In the last few days there has been much conversation in the media about the reopening and loosening of restrictions in Victoria, Australia. Ours has been the most constrained of all the Australian states (and amongst the tightest in the world) over the last seven months of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is fantastic to finally see a glimmer of hope – pet groomers and hairdressers have been allowed to reopen, and other steps increasing our freedom of movement from 5km to 25km. More steps to open are on the horizon.
Given the high number of cases we once experienced – into the seven hundreds only two months or so ago, not thousands like other countries, but still alarming with deaths rising – it is now of course very prudent to cautiously reopen. No one wants a third wave. No one wants more people to die in our state. Our lockdown was stressful, isolating, mentally draining, and a true spiritual trial. No one wants to go back to that. I do not want to go back to some very dark places I found myself in.
But one would think that reopening would include at least a plan, a discussion, a reason to hope and look forward for all sectors of society especially communities of faith who have been very patient and completely docile to the government’s requests. However, Victorians of various faiths who expected some form of announcement or roadmap last Sunday 18 October were heavily let down by the Victorian government. The build-up was promising – citizens of Victoria were told that there would be fewer but very significant steps to emerge from our long, cold, hard winter of confinement. If those steps were not immediately implemented then at least transparency and disclosure of what would come would be welcomed.
But regrettably, as it turned out there was nothing at all mentioned for people of faith. We have been literally left out in the cold. Oh yes, for now we have a few crumbs – up to twenty people will be able to gather outside our places of worship in regional Victoria, and fewer in the metropolitan area – but the doors to our buildings of worship (many of which are actually bigger inside than our outdoor areas, including high ceilings and large doors which can be kept open) would still remain firmly shut to us. In my case, my church is double the size of the adjacent carpark. If adequate airflow is the concern, our ceilings are as near-high as the carpark is wide, and our large doors could easily be kept open. People would be able to easily spread out, wear masks, and would only remain an hour for Mass. When restrictions were eased after our first lockdown in May-July 2020 we were able to return to our places of worship in smaller numbers, rigorously observed sanitizing and contact detail recording, etc. so there is precedence for a safe return. How hard can it be to do now that our case numbers have sharply declined? Everyone wants to be safe and sure, but we need to start moving forward.
Ignoring people of faith feels like a stab in the guts because hospitality venues have been given true promises of hope. They have assurances that in two weeks’ time or earlier (next week or from 2 November) they will be allowed to serve food and drink to up to twenty people indoors subject to density requirements. Faith leaders have been asking for parity with hospitality venues; if you can take your mask off, eat, drink, and socialize with others indoors at pubs, cafes, and restaurants, then you should be allowed to go to a place of worship with your mask kept on and pray or attend Mass. As for singing, congregations need not sing for now, but it is possible to have a small choir or cantors appropriately spaced (subject to inside space) – I know because I have seen and done this before. Who is to stop inebriated pub patrons from singing and shouting inside hospitality venues?
Some have used this opportunity to ridicule and take potshots at people of faith on social media (especially targeting Catholics, as usual) for daring to defend their right to worship. I like many other people of faith have been supportive and compliant towards the government’s hardline approach in combatting this virus. We certainly needed to drive the numbers down. I have personally made great sacrifices throughout 2020, and so have many others. It is a tough job for any political or health leader to stand up day after day, reporting rising case numbers and deaths. They are human beings and have families too. I saw how tired they looked. It was a depressing feeling for all of us watching daily press conferences for months on end, hearing about the jump in new case numbers, and knowing that many families were grieving loved ones they could not even touch in their last moments. I applauded (and still do, to a degree) the strict measures which had to be taken to save lives, including my own and my elderly parents’, and I totally respect the work of medical professionals. These things were necessary and have brought us to the very low numbers we see today – as of writing this there is only one new case in Victoria and no deaths from Covid-19. This is to be absolutely commended. But now is the time for balance.
During our successive lockdowns I had positive opportunities to pursue online activities, meet new people virtually, participate in international conferences and courses, and work on myself. I have relished these things which I would never have normally done before. I stretched myself. I learnt new things. But now I am tired and I want to reconnect with people in real three-dimensional life. Some of my friends have disappeared and relationships have broken off during the pandemic due to goodness knows what, and some have chosen to stop communicating for reasons I do not understand. I do not know if they are even alive. I am trying to keep sane and afloat. I have been fortunate to have family, technology, and Internet access, but it is not enough. I need to reconnect with my church in a real way. There are many others who have had no one and nothing to rely upon to fill their hours but loneliness, books, television, and a phone call if they are lucky – particularly the elderly.
I cannot cheer about the near-eradication of this virus if the even bigger problem of spiritual and mental desolation and damage is left behind, and is not addressed for myself and my fellow citizens. There has been much talk about mental health support and money provided by governments, and this is good, but relying on science, medicine, and secular counselling alone is not enough. Spiritual and faith ministry, healing, collective prayer, the Sacraments, and companionship with other likeminded people of faith are crucial. This is where the church, and other communities of faith, come in.
