Fr Robert Miller is writing from the Deanery of Salisbury Cathedral – a parish priest and National Rural officer for the Bishop’s conference of England And Wales. He and another Priest began focusing on the rural issues affecting the communities in their parishes, from milk prices to loneliness.
St Osmund’s Catholic Church, in the shadow of Salisbury’s cathedral, streams daily its services, developed before Covid-19, to serve its many scattered or housebound parishioners beyond the sleepy city, in this part of Wiltshire, but appreciated too by Catholics elsewhere in Clifton Diocese’s three counties, and in parishes, even countries, far beyond. The system can also guide the parish priest, when normal travel is resumed, wherever in his parish he may be, to any nearby Catholics. A friendly tap on the door may be greatly appreciated on a lonely day. A Catholic who farms sheep on the edge of Exmoor, emailed a picture of Early Purple orchids in flower in one of her meadows, adding what comfort it brings when churches are closed, to her and other parishioners afraid their parish church, perhaps 10, to some 20, miles away, is in danger of permanent closure and the nearest priest distant in the next diocese.
We have recently celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday. Lambs are in the fields growing quickly. Watching BBC’s Country File in recent weeks, it has been possible only to glimpse from the comfort of an armchair, what an exhausting and messy business lambing can be. And that is just the start. ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ Most people see their lamb in convenient plastic-clad packages in the supermarket shelf, with bottled mint sauce on a nearby shelf. No mention of ticks, sheep fly, foot rot, the joys of dagging, or worse, in the adult or the journey to the abattoir. There is a disconnect.
Communities who are nearer sheep (or beef, for that matter) production know it is rather different. Sixty-plus years ago our class of infants, on its way to lunch, perhaps cottage pie, in the village hall would walk through the butcher’s (his daughter in our class) field, where cattle were being fattened for slaughter. Every Monday, killing day, when butchers traditionally were shut, we counted to see how many bullocks had gone this week, an early lesson in numeracy.
Those who read their Bibles know lambs were as much sacrificial as nutritious, whichever, all born to die, as are we all. Today, when dying is done at a distance, a t.v. doctor was lamenting that children are seldom prepared for that reality. Adding that now, suddenly, with schools closed and close relatives or friends dying every day, it made it more difficult for unprepared children, adults too, to cope. We store up problems even as we try to be kind. The only daily statistics daily are for deaths from Covid-19. We hear nothing of deaths from other causes. And here’s another thing: Nobody seems to die. All are said to have ‘passed’. On VE Day, little time is spent remembering the millions who died, much on the survivors.
And this is where Christians should have a great advantage. We mark death with time-hallowed rituals, the funeral Mass, prayers for those who have died, the blessing of the grave, All Souls’ Day and so on. We are not helpless in the face of this enemy. We face it, surrounded by angels and saints. Neither Creed nor scripture says that Jesus passed away on the Cross Instead, He died and – for us. The three days signify that He was well and truly dead. St Peter’s First Epistle, read in the liturgy these Easter weeks, tells us that Jesus, during those three days visited the underworld to release Noah and the other souls who had died without hope. His Resurrection shows that death is not the end for He promised, ‘Where I am, there will my servant be also.’
So if we make Him our friend in this life, we shall not travel alone on an unfamiliar journey, to be faced by a stranger on arrival. Jesus has been for us the sacrificial lamb; better still, in the Apocalypse, the key that opens the door. We can pray for Granny and Grandpa knowing that our prayers are heard. And we have time to spend our lives discovering the answer to the question, ‘Little lamb, who made thee?’ And perhaps to hear the words, Welcome home!