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Seeking God in the stillness: Faith in the time of coronavirus

Anna Watt  |  17 May 2020

These are unprecedented times. The streets have gone quiet, many businesses are closed and people are confined to their homes. In this new world, the Catholic Church has had to find new ways of bringing people together, sharing the Good News, and offering hope to those who are struggling.

The quiet of St Peter’s Square is unnerving. The pavement, usually alive with moving heads, backpacks, hats, baby carriers and flags from all over the world, looks uncomfortably bare. Ancient statues enclosing the grounds loom over the piazza. The columns dwarf the square. I don’t know what the temperature is Friday 27 March in the Vatican, but the air looks cold and still.

Many of us have seen the images of Pope Francis’ Urbit et Orbi blessing in the empty St Peter’s Square, which were broadcast around the world as the coronavirus shutdowns began to spread. News channels were drawn to the vision of a lonely Pope praying for a flock in what has been an unprecedented event in modern times, urging people to allow hope to be rekindled in the midst of isolation.

‘Embracing Christ’s cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring’, he said.

‘It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognise that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.

‘By his cross we have been saved in order to embrace hope and let it strengthen and sustain all measures and all possible avenues for helping us protect ourselves and others. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: That is the strength of faith.’

INSPIRING CREATIVITY

When I originally heard the news from our Prime Minister that all religious services in Australia were to be banned, and that the Catholic Church would comply with these restrictions, I felt disappointed. Surely, limiting congregation sizes would be enough to stop the spread of the virus? Our Church survived persecution, famine and war. Where has that old zeal in times of confusion gone? Where was our faith in God?

I have since grown to understand how contagious and dangerous this virus is. A few weeks into strict social distancing measures, and I now see how earnest and heartfelt the response of the Church has been to this crisis. Social distancing is not an act of fear – it’s an act of love.

While staying informed with health updates and complying with regulations, the Church has found new ways to reach out to its congregations, letting its creativity run free.

I’m delighted (and I have to say, rather surprised) at how adept the Catholic Church has been in engaging on digital platforms and connecting with online audiences. Live web casts of Masses are cropping up across Australia and around the world.

At the Vatican, Holy Week in April ran like every year, with the same Easter services held for an absent congregation. While physically distant, millions tuned in online and on television to hear their Pope’s message of Easter hope.

Parishioners in Düsseldorf, Germany, attended a ‘Drive-In’ Good Friday service. The devout congregation stayed in their cars and tuned in to the Mass through their car radios, as the Mass was celebrated on a stage in front.

A priest in Ireland brought Christ to suburbia by driving an old popemobile from St John Paul II through the streets, and blessing people with a monstrance containing the Eucharist.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the very same church that went up in flames last year, televised a solemn Mass in halls that reflected the resilience of the Catholic Church.

Catholic web events are also enjoying decent turnouts of international audiences. The cancellation of two Catholic conferences in the US prompted organisers to come together to create a Virtual Catholic Conference, which attracted a standout line-up of guest speakers. More than 30,000 online participants tuned in over a weekend in April, which gave the speakers access to a far greater audience than what they could originally expect for their in-person conferences.

CONSOLATION AND HOPE

Jerusalem, usually bursting at the seams with tourists during Holy Week, commemorated Christ’s Passion with a quiet reverence this year. Four masked friars walked in solidarity down the Via Dolorosa, unaccompanied by the many tourists that join the procession each year to trace the footsteps of Christ as he carried the cross to Golgotha.

The solemnity of the events communicated the Easter message in a way that was especially relevant to the current circumstances, even without the many pilgrims participating in the Easter ceremonies.

Lucas Delattre, a 20-year-old French exchange student in the Holy Land during this time, remarked that, ‘Strangely enough, I feel as I’ve never been that emotionally and spiritually involved in the various celebrations [as now].’

Participating in online services, having more time for personal prayer, and bonding over Easter cake with his Christian neighbours had helped him to feel connected in faith during Easter lockdown.

It’s ironic that this epidemic should take place after a prolonged period of disconnection with each other and

the Church. We were invincible – healthy, autonomous workaholics that spent more time in the town than with our loved ones. During this time of fear and uncertainty, people have looked to the steadfast, century-old pillars of the Catholic Church for consolation and hope.

LOVE IN THE FACE OF THE STORM

I really feel that the Catholic Church is a shining beacon during this crisis. The Church, like the loving father of the Prodigal Son, is opening its arms to people with a desire to connect, and engaging on our social platforms to keep in touch with their local and international communities.

While we stay compliant to state regulations, it’s helpful to remember that we are part of a faith that reached out to the sick and the outcast from the very beginning. After Jesus had calmed the storm, he said to his disciples: ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40).

This tempest has been a test for our faith. Our Church has thrived in this time when it has trusted that God wants what is best for us.

The absence of regular Communion has helped many of us recognise how much we love and depend on Christ, and has led many more deeply into prayer.

The vision we see of the Pope praying in the empty square is mirrored in videos of priests praying in empty churches and chapels across the globe. These images are as powerful as the words that are prayed – they are images of unwavering hope and love in the face of the storm.

At a time when so much was in danger of fracturing, it is these images of solidarity, of shared humanity, that bring us together in hope. It is these images that show us the power of God’s love.

Images: A woman in Germany set up a memorial for COVID-19 victims. Each candle represents a German victim of the virus. Good Friday at the Drive-In in Dusseldorf, Germany.

 

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