ Jesus, the testimony given at the proper time.
Is the whole Book of Hebrews not devoted to this theme - that we do need a Christ to go-between on our behalf; and that if our whole confidence rests on Jesus, the Better Mediator of the New Covenant (signed and sealed in His blood), we need no other priest. The message of the book is that if we regress from this all-sufficient, supreme Priest it ensures a fall from the privileges of grace, and darkening of all significant, saving, inner Bible-light we had.
This is not a moment to blast the Bishop of Rome - all around the world souls are hurtling into the pit, at a frightening rate of knots, without comfort of a priest. It is false reassurance that turns sinners of all stripes, from either Geneva or Rome, to seek mercy in God without the sole, sufficient, mediator Christ. If we think the Father is homely we must remember first He is Holy - there is a cast-iron route, but it is sprinkled in priest blood, that He shed on the Cross, as the sin-bearing-away scapegoat for our guilt: access is instant for all truly penitents who bow to Him in trust!
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need - Hebrews 4:14-16
This surely puts an onus on pastors, elders and members of churches who know and own the truth to pray for neighbours and colleagues - all are hopeless with no priest. Time is running out to ask your pastor to call round. In kind, warm, tones, having prayed they'll sense your tears, try to catch a coffee, to speak to them of the mighty-to-save Redeemer. He is the harbor that is safe in all storms and peace and delight on more joyful, sunny, days. Ask them what they think of what their Pontiff has said. If you get the chance, tell them that the exclusive bridge to God is Christ. His sacrifice is enough, all-sufficient for sinners and saints, in life and death.
For them and ourselves, at this time of global need, be often on your knees, through the curtain rent in Christ, to plead for mercy and grace. You do not need a priest, nor do you need a pastor to pray - but every saint needs Jesus to have their prayers heard and to get a welcome home from the Father.
God be with you all - safe in the arms of Jesus!