We are in the midst of the pandemic COVID-19; it has gripped the world, in a manner which no other catastrophe, calamity or crisis has done before. The defining quantum is the ‘unknown’; no one knows how and where and in what manner it will strike. As of today, nobody knows when it will end. In a recent statement the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said some 80% of the positive cases in India were either completely asymptomatic or with very mild symptoms. Each day ‘newer’ dimensions of this pandemic are being discovered. That makes this pandemic all the scarier for most. Then social and other media abounds in all kinds of ‘cures’ , ‘remedies’ and ‘preventives’ . Finally there is the ‘fear’ factor; the fear of the unknown has already taken a toll everywhere. With more than two months of lockdown in the country, everybody today lives in a cloud of uncertainty.
The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) had already declared the pandemic as a global emergency on 30 January this year. India was a late starter having woken up to this reality with a token ‘janata curfew’ on 22 March and finally with a nationwide lockdown the midnight of 24/25 March. The sudden lockdown, and the immediate suspension of every form of public transport left millions of migrant workers (most of them daily wage earners) stranded all over the country. Having to fend for themselves thousands undertook the painful trek back to their native places, walking hundreds of miles without food or drink. More than three hundred of them have died on the way. Many have been incarcerated in different states. Some are still walking. The images and other video footage doing the rounds, is to say the least, heart-wrenching! India is today paying a heavy price for a botched lockdown. To defocus from their lack of competency and ineptitude, the Government resorted to gimmicks asking people to ring bells , bang steel plates, clap hands, light deals and even got the Air Force to do a fly-past and shower petals on hospitals at a whopping expense! There has been a tremendous lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) kits and other necessary medical facilities. In Gujarat, for example, there is enough evidence of fake ventilators being sold to Government hospitals by some unscrupulous ‘manufacturers’ close to the ruling regime!
Thankfully, at least one State in India, Kerala got its act together much earlier. Kerala has the dubious distinction of having the first positive case of the corona virus in the country. The State Government however left no stone unturned to deal with pandemic. Today the efforts and response of Kerala are being hailed as a model for the world to emulate. In the midst of all this suffering: of illness, hunger and fear- there are also several positive stories emerging: of hope and resilience; of courage and selflessness; of availability and generosity; of sacrifice and kindness and much more. People have reached out to those in need as never before often at great risk to themselves. Health care professionals, other care givers and their support teams have worked round the clock to save lives and provide the much needed medical assistance. Police and other security, officials and those who need to ensure that the basic protocols are maintained have also done so painstakingly and at great risk.
The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown has also had a profound impact on the Church. ‘Going’ to Church has literally come to a standstill. Masses, devotions and other spiritual exercises are livestreamed online. Family prayer and personal devotions have certainly increased; the ‘new’ way of being Church has also meant that the traditional way of ‘being Church’ may undergo a sea change in future. The Church has reached out to those affected; Church personnel and laity have reached out to the migrant workers feeding them and even housing them in certain places. Church hospitals were made available to work in collaboration with the Government. Several schools and colleges are still being used throughout the country for quarantine facilities. ‘Compassion’ has always been a strength of the Church; and in this time of crisis this core competency radiated in many more ways and reached many more.
Life in general will be very different in the months and years; and there will be a ‘new normal’ for all. The pandemic has wrought several changes and with these new challenges will also emerge. The Church will also need to re-invent itself: have the courage to read and interpret the signs of the times and play a prophetic role in a very different context which is emerging. The Church in India will be confronted with a whole range of challenges; these will include:
The Challenge of ‘Evangelii Gaudium’
In November 2013, at the end of the Year of Faith, Pope Francis, in his first Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) emphasized that the heart of the Christian message is “ love for one another which must motivate all Christians to share the Gospel, reach out to the poor and work for social justice”. He emphatically stated that “ the Son of God, becoming flesh, summons us to the revolution of tenderness.” The Exhortation re-emphasized that “the Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might” (#188). Pope Francis goes on further when he talks about the need and importance of solidarity and concern for the vulnerable sections of society.
A few days ago (on 13 May) in an advance message for the 106th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2020 (which is on 27 September) Pope Francis focuses on ‘Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee: Welcoming, Protecting, Promoting and Integrating Internally Displaced Persons’. He says, “I have decided to devote this Message to the drama of internally displaced persons, an often unseen tragedy that the global crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated. In fact, due to its virulence, severity and geographical extent, this crisis has impacted on many other humanitarian emergencies that affect millions of people, which has relegated to the bottom of national political agendas those urgent international efforts essential to saving lives. But “this is not a time for forgetfulness. The crisis we are facing should not make us forget the many other crises that bring suffering to so many people”
In his message he gives the Church, “six pairs of verbs that deal with very practical actions and are linked together in a relationship of cause and effect”. These are (i) you have to know in order to understand (ii) it is necessary to be close in order to serve (iii) in order to be reconciled, we need to listen (iv) in order to grow, it is necessary to share (v) we need to be involved in order to promote and (vi) it is necessary to cooperate in order to build.
