Since the global pandemic began over a year ago, religious leaders have sought ways to support the larger community while providing for the needs of members of their congregations. For the next several weeks, we will publish pandemic stories from alumni of the Collegeville Institute’s programs, both in the United States and abroad.
The following post was written by Paulachan Kochappilly, CMI, a professor in Bangalore, India, and a former Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute.
The waves of the Covid-19 pandemic broke open a Pandora’s box of untold miseries worldwide, and my home country of India is no exception. Here, I have witnessed the silent shattering of life and livelihoods on the margins of our society. Surprisingly, this crisis has also helped to pull down walls of segregation and discrimination and facilitated the discovery of the equal dignity and inherent connectivity of all human beings.
The pandemic made many people here afraid. The Indian government added a sense of terror due to the sudden and stringent national lockdown without any planning or preparation. The government’s move caused alarm while leaving the Indian population clueless as to how to cope with the virus.
For example, even as internal migrant workers and their families were hit worst by the pandemic, economic shutdowns forced many to set out on an exodus on foot to their villages, thousands of kilometers away from their workplaces.
The sick and the aged were isolated in conditions that deprived them of human warmth, company, and relationships. In response to the pandemic, religious communities generously provided food aid packets and alimentary items, although not without struggle. Asvas, the wing of Dharmaram College in Bangalore where I teach that serves the differently abled and shares midday meals with people in the neighborhood, faced a tough time preparing and serving food during the lockdown.
Since the center could not allow volunteers to enter the campus to prepare food, a few priests and brothers of the Major Study House took the initiative to cook food daily and packed it to be distributed among the people most in need. It was also a moment of religious solidarity. Many consecrated women and men belonging to different neighboring religious communities, came together and cooked food and distributed it. In an exceptional gesture, Bishop Barnabas of New Delhi was at the forefront of supplying food for the people.
In addition to these acts of direct service, the shutdown imposed on churches resulted in other positive results. Liturgical celebrations went digital and the faithful participated in them from home. It amounted to a sea change for regular, ordinary worshippers. For many, the online services became a new normal for the festivities in the liturgical calendar.
Although the usually crowded churches were empty, the church services found a welcome entry in every home. As a result, family was given its prime place in the life of the community; the pastors visited the families of the faithful, although virtually. The Church of Christ is where the people of God are; the pastors go in search of the sheep.
Despite its horrors, the pandemic showed us that the family is the domestic church—it is itself an epiphany of the church.
The wall between the family and the parish began crumbling and the pastors started seeing the umbilical connection between the two. This paved the way for a genuine understanding of the real church. Worship of God at home took us to the roots of the Christian liturgy. Covid-19 helped us to understand and appreciate the family setting of faith and character formation.
People flocked home during the pandemic for safety, security, and sustenance. In many homes, multiple generations labored alongside each other, working in the garden, producing vegetables, and cooking homemade food. People created their own homebound entertainment and prayed together. It was a discovery of the beauty of family life.
Despite its horrors, the pandemic showed us that the family is the domestic church—it is itself an epiphany of the church. Even more, theologian Walter Kasper has argued that the family, so important during the pandemic, is the way of the future church.
The pandemic also invited many people in India to deepen their personal encounter with the Lord, the bedrock of spirituality and religiosity, and opened the way to a sense of mysticism and a consciousness of interdependence. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said. The lockdown helped renew this connectivity between the disciples and the one who gives them life.
The pandemic imposed a moratorium on the huge collections for the construction of massive church buildings and extravagant community celebrations. Since there were no financial collections, the churches became poor. They were inspired to follow the path of Jesus – the way of simplicity, humility, and solidarity, manifesting the mercy of God: “Go and do likewise.”
Religious communities also learned to shed their anxieties in order to share responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole person and all persons in the neighborhood. For example, burying the dead was a nightmare during the pandemic. Showcasing extraordinary courage and commitment was a team of young women and men from parishes who carried out the funeral rites of the dead. At a time when some families ostracized their members for getting infected, these teams, strengthened by their faith in the Lord, cared for the dignity of the departed and carried out fearlessly the last rites for people they hardly knew.
Burying the dead was a nightmare during the pandemic, but religious communities courageously offered assistance.
Sahrudaya, the charitable arm of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, formed teams of volunteers across its parishes to perform the last rites for people dying due to Covid-19 irrespective of their religious affiliation. Interestingly, a considerable number of young priests of different dioceses formed groups to ensure the funeral rites were carried out with dignity, including bearing the coffins and interring the body, while wearing Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and complying with the pandemic protocols.
The pandemic taught us to join our hands with all people of good will in addressing the problems and challenges contemplatively, compassionately, and with care. A feminine, intuitive, and holistic approach to issues was of great benefit in addressing the challenges; the women world leaders exemplified it through their effective management skills, insightfully and intuitively applied.
As we observe the anniversary of the outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown on March 24, 2020, let us raise our hearts in gratitude for the roll out of vaccines to combat coronavirus. At the same time, let us not forget the lessons we learned about service, family, and the inherent connectivity of all human beings.