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COVID and the Church 12 months on


It’s hard to believe that a year ago when we were writing stories for the March edition of The Southern Cross there was not one mention of the word COVID!

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Within days of the newspaper coming out the dramatic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Australia and our way of life was becoming all too clear. By mid-March we had suspended Masses temporarily and faced the devastating prospect of not being able to celebrate Easter in our churches. Before long places of worship were not even open for prayer and any hope of Masses resuming in time for Holy Week was extinguished.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what our Catholic community has been through over the past 12 months, albeit only a small part of the COVID story.

First it was adapting to live streaming and Zoom gatherings, then parish volunteers became COVID marshals and social distancing police, hand sanitiser dispensers replaced holy water fonts, singing was forbidden, QR codes and sign-in sheets made starting Mass on time problematic, and the collection plates were shelved.

Prayers were offered for a parishioner who contracted the disease and very nearly died, two bishops were installed (Adelaide and Port Pirie) in the presence of a few and the historic Plenary Council scheduled to take place in Adelaide was postponed. Weddings were on again off again, funerals were delayed and/or live streamed, sacramental programs were abandoned.

It wasn’t just church-goers affected either; several Catholic schools were closed and their students quarantined, many much-needed Centacare services were delivered by phone or online, and residents of Catholic aged care facilities and hospitals were isolated from family and friends.

Yes we are now back at church, albeit in a far more controlled manner, and we are looking forward to being able to pray and worship at this most significant time of the Christian calendar. The commencement of the vaccination program is further cause for optimism, as is the low to zero number of community infections in our State and country.

But we are yet to know what the full implications will be of this massive interruption to the way we practise our faith and whether the already dwindling numbers of people attending many Mass centres will be compounded by the temporary restrictions on church attendance.

I know some parishes are already seeing more people return to Sunday Mass, to the point where they are diverting them to other services if they are at COVID capacity. This is heartening indeed, and hopefully the further easing of restrictions will see greater numbers accommodated in the not too distant future.

While we may have found new ways to worship and pray, there is no substitute for ‘being present’ and celebrating the Eucharist as a community.

Now is the perfect time for parishes and communities to show that they are places of welcome and outreach, to encourage people back to the fold and perhaps even attract new members!

At another level, the pandemic has provided the Catholic Church and other faith-based organisations with an opportunity to regain some relevance and credibility by playing a role in the nation’s economic recovery.

Catholic Social Services Australia is a signatory to a letter written by an alliance of Christian community organisations to the Prime Minister and Government leaders in which they refer to their capacity to contribute to ‘stabilisation and then restoration’, as they have in previous disasters including the two world wars.

‘It is in this spirit we collectively vow to seek the welfare of this country, its peace, its flourishing, and its prosperity – to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable, to carry the burdens of the broken, and to raise up those without the strength to carry on,’ the letter says.

Of course actions speak louder than words, but faith-based organisations provide more than half of all welfare services in Australia, and as such are well positioned to identify the areas of greatest need, to provide assistance and to advocate for good social policy.

On the world stage, Pope Francis has taken a lead in calling for a just and equitable approach to rolling out the COVID-19 vaccines, a call echoed by Catholic Religious Australia which issued a statement last month opposing the stockpiling of COVID-19 vaccines by wealthy nations.

CRA cited a UNICEF and World Health Organisation report that more than three quarters of the 128 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered so far have occurred in only 10 countries but which account for 60 per cent of global GDP.

It is pleasing to see that the Australian Government recently changed its position on who will receive free vaccines to include those on temporary protection visas and bridging visas, refugees, asylum seekers and those in detention facilities.

It’s a pity that goodwill didn’t extend to granting them visas now that we have no more refugees coming into Australia due to international travel restrictions!

There are big challenges ahead for not just the Church but society as a whole. Already we are seeing tensions arise between an individual’s right to refuse the vaccine, and the need to protect the elderly, people with disabilities and other vulnerable people.

However, one thing we have learnt from the pandemic is that the Christian principles of sacrifice, compassion and the common good still have a place in our world today.


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