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More than a building: The Church is not on lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has had a deep impact on our ability to be community. Mathibela Sebothoma reflects that although we share the sorrow of not being able to attend Mass, we have been given the gift of restoring the tradition of prayer in the family and remembering that there is more beyond the fragility of the human condition.

“Father, I have not seen something like this in a long time,” remarked Mr Khumalo with a beaming smile on his face. I thought he was referring to the baptism of fire he experienced as the chairperson of the Sacred Heart Cathedral parish pastoral council. Together with the top six of the council they were ministering at all of the five Sunday Masses introduced as a response to President Ramaphosa’s directives of 100 people per Mass.

They had to make sure that the disaster management act gazetted by government was adhered to – spraying hands with sanitizers and keeping individuals one meter apart in a usually crowded place to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the strain of the coronavirus that has been declared a global pandemic. I congratulated their noble sacrifice and said this was what pastoral care ministry is all about – “to serve and not to be served.”

The family was united in prayer and conversation

But that was not the reason for his smile. “For the first time, after a long time, our family was under one roof on a Sunday where we shared meals, prayers and conversations.” This dreaded disease which disrupted life as we know it had a positive effect on his family.

In the words of former Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Some South Africans failed to adhere to President Ramaphosa’s call for self-quarantine and social distancing for the better good of society. More and more people were spreading the virus to infect other unknowingly. As of now more than a thousand people have tested positive for Covid-19. Three of our compatriots have succumbed to the disease.

Archbishop Dabula Mpako of Pretoria subsequently issued a directive to suspend all Masses, including the Holy Week ceremonies: The Chrism Mass and Easter Triduum until the national lockdown is lifted by the authorities. This is how dire the situation is.

When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:6

At a deeper spiritual level, this is the real Lenten season we never wished for thanks to Covid-19. All of us are challenged to self-isolate. Jesus instructed us: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

During the Ash Wednesday service we heard God clearly saying Genesis 3:19 remember “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This verse will be repeated when our mortal remains are put in the ground. Dust should remind us that we are vulnerable and fragile as we have witnessed thousands of people succumbing to this global endemic. If we do not self-isolate or keep a safe social distance, we will become dust sooner than later.

Fr Joel Skhosana, in one of his audio messages, warned us against blaming Satan for the corona virus He says sometimes we give the devil the due that he does not deserve. This virus like TB and HIV/AIDS is transferred from person to person. God does not wish for us to die, but have life abundantly here on earth and in heaven.

Let us try to keep to our Lenten strivings we made on Ash Wednesday. Let us allow the Spirit of God to quarantine us in a place of stillness and prayer like the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the desert for forty days and forty nights.

Reviving the domestic church

It is never too late to start our personal Lenten discipline. In the absence of official liturgies, we can turn our homes into domestic churches. Our parents can assume their priestly duties by leading family prayers and gathering us around the table to share meals like Jesus did with his disciples.

On Fridays we can take turns praying the Stations of the Cross. We can make our palms and rejoice Hosanna. On Easter we can light our own candles and renew our baptismal vows. At noon we can ring our self-made bells to pray the Angelus or the Regina Caeli. We have ample time to read the Bible and do catechism at home. Oh let us pray for those working during this time while we are on retreat.

In the absence of official liturgies, we can turn our homes into domestic churches.

After all the Church did not start with buildings and formal liturgies. The Church started in the upper room. Priests will continue to celebrate daily Masses – you can still send your mass intentions via Whatsapp.

The national lockdown does not mean an end to our spiritual life. We are still members of the Body of Christ. He is always with us, 2 or 3 gathered in his name. Let us not waste the crisis we are facing.

Sooner we will echo Charles Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.