By Fr. Keto Sithole
Diocese of Hwange Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is in her second month of the lockdown after the President of the Republic (His Excellency Emerson Dambudzo Munangagwa) delivered the arguably unwelcome but anticipated news to the citizenry. The 21 days of total lockdown of business and social life began on 30th of March 2020 in order to try and curb the spread of the corona virus (COVD 19). The pandemic that has caused a public health crisis globally.
The lockdown was received with resentment simply because many of us were ill prepared for it since we were used to just limping along, month after month because of the hardships. Many people live literally from hand to mouth. We await the Social Welfare rations that generally have not been forthcoming.
The lockdown also imposed a strange period of self-social isolation, scary at the beginning because many of us were not used to ‘alone’ time, with all movements curtailed. I have had some time to also allow my mind to wonder off, reflecting on how I should reorder myself when all this is behind us hopefully soon.
For many of us the lockdown has significantly isolated us from our usual place(s) of work, of worship and even socialisation. This relates well with the Israelites in Egypt and the constant prophetic calls to conversion. Like the children of Israel this perhaps is the perfect time for all of us to repent. Turn away from our idol worship, that want to be like God attitude through human prowess and consumerism, and re-connect, and let God be God in our lives.
The coronavirus pandemic, to some extent has sent us all into our own little exile, away from our friends and sometimes from our families. The priests and other pastoral agents are unable to meet their communities’ spiritual needs perhaps most painfully represented in the absence of public funerals for those who have passed on. The restrictions on attendance at funerals have already left issues of grief unresolved, and space for such feelings to be expressed will be needed before many are ready to pick up and reconstruct what’s left of their lives.
What has been learnt so far from this period has been the discovery that relationships matter more than all those endless meetings that were clattered on my calendar. The lack of those meetings to attend has enabled clergy and even family members to spend time with individuals near them, seeing how they are, which is invaluable. That is what I believe Jesus wants to see happening in our societies. Too often, we have been busy with our wants without a serious thought about others unless we can get something out of them to our benefit.
It’s amazing how during the lockdown, I’m able to use the ‘alone’ time beneficially. Am able to pray for others better and support them, simply through habitual pastoral phone calls and chats. Admittedly the greatest challenge though has been to reach the majority of my parishioners who don’t own mobile phones. They have been in my prayers always so that they don’t lose their faith and hope during these trying times.
The isolation has impacted heavily on our liturgies. Like most churches around the world, St Marys Mission, Lukosi in Hwange, sadly has been closed to the public and usual chime of the gigantic bell in the spire by the porch forgotten. The lay people are unable to gather and the pastoral workers (priests, religious and catechists) are unable to meet with them as the nation braces for potentially the worst public-health crisis judging from how the virus has ravaged countries with better medical facilities than our own.
While the children of Israel cried to God for reprieve, we also make our clarion call to God not from the usual Grottos or pews but from places of quarantine, our homes, alone or with our loved ones. I also cry alone inside an empty church knowing that the rest of the community is with me in spirit facing an ever-attentive God.
At this moment I cannot help but think of the petty religious conflicts that have torn families apart. With the lockdown I wonder if those religious differences are still relevant to families as they have been forced to stay indoors; most probably not. Thus, sending a chilling reminder and food for thought to us, pastors. The conflicts based on our different creeds and religious values that our congregants and their families find themselves embroiled in have been a result of our inability to just preach about the Love of God, Mercy of God and the new Life Christ came to offer humanity. We have selfishly been busy sowing the seeds of division and self-service hoping to fill the pews in our particular houses of worship.
Many Christians have not been receiving the Eucharist for months now, our first Sunday back together needs to be something much richer and more nourishing than before. Familiarity indeed breeds contempt, now therefore is the time to rethink patterns of service and come up with strategies that make people love God, themselves and above all their neighbour.
For many of us the pandemic has been ruthless and we are likely to emerge from it beaten, hurt, and economically debilitated. Even before the pandemic, most of our parishes were struggling financially. Few people attend Masses. Most of those who attend come irregularly, leaving fewer people to fill collection baskets. The parishes are already having a torrid time paying the utility bills and salaries. For many too the high cost of maintaining our older church buildings has heavily been felt.
Advent of virtual communities
Almost anyone can live-stream now. Sparingly even most Clergy too. The clergy have discovered how easy it is to take the word of God to their parishioners’ living rooms, share daily prayers or Sunday worship with people at home. Thus, forming what Pope Francis, in His 53rd World Communications Day message refers to as virtual communities. By doing so, we have been able to connect with new people who have not previously been coming to church, but are keen to pray or explore the faith in their own homes. We also connect with the sick and elderly members of the parishes who can no longer get to church, but feel more involved when they can worship online with the rest of the flock on a Sunday or midweek. We are members of one another (Eph. 4,25). Alone yet not lonely anymore. For those who do not have access to cyberspace, some have had to rely on short messages services or social interaction platforms such as WhatsApp for pre-recorded reflections in text, audio or video form. Daily prayers have also been formulated, printed on flyers and distributed to those with no data or even a phone but can read. That keeps us going as Catholics.
Abiding presence of God
Coming back from exile involves both hard work and new opportunity. Prophet Haggai challenged the Israelites, as they returned from exile, and assured them of God’s active presence among them, so that they need not be afraid: “‘But now be strong Oh Zerubbabel. . . Be strong all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you . . . and my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2.4-5). The same verses speak to us today.
There is also remarkable opportunity in this current crisis, however. In the midst of these hardships there is hope of the revival of the community spirit and a rejection of selfishness as socially unacceptable. We are all created in the image of God and that essentially makes us related irrespective of our different religious denominations.
The lockdown calls us to live more humble lives. Embrace simpler pleasures such as time doing gardening, home cooked meal, reading a spiritual book, or even having evening prayers with the family, all of which are healthy practices for both body and soul. May we also continue to engage in sustainable development, live more gently and harmoniously with creation, and with those most affected by the current crisis.
When we emerge from this lockdown my hope is that we will all have rediscovered those essential values of Community, caring for those in need, and the world per se as Pope Francis in Laudato Si implored.