Lessons from Being Church in Pandemic
…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6)
In the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation for love of us and our salvation, Jesus takes on our human vulnerability. He even endures the shame of crucifixion as a criminal for love of us
COVID-19 has forced a universal experience of vulnerability because this new and constantly evolving virus has brought uncertainty regarding its spread and duration, even with vaccine development.
The global nature of the pandemic has revealed the perpetually precarious situation of the poor and marginalized and brought an unprecedented sense of vulnerability for those in affluent nations who thought they were protected by expensive health technology.
Quarantine and social distancing required the closure of sources of solace and support in times of crisis.
The experience of being Church in pandemic
The Church entered the pandemic in a wounded state. The aging Church of the Global North has experienced unprecedented losses. There is profound loss of trust in the Church from the devastating harms to victims, families and communities from the clergy sexual abuse of children and youth.
There is trauma from the ongoing polarizing divisions over the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Dioceses are declaring bankruptcy because of financial settlements to victims of clergy sexual abuse, closing parishes because of priest shortages, declining attendance and diminishing resources. There are growing numbers of those with no religious affiliation, especially among the young. There is growth in the Church of the Global South and we need a shift from Eurocentric to the global Church reality.
The grand narrative of the Church as a source of justice and care is challenged by an awareness of sexism, colonialism, racism and white supremacy in the Church. The #Black Lives Matter movement has made it clear that that these deep pathologies are not past history but real today. The # Me Too movement has made it clear that sexual abuse of women and vulnerable populations is an issue for Church if it is to speak credibly to society.
Lesson: The disruption and chaos of pandemic has revealed longstanding wounding of the Body of Christ
Vulnerability, the state of being exposed to the possibility of harm, is neither exceptional nor optional in the human condition. It is inevitable in the fact of our being embodied in flesh and bone and embedded in families, communities and cultures.
Researcher have categorized the sources of vulnerability:
-Inherent vulnerability is our ontological or essential vulnerability.
-Contingent or situational vulnerability is caused or exacerbated by specific personal conditions, including health status, socioeconomic factors, culture and the environment. This includes discretionary vulnerability, resulting from deliberate decisions by persons or from third parties such as doctors or the court.
-Pathogenic vulnerability is created by unique harmful political and cultural factors in personal history, such as a history of abuse, brokenness and marginalization.
-Theologian have added spiritual vulnerability.
In the Old Testament, the covenant, which binds us to God, is as vulnerable as the bonds that bind us to one another. McDonagh has outlined key elements of a theology of vulnerability beginning with God’s self-revelation as vulnerable in the act of creation itself:
“This is the risk of creation for God, introducing into being other reality distinct from Godself…God rejoiced in this otherness as gift but…the gift turned threat, alien to and alienated from God in its climactic creatures, man and woman.”(McDonagh, 2005 p.19)
“God became human in Jesus Christ. This letting go by God of God in incarnation transcends all human imaging and yet seems transcended in the surrender until death on a cross by the Son of God made man. It is in that dying into resurrection and the sending of the Spirit, which completes the divine letting be of creation and letting go of incarnation by letting God be God in God’s Trinitarian sense and in the universe.“ (McDonagh, 2005 20)
In theological language, the priority of vulnerability exists because we are created in the image of God. If God is vulnerable, then we, who are made in God’s image, are vulnerable.
Jesus provides a different notion of vulnerability in the Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:29–37). The identifies the vulnerability of those who put themselves at risk to respond to the need of others.
Vulnerability is a condition of the moral life and we learn from infancy about trusting others and the fragility of relationships. Vulnerability is what defines and establishes us as creatures before God and as ethical among one another.
Social anthropology and organizational research shows that cultures experience the trauma and chaos of events such as pandemic as a difficult and dangerous prelude to new creation or disintegration. Things cannot return to normal, nor should they. As Pope Francis states in Fratelli tutti:
Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation… If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing. ..If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected. (no.35)
Lesson: Pandemic has forced change that many in the glacially-moving Church have resisted. This is a time for repentance, purification and transformation. But first we need to grieve our losses.
Grief and communal mourning
As Jesus’ disciples, we marked the end of 2019 from a place of pain and loss captured earlier by Pope Francis:
“I see that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful … I see the church as a field hospital after battle…. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.”
