Fr. Coyle: A model for new communications in time of pandemic

by Archbishop George Stack

Fr. James Coyle was a hero for the faith, murdered in the line of duty in a land far from his own. Born in Drum, County Roscommon in Ireland, on 23 March 1873.He was ordained a priest on 30 May 1896. Learning of the shortage of priests in America’s deep south, he volunteered to go to Mobile, Alabama, and was later posted to Birmingham in the same state. Alabama was a deeply segregated state and prejudice against Catholics was high. The ruling force seems to have been the Klu Klux Klan. Having conducted the wedding of the daughter of a Klansman to a Puerto Rican, Fr. Coyle knew he had made himself a target of their hatred. Nonetheless, he continued to pray on his front porch daily and ministered to his parishioners courageously. He was shot dead on his own doorstep by the bride’s father on 11 August 1921.

Fr. Coyle performed many other heroic duties for his parishioners. One such deed has a parallel with the pandemic crisis with which we are faced today. The 1918 – 1919 epidemic of Spanish flu which swept the world killed as many as 50 million people – over twice the number as were killed in the First World War. The Governor of Alabama, Charles Henderson, decreed that all schools and meeting halls as well as places of worship should be closed to prevent the spread of the virus. The local newspaper, the Birmingham News, announced that during these ’Churchless Days’ it would publish excerpts from the sermons which would have been preached, plus service outlines, scripture study notes and announcements by various clergy to help the people who had been forced to stay at home.

Fr. Coyle wrote to his parishioners:

“You are for the first time in your lives, deprived of hearing Mass on Sunday, and you will, I trust, from this very circumstance appreciate more thoroughly what the Mass is for Catholics …. Sunday Mass is no mere gathering for prayer, no coming to a temple to join in hymns to the maker, or to listen to the words of a spiritual guide”.

Even though we have been struck by a killer virus almost one hundred years later, the technological age in which we live allows us a degree of communication and an opportunity to worship in ways unimaginable to previous generations. Even though we are in lockdown and our churches closed, the use of Live Streaming and other means of social communication mean that although we are separated, we are not divided.

The May issue of The Catholic People gives an insight to the work which continues in the life of the Church in the diocese of Cardiff on behalf of her people. Many parishes Live Stream Mass into the homes of their parishioners – and a much wider audience as well. The Zoom conferencing enables meetings, prayer groups, bible study groups and virtual coffee mornings to take place. The closure of churches has not hindered the urgent work of much needed repairs in a number of them, made possible in a large measure by the extraordinary amount of work which goes in fund raising, grant applications and planning for the future. The work of our hospital chaplains in ministering to the sick and dying and supporting NHS staff on the front line continues to be chronicled in these pages. The article by a Catholic Funeral Director outlines the privilege and challenge facing all Funeral Directors as they navigate the strange and difficult terrain of conducting funerals whilst conforming to government guidelines.

Each week, the nation rightly pays public tribute to the medical profession, and public services, and those carers who put their lives at risk for the well-being of the whole community. They are properly described as heroes. During this pandemic, there are other heroes too. The parents who stay at home 24/7 to care for their children, and those in houses or flats too small for their families. Those who do not know whether their job will exist “when this is all over”. The heroes are those who endure the rise well chronicled in domestic violence during this time, and those professional staff who help them find safety. The heroes who are owners of  businesses trying to hold on to their staff whilst trying to ensure their business will survive. The heroes are those who live alone and do not have social media or Skype or Zoom to keep in touch. The heroes are the neighbours who knock on doors and conduct garden gate conversations, and deliver food, and collect prescriptions for those hitherto unknown to them.

“When this is all over” we are told that our economy will contract by almost one third and the rates of unemployment will soar. Amongst many other implications, the pressures on health, education and social services will inevitably increase. A YouGov poll for the Food Foundation in England, Scotland and Wales suggests that 1.5 million people have gone one whole day without food since the lockdown began. Some independent food banks are finding it difficult to access enough food because of a drop-in donations and limited food supplies. Equally worrying is the fact that a number of independent food banks rely on significant numbers of volunteers who are over 70 years of age. “When this is all over” we will find ourselves in a new place where the cost of the epidemic will have to be paid, not just in economic terms, but in human terms too.