Pastoral Reflections and Exhortations in the Context of COVID-19

Thursday 16 July 2020

  1. A Shepherd’s Reflection

Out of heartfelt compassion and a desire to share a message of faith, hope and courage in the context of the scourge of COVID-19, we your Shepherds write to you our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We therefore address ourselves to;

Priests, Religious Brothers and Sisters, and our esteemed lay faithful.

We recall the words of the second Vatican council,

“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ…” Gaudium et Spes #1

These words are especially applicable today in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant difficulties worldwide. We write to share in that pain, anguish, confusion and yet filled with faith and hope in the Lord.

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and human dignity is the foundation of moral decisions. Therefore, our response to the pandemic seeks to preserve human life while safeguarding human dignity.

 2.       The Journey So Far

We begin by acknowledging the difficulties presented by the nature of the disease namely that the virus has no cure, that it is highly contagious, that there are many among us who will be infected and be asymptomatic and will therefore be carriers and transmitters. Some of us will develop symptoms and in cases will need hospitalization and medical assistance. Therefore, it is appreciable that lockdown has been put in place in the interest of safeguarding people. To further our safety, measures have been introduced which include washing/sanitising of hands, social distancing, wearing of face masks, reducing unnecessary movement even within the spaces where we had freedom to move about. Some among us have found these measures burdensome and difficult yet we wish to reiterate that the spirit behind them has been our own safety and that of our sisters and brothers. As a church whose foundations are inseparable from the celebration of sacraments together in unity, this period has not been easy for all.

Together we had to forego the communal celebration of the Eucharist which is at the heart of Christian worship. We have not been able to sufficiently accompany our sick with the sacrament of healing. Indeed we have missed out on our fitting send-off for those who have left us during this time. This has been very difficult and very sad yet it was necessary. Other sacraments around which our growth in faith is centered were also affected: the administration of the sacrament of reconciliation, baptisms and weddings were either cancelled or postponed till further notice. In short, worship and prayer the way we were accustomed was greatly disrupted.

 3.       Our Faith Life

The disruption, which we have struggled with, has become an opportunity for the church to rediscover herself.  Without access to our Church buildings and coming together as a community, we have found ways to sustain each other in faith through praying together as families, encouraging each other through social media and accompanying one another in both sickness and death. We have given each other strength and hope through the most powerful of ministry, presence to each other. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” (Mt 18:20) We acknowledge the triumph of faith and commitment and we would like to express our heartfelt gratitude to you our brothers and sisters in faith. We are aware that the spirit of the Lord has enabled us all to fill the vacuum that has been created by the very restrictions put in place to protect us all. The demonstration of resilient faith in this time has been a special form of ministry in its own right. We thank you and we thank God for this gift. We believe that the significantly smaller than feared devastation to date is largely due to the prayers that you have been offering up to the Lord for protection and safety and to the precautionary measures that we have followed so diligently.

 4.       God is Always Present

Reflecting on this time that the people of God are going through, questions may arise; some of which reflect a challenging of the very foundations of our faith. “Where is God in all this?” We may echo the words of the followers of John the Baptist “What are we to do?” (Lk 3:10) Faith calls for a deeper reflection and interpretation of reality, in this particular case, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Using the wisdom of our forebears in faith we want to acknowledge that this questioning is normal. As our opening remarks from Vatican II suggest, these very concerns are the concerns of the people of God and God is present through them. As God sent Isaiah to reassure the exiles that he was there with them and that in the fullness of time he would restore Israel, we proclaim that God cares for his people today and is there among us during this time.  Our own sufferings of deprivation, loss, anxiety find meaning in the suffering of Christ who faced with the cross could still pray to the Father and say, “Not my will but yours be done!” (Lk 22:42)

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” … (Jn. 13:35) This again is the very message for us today. Livelihoods that were already heavily strained due to the economic situation in the country, the droughts of the last two years, Cyclone Idai and other factors have taken a further knock under the lockdown. The threat of starvation is real for many households. As we acknowledge how we have been there for one another, we urge a strengthening of that communal and brotherly spirit where we care for one another so that no lives are lost unnecessarily as we seek meaningful ways to recover from this pandemic. Let us continue to be conscious of and respond to the needs of those who are less fortunate and vulnerable within our communities.

An area that has suffered severe disruption is education. There is high level of anxiety in our young people over their education and their future. Parents and teachers are equally concerned. Here we recall the words of the Lord, “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Is 41:10). God’s designs are always greater than ours. Therefore, as our children gradually return to school let us remain cautious. In the meantime, let us give them the reassurance that God’s plans always triumph.

 5.       Living in Faith, Love and Hope

With the easing of lockdown restrictions at the national level we are invited to find a healthy balance between continuing to be cautious, as the disease is still very much among us, and extending the love and compassion of Christ to one another, especially those among us who lost loved ones, those who are in a desperate need of the sacraments of healing, confession and the sacrament of the sick and those who are seeking sacramental growth in baptism, first communion or holy matrimony. The Spirit behind the guidelines is for the protection of all God’s children, therefore, where these sacraments can be celebrated without compromising health and safety, we urge that they be celebrated.

Thus we reiterate the message that has been heard in various ways namely,

·         Let us keep our numbers in gatherings under 50.

·         Let us wash and sanitise our hands frequently

·         Let us practise social distancing

·         Let us wear face masks

  • Let us care for the vulnerable and the marginalised

These measures are to be observed when we gather to pray but they apply everywhere else, namely in our homes, in the places where we gather for the routine things of our lives such as shopping, working, exercising etc.  In the light of the pandemic, when we do these things, we are following the commandment of our Lord, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself!” (Mk 12:31). We are called to protect ourselves and to protect others, particularly the vulnerable among us.  Each one of us as a disciple of Jesus has a personal responsibility to adhere to these guidelines.

A special message to our brother priests:  We are aware of all the efforts you have made in carrying on with pastoral activities amidst difficult and trying times. At this moment we are especially inspired by your caring for the flock entrusted to us by the eternal shepherd. We thus make a special call for you to be available, to be compassionate, and to be of service to God’s people. Let us offer Masses for the faithful departed, for all those who were buried without a Mass and let us spread them out over the next few months culminating with the Mass for All Souls. In all this let us remember to lighten the burden for the poor who have already suffered a lot of deprivation.

COVID-19 has created a need for celebrating sacraments in the new normal. We your shepherds continue to reflect and pray for creative ways of living in this new paradigm. Let us all hear God’s words to the prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will surely help you; I will uphold you with My right hand of righteousness. (Is 41:10)

God Bless You All

+Robert C. Ndlovu, Archbishop of Harare                        (ZCBC President)

+Alex Thomas, Archbishop of Bulawayo               (ZCBC Vice President)

+Paul Horan, Bishop of Mutare                              (ZCBC Secretary/Treasurer)

+Michael D. Bhasera, Bishop of Masvingo & Apostolic Administrator of Gweru

+Albert Serrano, Bishop of Hwange

+Rudolf Nyandoro, Bishop of Gokwe        

+Raymond Mupandasekwa, Bishop of Chinhoyi

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