Deacon Walter Middleton: Graces in Lockdown
Lockdown came as a big shock to Deacon Walter Middleton, but amid the havoc it caused in everybody’s life, it has also been a new learning experience — and the grace of God was ever-present
The lockdown and the closure of churches has separated us from the Mass celebrated in communion with our fellow Catholics, but my experience has also been one of graces and the potency of charity.
I have served as a permanent deacon at St Patrick’s church in La Rochelle, Johannesburg, since my ordination on February 10, 2018, having previously worshipped there for over 24 years.
As a deacon, I assist in conducting Communion services, baptisms and baptism preparation, funerals, pre-marriage courses, fundraising activities, and so on. I also help run soup kitchens and a sewing class for migrants, refugees and single mothers who have no source of income. We have trained more than 120 women, and a few men, over the past three years. Some women have started cooperatives and others are doing business from their homes, and have managed to significantly improve their lives. For the past two years our parish has been feeding over 350 people on the “World Day of the Poor” on November 17.
Before lockdown, my wife June and I made it a point to go to Mass every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday to participate in the Holy Eucharist. Sometimes we attend Mass on Saturdays and on particular feast days. So when the government announced a complete lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic on March 26, including the closure of churches, we were distraught at not being able to worship as a community. As a staunch Catholic and as a deacon, I was devastated as it meant I would not be able to participate in the Masses at the church.
However, our parish priest, Scalabrini Father Jorge Guerra, is an enterprising man with many ideas and initiative. With the help of the two assistant priests, Frs John Panpogee and Pablo Velasquez, he immediately began livestreaming daily Masses for the parishioners of St Patrick’s (and, I suppose, online visitors from elsewhere). It was such a joy and blessing for all of us.
During Holy Week, the services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were beautiful and very meaningful. We felt as if we were participating in the Mass in the church. But it was the Easter Vigil service which really stood out. It was the full service, awesome and extraordinary, with the fire burning outside the church, the lighting of the new Easter candle, the singing of the Exultets, the blessing of the water, the renewal of our baptismal vows, the several readings and the gospel, and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, which we could not consume but partake in by way of spiritual Communion.
I was also blessed and privileged to participate in the Stations of the Cross, adoration and Mass which was celebrated by our three priests every Friday during Lent. In addition, we also had the weekday Mass. In short, the buildings were closed but the church continued in the homes. We were provided excellent spiritual readings by Fr Guerra for reflection and praying at home.
As is the annual practice in our parish, a Lenten talk was organised by our priests for the community. Since we were under lockdown, our three priests held a virtual retreat, which was livestreamed on April 4. They spoke on themes of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This spiritual exercise closed with adoration and Benediction.
This experience is something I will treasure all through my life as this has never ever happened in my 71 years of life on this planet — the livestreaming of the Mass, the participating in a virtual retreat.
Having been involved in the feeding of the poor and hungry during my professional career of 45 years with CARE and World Vision, I felt blessed to assist Fr Guerra in purchasing, packing and distributing 255 food parcels to the poor and needy on the day before the lockdown.
Since the government had mandated the wearing of facemasks, Fr Guerra and I arranged with the women from the sewing class to make 150 facemasks at their homes. These were sold at a nominal cost to the parishioners. Some masks were given out free to people who could not afford them. Fr Guerra continues to distribute food parcels to poor people who come to the church. The charity work during lockdown has been a hallmark of our parish; I feel extremely proud to be part of this generous community.
Lockdown has given June and me the opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time in prayer and worship. I was able to set up five prayer groups of five persons each on WhatsApp where we spend time in prayer and intercession. The groups are made up of people from our church as well friends from the United States, Britain and India. This initiative has been spiritually uplifting and meaningful for all, especially in this troubling and stressful time we are going through.
At home, we have set up an altar in our living room, and we continue to participate in the livestreaming of Mass every day. At noon we pray the Angelus and a rosary for the end of the coronavirus. At 3pm we pray the Divine Mercy and then participate in adoration at 6pm. Before we retire at night, we again pray the rosary and the breviary.
June and I are greatly blessed. I am confident that with all the prayers and worship, this virus will come to an end, as God is in control. And for all the damage the lockdown has caused, it has also taught us important lessons. That, too, is a grace.
This article was printed in the October issue of The Southern Cross Magazine.
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