Liturgy and Life without a Church
In recent weeks there has been a new headache for the Catholic Community in Wellington. Most people are aware of the severe damage done to the iconic Anglican Cathedral by the earthquake in Christchurch in 2011 but many other churches were also badly affected. This has prompted an assessment of how the churches in Wellington would fare in a major quake. A big one is expected here at some point as the last really big one was an 8.2 on January 23, 1855. That is a long time ago for a city that sits on the conjuncture of three fault lines.
Many of the churches examined were found to be so far below the minimum level required to be used safely by the public that they have already closed. A similar fate awaits others. Further studies will be done to see if any of the churches that are closed can be made safe enough to reopen. In the meantime a number of communities have had to make alternatives arrangements for their liturgies. The church of St. Peter and Paul’s Lower Hutt was closed just as Holy Week was about to start. We celebrated these most sacred days of the Church’s year in the gym of St Bernard’s school.
The people were naturally upset to lose the use of their church. I believe that the sense of grief and loss they were feeling brought them to a different kind of identification with the celebration of the passion. Certainly the reverence with which the community venerated the cross on God Friday was extraordinary. Setbacks and adversity can bring out the best in some people as they rally around to support each other in hard times. This was very evident over the course of the week as people helped out with all the extra chores that flow from having to set up a new worship space each weekend. Other communities, including St. James Anglican church and the nearby Catholic parish of Our Lady of the Rosary, have offered their churches and this has helped build even greater cooperation and closer bonds between different communities and traditions in the Valley.
These are a few of the positive by-products of an otherwise tragic situation. But I think the most important outcome might be the renewed realization that the community rather than the building constitutes the church, the pilgrim people of God. They might not have a permanent place in which to worship but circumstances which they did not want or choose are bring them to see in a fresh way that they carry in themselves the presence of Christ. They are temples of the Holy Spirit and when ever two or three are gathered in his name Christ is present. When people have a special place dedicated and set aside for worship it can unconsciously reinforce the dividing line between the profane and sacred. Liturgy and life can get separated into different realms that seem have little to do with one another. I believe that the more we can help people to bring what happens in liturgy into the everyday and the everyday into liturgy the more responsive we become to the grace of God and the more able to recognise that grace when we encounter it. Not having a church pushes us into a different sense of how God is present to us.
The earthquake in Wellington in 1855 created new building practices, dictated the future lay out of the city (the CBD and airport are on flat land that the earthquake pushed up) and changed its social history. Perhaps what is happening to the church buildings now will see the emergence of a stronger and more resilient faith community.
Fr Pat O'Shea lives at St Columbans Lower Hutt, New Zealand.