Archbishop Jose H. Gomez leads an online Sunday service at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with the church's doors closed to the public on March 22 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Apu Gomes/ AFP)
It is a tragic understatement to say that the coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease it causes have turned our world upside down. The fact is that the virus has totally shattered our lives.
Perhaps not in a hundred years, since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 which destroyed more lives than the Great War, have so many countries, so many peoples of the world, been fear-stricken and traumatized.
How has the virus has impacted our lives of faith — religious faith, that is.
Since the virus is largely spread through interpersonal contact, government authorities have banned all groups in close proximity — and so all public transport systems and common recreation areas have been closed.
Members of almost all religions gather together to pray and worship. Once again by government fiat, religious believers of all persuasions have been compelled to keep a social distance from each other. For the first time in living memory, Sunday Masses and similar services have been proscribed around the world.
Television, radio and the internet have quickly stepped in to provide virtual services to those compelled to stay at home. Of course, it’s not the same. So even though most of us know that this condition will not last forever, we are upset.
How does Covid-19 challenge our faith? It has compelled us to make our faith more personal, to rethink the way in which we believe.
For many of us, creatures of habit, faith is a mechanical exercise, routinely performed on Sundays in the company of friends and family. It’s something which soothes but no longer challenges. Now for the first time — as in times of political persecution — we cannot take faith for granted.
In other words, we are asked to move from fideism — blind faith — to a discerning belief.
And what should we discern? All of us love this technological culture of ours for giving us the amenities and comforts of modern living — automobiles, refrigeration, air travel, computers and the internet. We can’t imagine life without them.
But we rarely think about how this very technological culture has impoverished and polluted the earth, and distanced us from nature.
Indeed global warming, acid rain and extremes of weather have alerted many to the fact that all is not right in our technological world. Covid-19 brings this home with shattering clarity. To our utter dismay, we find that as simple a symptom as coughing and sneezing may have the lethal potentiality to infect and kill.
To wake up this world
So the challenge to our faith lies in ways we usually don’t think about, such as to live a life more in tune with nature in terms of diet, work and leisure.So much of this world today is based on greed and violence. Can we live more simply so that others may simply live? This will change the way we look at the earth and at our world.
For all pandemics point to a relationship of tension between human beings and their surroundings, a relationship gone askew. Every epidemic, be it the plague, cholera, AIDS or the coronavirus, becomes a metaphor telling us that humanity has broken its original covenant with nature, and that nature demands retribution. For how long will our world be infected with the virus of avarice, ambition and violence?
So is Covid-19 a wake-up call to us all, telling us that our way of life is no longer sustainable and that we need to change course drastically? Perhaps it is.
To wake up the Church
In a strange way, Covid-19 is also another wake-up call for the Church. The first wake-up call came in the early 1960s with Vatican II.
By shutting down liturgical services in a church building, Catholics are forced to question the way in which they pray, worship and profess their faith. In other words, they are asked to move from fideism to a discerning belief.
And what should they discern? That their faith today must necessarily become interfaith, where Catholics reach out ecumenically to the other churches in worship and service; and in dialogue with those of other beliefs, with respect and peace-keeping.
But for this we need a new leadership in the Church — an inclusive leadership.
There’s an urgent need to respond to the desires of Asian, African and Latin American cultures, to the desires of women and the young to exercise authority in service and prophecy. These are desires as yet unfulfilled.
But the old wineskins of a male, white leadership are just too threadbare and patch-ridden for the heady new wines.
And yes, maybe the sole reason why Covid-19 shut down our churches is so that we could look around and “worship God in spirit and in truth.” (John: 4.24)
Once again, Pope Francis has the last word, as when he spoke recently of those who feel trapped by the coronavirus: “May the Lord help you to discover new ways, new expressions of love, living as you do in this new situation. For in the end, this is a beautiful and creative opportunity to rediscover ourselves.”
Father Myron Pereira SJ is a media consultant based in Mumbai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.