Some on social media have poo-pooed calls for Catholic churches to reopen because of past abuse scandals. They also say that our lockdown proved we don’t need churches after all, because we have been able to connect with religion in other ways. They say that God is everywhere and our homes have become our churches. We only need to click and watch a Mass on YouTube (again, falsely assuming everyone has Internet access), listen to the celebrant, sing in our lounge rooms, then go about our lives. Another claim is that church is only for old people, so old people should not be allowed to congregate now as they are more likely to spread the virus. But these views are dangerous, ageist, and can be far more damaging to people’s mental and spiritual lives in the long-term.
Firstly, while past abuse scandals have been utterly devastating and people have every reason to be angry at the perpetrators of those crimes, Jesus Christ Himself is not the criminal. He is the Savior we come to worship in the Eucharistic species when we gather in churches. There is no reason to persecute the people in our midst at church – the good priests, religious, and laity – who have done no wrong at all and who simply wish to peacefully resume their worship together in a communion of faith, hope, and love. We don’t go to church to worship each other, the décor, music, singers, homily, or anything tangible. We reaffirm our desire and destiny for the eternal and are nourished by the living Word of God.
As for connecting to religion in other ways and the domestic church – these have always been important and should continue! It is fantastic that we have been able to turn our homes into cells of worship in the suburbs, and are thinking about creatively expressing our faith in other ways. There is no reason why this should not continue, particularly for people who will remain shut-in after restrictions ease due to infirmity, age, or other reasons. If anything, we should be able to empathise with them even more now, as we have experienced perhaps a fraction of their lives. But for those of us who yearn for and can resume ‘live’ in-person Masses at our local churches, we need to be able to return to that (plus there are different levels of church). Humans were not made to be alone (Genesis 2:18) – we naturally need to be with other people. We can come to love times of solitude and silence, but we cannot truly live a fulfilling and meaningful life without some level of engagement with others for our survival and wellbing.
The claim that churches should not reopen because only old people go there and will therefore congregate to spread the virus is ageist. Studies have shown that it is actually younger people (from their 20s to 40s) who are Covid-19 super-spreaders. This does not mean that we should instead discriminate against younger people who also want to attend church. We cannot make predictions based on any age group, but on our individual behaviours. We are each responsible for how we will handle this virus into the future. Covid-19 has claimed the lives of elderly people as well as many young people. If everyone behaves appropriately (eg. stay home if you are unwell, handwashing, etc.) we can all help to protect each other no matter where we gather.
I can only speak from my personal experience as a Catholic who has endured seven months of lockdown without access to the Eucharist or seeing my faith community and friends (except for four brief Sundays in June/July). Church is essential even now more than ever before and is not just a building. People of all ages attend church – I have seen this throughout my life – the young, the inbetweeners, and the elderly. If anything, it is always more women who attend than men! For anyone to dismiss church as a relic of the past due to ageism is unfair. I have met some beautiful people of all ages at church, and I miss them.
I have been attending church since childhood. As a young adult I joined the music ministry to serve and share my gift of singing. Church is not just a bunch of people standing, sitting, kneeling, socializing, and singing happy-clappy songs inside a pretty building. Nor is it a performance space or arena for elaborate weddings and spectacular photography. Churches are sacred spaces for a sacred purpose. Central to the Catholic faith is Jesus Christ truly present in the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our faith (Catechism of the Catholic Church – CCC #1324). The church is God’s house where His sons and daughters gather to praise and worship Him together, listen to His Word in Scripture, and receive other Sacraments such as Reconciliation (Confession). Sure, we can and should read Scripture at home, but the church is a community of people – ordained and lay – who should be there to provide spiritual guidance, support, strength, prayer, and interpretation of the Word for each other. The Internet helps, but it is not a church. If one is not a regular churchgoer one cannot even begin to understand or be qualified to talk about the significance of the church in a practical and felt sense.
Sure, as someone said to me, you don’t need to gather with others in a fancy (or not so fancy) building to pray. You can have Mass outdoors, in a cave, a house or via YouTube or television, but it is not the same. The fundamental element which is missing from many people’s arguments against churches reopening is understanding the importance of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist within a consecrated building. Other than for special reasons (the bedridden, sick, or dying in hospital, hospices, or at home where special ministers bring the consecrated host) Catholics simply cannot go anywhere else to adore and receive the Eucharist. You can’t go to the supermarket, bakery, or deli to find it. It is given to us via the priest who acts in place of Christ Himself. Being able to receive the Eucharist is fundamental on this side of heaven until Christ comes again, or until we go to Him after death. Yes, there have been times when people and communities could not receive the Eucharist for long periods due to war, natural disasters, a shortage of priests, etc., but their communities were still strong in their faith together. Wherever and whenever it is possible the Eucharist must be made available to people of faith.
Those who lead us and who are making decisions which affect the lives of thousands of the faithful will one day have to answer to God Himself. No matter our status or job titles, if we as God’s creation continue to ignore our Creator, do not put Him at the centre of our lives, and keep pushing Him aside – including barring people from His holy house in times of praise, sadness, joy, and especially pandemic (while observing rules for each other’s safety) – then what hope do we have of ever finding ourselves in a good place with Him after we die? What will we say to God when we see Him face-to-face?
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