The South African Council of Churches has welcomed the South African government’s decision to allow places of worship to resume services for groups of no more than 50 people. Margaret Blackie questions this enthusiasm at a time when the risk of COVID-19 contamination is the greatest. She argues that an individual hunger to go to church that endangers the community runs counter to the core message of the Gospels.
South Africa has just entered Level Three lockdown in the nationwide response to COVID-19. Somewhat surprisingly, despite clear evidence that we are entering the most dangerous phase of disease transmission, the president has permitted the gathering of faith communities of up to 50 people at the request of religious leaders.
Happily, many of the mainstream denominations have decided to hold off opening for now. But the South African Christian Leadership Initiative (SACLI) seem fairly determined that the opening of churches is a good thing.
As a practicing Roman Catholic, I am deeply distressed that my own denomination has likewise welcomed this stance, although individual parishes and some dioceses have chosen to remain closed to in-person worship for now.
Attending church is not more important than the common good
My question is: How have we got to the position where we think that my desire to attend church is more important than the risk posed to every person, I come into contact with in the two-week period following going to church?
The argument for in-person religious worship takes different forms in the various Christian denominations, but I’ll give an illustration of how this is playing out in my own church.
To those who don’t know, the Roman Catholic understanding of Holy Communion is that at Holy Mass, during the consecration, prayed by the priest, the bread and wine actually becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. The technical term for this is ‘transubstantiation’. It means that the form doesn’t change – it still appears to be bread and wine – but the substance changes into the real presence of Jesus Christ.
Participating in the Mass then and receiving the Eucharist (communion) is a central part of what it is to be Catholic. In fact, if one misses a Sunday mass then one is obliged to go to confession before they can receive the Eucharist again.
Let me make this clear: As a practicing Catholic, I am missing the Eucharist.
The thing that has disturbed me in the last few days has been the insistence that we should be allowed to go to Mass. Various hyperbolic examples are given where people have either died or been willing to die to receive the Eucharist. But what is happening right now is not that. This issue here is a health crisis, not a crisis of faith.
If my going to Mass only put me at risk, then I would agree, open the churches. But in the midst of a highly contagious virus, that is clearly passed on before symptoms appear, my participation not only endangers me. Going to Mass potentially endangers every single person with whom I come into contact in the two weeks that follow. This seems to be a very selfish action.
I understand the hunger for the Eucharist, but what kind of Gospel would suggest that it is somehow an act of faith for me to satisfy my hunger, whilst putting potentially dozens of people at risk? When I read the Gospels, I simply cannot imagine that the Jesus described in those pages endorses the satisfying of an individual desire or hunger at the cost of the community.
Yes, Jesus interacted with lepers, but it seems that this disease (whatever it actually was) was transmissible only once skin lesions were visible. Jesus put himself at risk, but he did not knowingly also place others at risk.
I am left asking myself what kind of catechesis we have received focuses so centrally on the Eucharist that we do not believe that we can experience the presence of Christ in our daily lives.
Finding God in new ways
I write this on the Feast of Pentecost. There is no mention in the Scriptures that the gathered disciples broke bread on that day, there is just an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit less present now, less pervasive, less accessible in the very fabric of our lives? I don’t think so, we just have to open our eyes!
There are two questions for the whole Christian community to ponder at this time.
Firstly, how do we all become more aware of the presence of God in our daily lives? There may be many ways that we can. For me the simple practice of the prayer of the examen has made a huge difference. Secondly, we reflect on how, during this pandemic, the practice of our faith has become so individualistic that we would quite literally be willing to sacrifice the lives of others to practice it?