Neither faith escapes the spread of coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic forced all churches in the world to make previously unthinkable changes. An opportunity to evangelize?
Amid the constant and voracious spread of the new coronavirus around the world, it seems human to look at the sky from time to time and ask, what’s going on? No one knows, but faith, for many, is the only refuge. This is unprecedented. The virus is changing everything: health, society, the economy and religion. Churches around the world had to give in to something that gets out of hand and out of reason: close their doors and deliver God’s messages through a screen.
Pope Francis was the first to do so. Last Thursday, during the rosary that the Italian Episcopal Conference convened throughout Italy, where there is already more than 3,400 dead from the virus, he stated: “in this unprecedented situation, in which everything seems to be failing, let us help ourselves to remain firm in what that matters. Of necessity, our spaces may have been reduced to the walls of the house, but have a larger heart, where the other can find availability and welcome. It gives the intelligence of science to those who seek adequate means for the health and physical well-being of the brothers”.
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Little by little, the spaces of the religious congregation have been cancelling their normal activities. In the south of France, for example, the sanctuary of Lourdes closed its doors to the public for the first time in its history. The fact is not insignificant, taking into account that eight million people visit the sanctuary a year, built-in 1858 when the religious Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have witnessed the appearance of the Virgin Mary in what is now called the Grotto of the Disclosures.
What was the solution? Adopt technology as a vehicle and start broadcasting masses and events live on social networks, Christian radio and some television channels. “Lourdes continues to be a place of prayer for the world, a prayer to the Immaculate that does not fail to protect all who turn to her,” said the rector of the place.
The same happened in Canterbury (United Kingdom), the epicentre of Anglicanism, when its archbishop announced a virtual mass broadcast online, an act unprecedented in the history of the Church of England.
Churches have taken these actions after what happened in South Korea: a pastor of the evangelical group Iglesia Shincheonji de Jesús infected thousands of faithful, after celebrating several massive rites.
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And although the president of the Asian country, Moon Jae-in, has taken measures to avoid community outbreaks that are reluctant to suspend their activities, it is still missing. Deputy Health Minister Kim Gang-lip said a few days ago that the Government needs to debate in depth before deciding whether or not to ban religious-type meetings, “which have been a persistent source of infection since the pathogen was first detected. Time in the country in January”.
Something similar happened in Greece, where the Orthodox Church has been unwilling to take action against the spread of the coronavirus. On March 9, while Greece already had 84 cases, the Holy Synod assured that the coronavirus cannot be transmitted through the Eucharist and announced that neither the masses nor this sacrament would be cancelled to avoid more contagions in the country. “Believers of all ages know that coming to receive Holy Communion, even amid a pandemic, is as much a practical affirmation as a submission to the living God and a powerful manifestation of love,” the Holy Synod affirmed that day.
The Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, had to take action: “by the decision of the Government, all acts of all dogmas and religions are cancelled. Churches will remain open only for individual prayer.”
The alternatives to stay close to the spiritual these days go through the digital world. It is worth remembering that technology, being inert, can be used for both good and evil and, in this case, it has begun to offer a service that meets a need shared by billions of people around the world.
Only in the mass last Friday of Pope Francis, broadcast live on Facebook, more than 2,500 comments were posted on the platform by people writing their prayers and requests. “Lord, since I cannot physically receive you, I ask you to come to our hearts and fill them with your special love,” says one user.
In Taipei, Taiwan, four of the country’s largest Buddhist organizations suspended their public prayers and urged their followers to continue the prayers online. However, although many comply with the measures, they also recognize that the new dynamic is complicated. “Meditation and online teaching are practical, but there is not the same atmosphere,” Lin told the AFP news agency. In Saudi Arabia, prayers were suspended in all mosques, except holy places in Mecca. Collective prayers were banned in Tunisia, and the Temple Mount was closed in Jerusalem, something that had not been done since the Six-Day War in 1967.
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Another unusual event, in Israel, the great Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef advised the Jews to keep their phone on during the Sabbath – customarily considered a desecration – to receive essential information about the virus.
And although most religions support sanitary measures, the extremist was not lacking: In Algeria, Imam Chems Eddine Aldjazairi stated on Facebook that he was “afraid that God has sent us this virus so that we can approach him, and when he sees that we have closed the mosques, they will send us another more virulent virus”.
A crisis of religion? The question is inevitable, taking into account the historical disaster that is being experienced. On the one hand, there is a downward curve of people who practice some religion; on the other hand, it seems that they have capitalized spaces of power in politics. In fact, for a few years now the evangelical vote has become the most desired booty of politicians in Latin America. The biblical influence was vital in electoral processes, such as the 2016 referendum in Colombia, the victory of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the presidency of Jimmy Morales in Guatemala, etc.
The United States is another excellent example that sheds light on what is happening today. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2018 and 2019 revealed that “65% of American adults describe themselves as Christians when asked about their religion, a decrease of 12 percentage points in the past decade. Meanwhile, the proportion of the religiously unaffiliated population, consisting of people who describe their religious identity as atheistic, agnostic, or ‘nothing in particular’, is now 26%, up from 17% in 2009.”
However, since the arrival of Donald Trump, with his debate, led to totalization and radicalisms, religion has begun to take on tints that border on the fundamentalist every time the president mentions it. According to the philosopher and thinker Slavoj Žižek, there is nothing more political than this. “In a post-political universe, religion is the antagonistic space to which antagonistic passions return. What has happened recently under the guise of religious fundamentalism is not, therefore, the return of religion to politics, but simply the return of politics as such,” he affirms in his latest book The Courage of Hopelessness.