Grief is a unique experience of loss which has physical, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions. Mourning is the process of dealing with the overwhelming, isolating and disorientating experience of loss. Grief can be personal and communal. Social anthropologist, Fr Gerry Arbuckle has developed the “grief overload” model which can help us understand the emotional and practical aspects of culture change and disintegration and the dynamics of grieving in moving the Church forward. (Arbuckle, 2019)
Lesson: We need to acknowledge our experience of being overwhelmed by anger, grief and loss in the Church and society. We need tears and mourning so that we can make a truly prophetic response to the time to build new missionary disciples of Christ.
Pope Francis recognizes this:
Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness. (Gaudete et exsultatae 2018 no. 76)
Prayer and liturgy in lockdown
Jesus, raised by prayerful and religious parents, begins his public ministry during his usual celebration of the Jewish liturgy:
He came to Nazareth, where he was brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as he usually did. He stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. (Luke 4: 16-20)
He teaches us to pray (Matthew 6:10-15) in the Our Father and is constantly escaping from demanding crowds to pray. His final words when dying on the cross are a prayer:
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. (Luke 23:46)
During the pandemic, prayers came from many places from clergy, celebrities, not always known for their spirituality, to doctors and nurses exhausted by care of victims. There were prayers to God for help and protection; prayers of thanks to care givers; and prayer and about a God who allows suffering on the massive scale of pandemic. In the absence of traditional religious rituals during lockdown, new ones emerged from singing and pot banging in the streets at night to clapping for first responders at every opportunity. Churches, essential spiritual support for many in grief and loss, were closed.
For Catholics, public Masses and communal celebrations of the liturgy were suspended for the prevention of spread. The closure of Churches and loss of spiritual supports during this frightening pandemic has exacerbated unprecedented spiritual trauma in modern times. Many are now “out of practice” of the beloved Sunday Eucharist and long to return. Others feel little loss and will never return.
Liturgy, which means the “action of the people”, is Incarnational, bodily/sensual, interpersonal communication and:
“The liturgy is also a participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Spirit. In the liturgy, all Christian prayer finds its source and goal” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no.1073).
In the first three centuries of the Church, the disciples of Christ worshiped together in small and private spaces because of fear of persecution and death. They focused on the essentials of a special meal among friends giving thanks and seeking strength for service.
The online Eucharist has revealed starkly the clerical and hierarchical Church. It has returned us to the pre-Vatican II state of observers of cultic performances where “the celebrant” is the cleric. We lose the “messiness” of bodily interaction, including interaction with some we do not choose. Pope Francis captures these concerns well:
“…digital media can expose you to the risk of dependence, isolation and progressive loss of contact with concrete reality, hindering the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” (Post-Synodal Apostolic ExhortationChristus Vivit 2019, Mar 25, no.88 qtd in Fratelli tutti no.43)
While lack of access to in-person Mass is the most visceral loss of spiritual support, all liturgical celebrations were affected. With Catholic schools closed and religious education classes curtailed, the family duty of handing on the faith became is more difficult. Many parents have known the catechism but never been evangelized for faith in today’s world.
Lesson: The greatest challenge to renewing and revitalizing the liturgy in post-COVID-19 world comes from a failure to understand the depth of the spiritual challenges about religion and the transcendent revealed in the crisis. Then we make atonement.
What personal conversion of mind and heart is calling you?
What are the key theological beliefs and practices in need of renewal to the mind of Christ?
What are the central organizational and relational issues are in need of renewal and reform?
Gerald.A. Arbuckle, 2019, Abuse and Cover Up: Re-founding the Catholic Church in Trauma, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
Stephen Bullivant, 2019 Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and Americas since Vatican II Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
- Caruth, ed. 2014, Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Daniel. J. Fleming, 2019 Attentiveness to Vulnerability: A Dialogue between Emmanuel Levinas, Jean Porter, and the Virtue of Solidarity Eugene, OR: Pickwick.
Erinn C. Gilson, 2014 The Ethics of Vulnerability: A Feminist Analysis of Social Life and Practice New York: Routledge.
Allison Gopnik 1996 The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of LifePicador, N.Y.
Vincent Leclerq, 2010 Blessed Are the Vulnerable: Reaching out to Those with AIDS London: Twenty-Third Publications.
Catriona Mackenzie, C., Rogers, W., & Dodds, S. eds., 2013 Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Enda McDonagh, 2005 Vulnerable to the Holy: In Faith, Morality and Art Dublin: Columba.