According to recent statistics published by the World Bank, the current 2020 economic crisis and global recession as exacerbated by the onset and ramifications of the Coronavirus COVID-19, would be the deepest since the Great Depression in 1929, and even further 50 years back to the Long Depression of 1873 to 1896 (Kose and Sugawara; Sassoon).
COVID-19 has necessitated the full lockdown of many countries. As I write this, Melbourne is still undergoing its second lockdown, while closer home, Singapore is fresh out of its May to June Circuit Breaker period and reports 4,734 active cases as of 13 August 2020 (Ministry of Health, Singapore). Singapore’s unemployment rate has also steeped exponentially and was the highest it had experienced in a decade. In June 2020, the statistics had climbed to an increase of jobless people of 2.9% compared to 2.4% in March 2020 (CEIC Data) The Catholic Church in Singapore was not spared by the pandemic and private donations fell drastically to 15% of the normal intake due to the suspension of Eucharistic Celebrations and Worship Services. The Society of St Vincent de Paul also saw its intake fall by 90 per cent (AsiaNews). Across the world, millions of Catholics are affected due to church closures or the suspension of religious liturgy, rites, and celebrations. The pandemic has caused these same Catholics to be unable to physically partake of the Eucharistic Celebrations and the Sacraments, and this may be the tip of the iceberg of something that is long drawn and for the long haul.
While the current atmosphere and situation has caused some disgruntledness, in the Chinese Characters for “Crisis” (危机) are found etymologically, the words for “Danger” (危) and “Opportunity” (机). There is always a silver lining to any crisis, and while the Church around the world and in Singapore is experiencing an unprecedented crisis, this too could be an invitation to re-look what is meant to “do Church” and “be Church”. At the fore of this reflection is the question, “What is Community?” We cannot return to how things were pre-COVID-19, and this pandemic has in fact brought to our attention, what is essential, and what is less important.
According to Massimo Faggioli, professor of Historical Theology at Villanova University, the Church has been in some way “forced” to virtualise its Spaces of Liturgy (Schlumpf, Winters and McAlwee). The virtualisation has been difficult to embrace, especially for those who are less technology-savvy. There have been some parishioners such as the Friends-in-need that the St. Vincent Society serves who may not even have the capacity and capability to access things such as email accounts, smartphones, laptops, or the Internet itself. They simply cannot afford these things, and as such have fallen through the gaps in this increasing technological divide between the Baby Boomers and the Millenials. On the plus side, the Church has been invited to explore new ways of outreach and new definitions of what liturgy and liturgical spaces entail. For some, the use of video-conferencing platforms has been more of a blessing than a boon – allowing them to connect with church activities from home, while previously the constraints of time and schedule made it difficult for them to physically attend such Church activities.
Richard Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College, proposes that there are “seismic changes”in global crisis of any kind, and often, these groundbreaking changes lead to deeper clarification of current challenges and excavate possibilities which were previously ignored or overlooked. While the widespread cancellation of religious activity has a tangible effect on the Church and the life surrounding the Church, many pastors and pastoral teams are prodded by circumstances to explore creative and innovative ways to keep in touch with their flock and to start or maintain outreach efforts. As Gaillardetz puts it, “Dare we hope that this fast from the Eucharistic table, fueled by the exigencies of the moment, might upon our return rekindle a heightened Eucharistic consciousness?” (Schlumpf, Winters and McAlwee). While on one hand the circumstantial Eucharistic Fast deprives us physically of Jesus, yet in the temporary dispensation of the sacrament, perhaps a greater appreciation of the Body and Blood of Christ may be imbued. Gaillardetz has also highlighted that the pandemic situation has led to increased awareness about the importance of certain Christian practices, such as a need for salient and relevant pastoral leadership as invited to by Pope Francis – a “solidarity in place,” which encourages us to check in on our relatives and friends, to help the needy purchase groceries, and to find new ways of outreaching to our neighbour. Gaillardetz goes on to say, “Most of our pastoral leaders have wisely embraced draconian restrictions on public worship, integrating a Catholic sacramental consciousness with an equally Catholic commitment to the common good.” (Schlumpf, Winters and McAlwee) As C. Vanessa White, Assistant Professor of Spirituality and Ministry at Catholic Theological union, Chicago adds, “We have longed for the sense of touch during this time of physical and social distancing. But we are not unfamiliar with living in times of great trial,” and “As we no longer have access to the physical bread and wine, Body and Blood, we have come to reflect on what does it truly mean to be a part of the Body of Christ? The Scripture in 1 Corinthians 12: “If one of us suffers, we all suffer, and if one of us is uplifted we all share in the joy” has new meaning during this season of COVID-19″ (Schlumpf, Winters and McAlwee).
The Catholic Church is indeed no stranger to crisis. If anything it was borne out of persecution and crisis, and crisis in actuality, is our specialism and our specialty.
What are some opportunities to grow as a Christian Community that may be found in COVID-19?
- Find space or room to utilise the new technologies of video conferencing to pray and to connect together as a community. A parish in Singapore used Zoom technology to pray together daily as a community the Rosary from the start of May 2020 until mid August. While the daily participants seemed few, the numbers add up, and as off the end of July, the parish had 10,855 online engagements who had logged in to pray together. This is but the mere superficial participant count, bearing in mind that the Zoom numbers reflected households and these household could have an average of 3 to 5 persons praying simultaneously.
- Take this time to create new Christian family traditions, such as exploring ways to find God in everything and to keep the Lord’s Day and Feast Days holy in a special way. For example, the family may start the tradition of baking pineapple tarts on Feast Days and marking the pineapple tarts with a Christian symbol associated with the Saint.
- The needy, the unemployed, the poor, those without opportunities in life to help them succeed, are the most affected by the pandemic. Create an outreach roster, where different people of ministry take turns to visit and to check in with these persons. A Giving Grocery could be started where the community pools together resources to purchase and to deliver a grocery list of necessities to affected households. This is the social mission arm of the Church made alive and found at work. Some non-Catholic hawkers have provided free meals that passers-by could take during this time, no questions asked. What are some ways that we can take a leaf from them and learn from their example? Are there ways to channel resources to help those most in need during this time? If not food and necessities, is there a way to provide for free or a highly subsidised cost essential services, for example haircutting, or clinical, or legal services? With the Mass Registration System, a helpdesk could be set up at the parish office by youth to help the elderly to register and to set up their email and mycatholic.sg accounts.
With this period of social distancing and crisis, the importance of community is understated. More than ever, is a need to lend a helping hand, a boost, a circle of prayer. The above contain some suggestions to build meaningful community during this time. How we survive this crisis and make it through the other side, stronger in faith and more appreciative of the providence and love of God our Father, is dependent on the strength of the community and how we need to journey together in solidarity.
By the Grace of God,
Brian Bartholomew Tan
AsiaNews. “Archbishop of Singapore calls for support for the Church’s charitable work amid the COVID-19 crisis”. AsiaNews. 11 May 2020
CEIC Data. “Singapore Unemployment Rate: 1987 – 2020” ceicdata.com 2020
Kose, Ayhan and Naotaka Sugawara. “Understanding the depth of the 2020 global recession in 5 charts”. World Bank. 15 June 2020
Ministry of Health, Singapore. “Updates on COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) Local Situation” Ministry of Health, Singapore. 13 August 2020.
Sassoon, Donald. “To understand This Crisis, We Can Look to the Long Depression too” The Guardian. 29 April 2012
Schlumpf, Heidi, Winters, Michael Sean and Joshua J. McAlwee. “The church after coronavirus: Crisis exposes what is essential”. National Catholic Reporter. 2 April 2020