2020 is not turning out to be what we expected. The economy is in dire straits, schooling has been disrupted, and community-based worship has been suspended as a result of the national lockdown in efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Paulina French explains her decision to stop going to Mass, even before the lockdown. Even though it was a difficult choice, she felt that it was more important to protect those around her. This sacrifice has brought her a new perspective on what it means to be Church and she has also learnt more about her family.
In years to come we are likely be asked the question: “Where were you during the COVID-19 pandemic?”
I clearly remember the first cases of a new deadly virus being reported on in Wuhan City, China around Christmas last year. A virus that caused a severe respiratory illness with fatalities in some cases. I didn’t think much of it and we celebrated Christmas and made great plans for 2020. We all declared that 2020 would be the year we would remember. How right we were.
In the space of a few months our world has changed. Images from Italy and Spain of people lying ill in hospital beds surrounded by exhausted healthcare workers have gone viral. Travel bans, social distancing, isolation and lockdowns have become words we use almost every day. We are all likely to be impacted directly or indirectly and the most vulnerable in our society: the poor, the displaced, the elderly and the sick are the most at risk.
Our schools have closed — some earlier than was anticipated. Those fortunate enough to have their children in a private school have been able to continue with remote learning. There are, however, many public schools that will not be able to provide such resources to ensure that education continues should schools remain closed longer than the scheduled lockdown period from 27 March until 16 April. Our education system is problematic as it is and this has compounded the problem.
Places of work have closed, and many employees who can are now working from home. An economic meltdown is in progress as restaurants, and businesses that are considered to be providing non-essential goods or services shutdown for 21 days.
Erratic communication from the Church
What has been strikingly missing in all of the past few weeks for me has been communication, or lack thereof, from the Catholic Church, using the different mediums available. And I don’t mean just by the clergy — I mean by the people who make up the Church — us the communities. Social media is the new way of communicating to the masses. If you don’t have a presence on social media, you are likely to be left behind.
I have noticed that many dioceses in our country have actively utilised the many different platforms to communicate with their communities about COVID-19 and the plans that they are making to reach out to them during this time. But there are also a number of them who have not communicated anything at all and it makes me wonder what these dioceses are doing to get the message to their communities. In fact, there are a few bishops who have Twitter accounts but who have to give you permission to follow them.
I have found it very distressing to see that up until President Ramaphosa announced the National Lockdown on 23 March, there were still parishes who were continuing with Masses, even though they were limiting the number to 100. It was as if 100 was a magic number after the announcement of a national state of disaster by the President on the evening of 15 March.
Sacrificing Mass for the common good
As a family we decided that we would not physically attend Mass. It was a heart-breaking decision and a very difficult one for us to make but we thought long and hard about the possible risks associated with us attending.
You see, we realised that it’s not really about us. It’s about my elderly mother who has just been diagnosed with a chronic illness and, who two weeks ago, was admitted to hospital because of a serious heart condition. It’s about the lady who works in our home who, by her travel to and from our home using public transport, could potentially infect thousands of people who have compromised immune systems. It’s about our gardener who may come into contact with people who may become gravely ill and may not have the resources to get tested or treated. It’s about the people I may come into contact as I go about my daily life.
It’s about the common good. This is something which I think many dioceses and parishes have failed to understand.
I find it even more distressing that some parishes are sending out messages that during this lockdown time parishioners are asked to continue to make financial contributions in order to keep the operations of the church going. I sincerely hope that these operations include the feeding of the poor and ministering to the most vulnerable in the community like the sick and the elderly.
As our country goes into lockdown it means that we will not be able to attend Mass at all during the upcoming Easter weekend. Easter has always been an important time for us as a family. To keep our spiritual connection with our faith we have decided to stream Mass on Sundays. We sit in our lounge with our Sunday Missals and we participate as if we were sitting together with our community. But for us our spiritual connection is more than this because church is not a place for us. It’s who we choose to be kind to. It’s who we help, love, forgive, pray for, laugh with, share sorrows with and share a meal with. We are the Church through the way we live.
Rediscovering the family
During this period of being socially isolated I am learning new things about both my girls. I am learning about their fears, their anger at times and their disappointment at having to postpone celebrations as well as life changing events. I am learning about their dreams and their love for each other by watching how they support each other during the remote schooling period. How they go about helping around the house with chores and manage to keep away from the study where my husband and I are working.
I am learning new things about my husband too — his inner strength that he quietly uses to keep us grounded as a family, and his optimistic outlook even when there is great uncertainty. Most of all, I am learning that we are stronger when we are together than when we are apart during times like this.
We are definitely not a perfect family and there have been times when I have wanted to put my head in a pillow and scream! I have experienced fear, felt overwhelmed and shed a few tears already. We are all going through a phase in our lives where the only thing we can control is our attitude towards this crisis and the actions we take.
What we do today will determine what happens tomorrow, and the longer we try to keep our lives as they were before, the longer the disruption will last.