The life of a rural based priest under Covid-19 in Zimbabwe

By Br. Alfonce Kugwa

The life of a catholic parish or mission is in its people and the relationship is like that of fish and water. Canon Law teaches that a parish is a certain community of Christ’s faithful stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor (Can. 515 § 1). No parish can exist without the support of the community of the Christian faithful. The advent of Covid-19 almost collapsed this relationship and doomed the meaning of a parish. The parish is alive because of the people who nurture it with their gifts while taking care of the parish priest and the infrastructure. Without parishioners, there is no parish, there is no church and the priest is a lone figure.

The era of Covid-19 has taught us new lessons; that a church can be closed and a parish can be empty of visitors who usually make it vibrant and life giving. Some people actually took advantage of the lockdown to forget their parish; not only the physical place but their obligations towards the parish, of taking care of the priests and religious and making the necessary contributions that maintain the church.

While other rural parishes were organised enough to take care of their spiritual fathers, some had been deserted with no one paying a visit to inquire about the welfare of the parish and the religious who take care of the infrastructure. One of the rural priests said Covid-19 did not deter his parishioners from taking care of the parish.

“We continue to receive support from the parishioners as religious in the mission. They organise themselves in their small Christian communities and make contributions towards the upkeep of the sisters and the priest,” said Fr. Terrence Mapwashike, the parish priest of Driefontein Mission.

Fr. Mapwashike however said COVID-19 and the suspension of public gatherings did not spare his parish from experiencing financial doldrums as parishes draw their financial strength from contributions made by the Christians.

“Since the suspension of church gatherings, the parish has been affected financially. The day to day running of the parish demands that we organise ourselves as a parish and make contributions towards the running costs. The economic situation which has affected the working class has its effects on the rural people, most of whom depend on the support received from family members in the cities. This also affected the contributions made towards church business. Also, most of the parish projects were stalled as a result of effects of Covid-19,” Fr. Mapwashike said.

One priest said his parish was doing its best to take care of him even in the midst of Covid-19. He said the members contributed groceries and farm produce owing to the good rains, while they come to maintain the church premises. He said he kept himself connected to his flock through audio reflections and virtual payers. However, the priest bemoaned cash contributions which he said were affected by the rains as his community is of artisanal miners or gold panners whose life stream has been affected by the rains; makomba akazara mvura, said the priest.

A priest in Gokwe confided in this paper that he survived on selling chickens and goats that he received before the lockdown. He said the people have completely forgotten about the parish let alone checking on his welfare. He said he was not receiving anything from the people whom he said were equally burdened to make ends meet for their families.

On a visit to Murehwa, the reporter discovered that Christians had devised means of collecting money and other contributions for the sustenance of the parish. They sent WhatsApp and text messages encouraging each other to contribute towards the welfare of the religious and priests while the small Christian community leaders made door to door visits conscientising people on the need to support their spiritual leaders.

Fr. Keto Sithole of Hwange Diocese praised his parishioners and the bishop for supporting them during the Covid-19 induced lock down.

“The parishioners have been very supportive,” he said, adding that St. Mary’s is a rural mission and the people there survive on nutrition gardens sponsored by World Vision.

“So the people try their best although they are also struggling. The Bishop has also been very supportive to ensure that priests were not completely grounded and starved,” said Fr. Keto.

Fr. Keto admitted that Covid-19 has kept people away from the church resulting in parishes becoming bankrupt to pay for amenities such as electricity, water and ancillary staff. He said he felt challenged by failing to execute his ministry especially among the elderly and the sick whom he said need their services most.

Fr. Joaquim Chukucha of Don Bosco Mission in Mberengwa concurred with Fr. Keto that life has not been easy for rural based priests in the Covid era. Fr. Chukucha said the lock down has prohibited them from meeting and planning together with his parishioners who need encouragement in order to participate in supporting the parish. He reiterated that his parish is located in a drought stricken area where people depend on food handouts from NGOs like Caritas, hence looking after a priest or the religious was a big challenge for them.

“Life for us was very difficult as rural based priests. We had and still have very little support from the community. The little they brought could not sustain us for long. Here and there you would find few individuals who would drop one or two things for us, but the bottom line is that Covid-19 was a blow for priests serving in rural areas,” he said.

The priest said they survived through locally possible fundraising initiatives such as brewing opaque beer for sale with the assistance of villagers.

He stated: “Tinotobikisa doro rendari tichitengesa mumaraini (We brew opaque beer for sale in the villages with the assistance of some parishioners. This supported us very much as selling opaque beer is a lucrative business venture here because makorokoza (gold panners) like it very much. Some of our friends would occasionally send us something as backup. Our chicken project folded up because the market was flooded and because of the lock down we could not take them to the growth point or to town for sell. We are planning to secure a grinding mill and open a tuckshop so that we can generate income to support the needs of the place.”

Catholic Church News realised that the life of rural based priests and religious under Covid-19 was not a walk in the park. Most of these spiritual shepherds had many challenges than can be imagined. They suffered just like their ordinary flock in terms of the scarcity of funds to keep the mission or parish running, finding food and the personal protective clothing. Some parishes would need a lot of financial investment and support in order for them to recover and regain their glory.

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