All twelve verbs in fact radiate from the ‘joy of the gospels’. Given the fact that millions of migrant workers have been made to suffer so terribly these past couple of months; the dehumanizing and exploitative situation which they are subject to; the fact that that they are treated as ‘outsiders’ and not as citizens of the country lays bare the crass exclusion and inequality which exists in our society today. In ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ Pope Francis, strikes hard when he says, “how can it be that it is not news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Will the Church in India dare walk those miles with the migrant workers of the country? Take up cudgels on their behalf? Critique the ills of an unjust society? Demand that labour policies are in keeping with the Church teachings and not according to the whims and fancies and greed of heartless regimes?
The Challenge of ‘Laudato Si’
On 24 May, will be five full years since Pope Francis gave the world his path-breaking Encyclical ‘Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home’. In this Encyclical he lists a whole range of challenges and is focussed on the idea of ‘ integral ecology’. In the very first chapter, he lists six of the most serious challenges facing our common home; these are:
Pollution, waste and our throwaway culture : “ the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”
Climate change : “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” but “many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”
Water : “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right” yet entire populations, and especially children get sick and die because of contaminated water
Biodiversity : “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species” and the consequences cannot be predicted as “all of us, as living creatures, are dependent on one another”. Often transnational economic interests obstruct this protection
Breakdown of society : Current models of development adversely affect the quality of life of most of humanity and “many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water
Global inequality: Environmental problems affect the most vulnerable people, the greater part of the world’s population and the solution is not reducing the birth rate but counteracting “an extreme and selective consumerism; the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”
The Government today has gone on a downward spiral : doing everything they can to destroy the environment : the Western Ghats and the Aravalli Hills; the building of a dam in Dibang ; the selling of coal mines to private companies ; giving their crony capitalist friends license to loot, plunder and rape the environment and much more!
Will the Church in India transcend the fact that ‘Laudato Si’ is beyond the cosmetic: it is not about growing trees, or a green fad, or a programme to be celebrated occasionally? It is about taking a stand for the environment calling out the rich and the powerful who are destroying our fragile eco-systems and taking away our precious natural resources. It is about the consumeristic throwaway culture which we live in. It is about a society which needs to change immediately and walk on the path of righteousness. At the end Pope Francis poses a direct and sensitive question “ what kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? Are we able to answer it?
The Challenge of being a Communicating Church
On 24 May the Church also observes the ‘54th World Communications Day’. The theme this year is “ That you may tell your children and grandchildren” (Ex 10:2) Life becomes history”. Pope Francis says, “ the title of this year’s Message is drawn from the Book of Exodus, a primordial biblical story in which God intervenes in the history of his people. When the enslaved children of Israel cry out to Him, God listens and remembers: “God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew” (Ex 2: 24-25). God’s memory brings liberation from oppression through a series of signs and wonders. The Lord then reveals to Moses the meaning of all these signs: “that you may tell in the hearing of your children and grandchildren… what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord” (Ex 10:2). The Exodus experience teaches us that knowledge of the Lord is handed down from generation to generation mainly by telling the story of how he continues to make himself present. The God of life communicates with us through the story of life”. So appropriate for today’s times.
Whilst it is mandatory to maintain physical distancing and even to ‘stay-at-home’, there are newer and more enhanced ways of communication today. Yes constant communication with God seems more than ever paramount. Communicating with others seems to have become a new normal in this rather abnormal situation. Social communications is as never before: one is simply inundated with messages, memes and photos all the time on WhatsApp, on Messenger, on Telegram, on Instagram, on Twitter, on Facebook. Some of them are really useful. Messages of hope, that all will be well again. Besides, there have been some excellent programmers on webinar and other communication platforms. But on the other side there is plenty of fake news. Untruth and even hate being spewed out.
Addressing the participants at Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications ( 21 September 2013) Pope Francis said, “Are we able to communicate the face of a Church which is “home” to all? We sometimes speak of a Church that has its doors closed, but here we are contemplating much more than a Church with open doors, much more! . . . We need to bring Christ to others, through these joys and hopes, like Mary, who brought Christ to the hearts of men and women; we need to pass through the clouds of indifference without losing our way; we need to descend into the darkest night without being overcome and disorientated; we need to listen to the dreams, without being seduced; we need to share their disappointments, without becoming despondent; to sympathize with those whose lives are falling apart, without losing our own strength and identity .This is the path. This is the challenge.” The Church, the pandemic has shown us, is not about structures but about attitudes.
Years ago, the Catholic Bishops of India gave themselves the mandate of becoming a ‘Communicating Church’, an honest appraisal will show that the lofty ideals have not translated into something which is effective and prophetic. Hopefully the Feast of the Ascension (24 May) and the Feast of Pentecost (31 May) both days in which we celebrate the ‘communicating’ dimension of our faith will enable new vigour and commitment on the part of the Church.
Will the Church in India play a prophetic role and head-on address the challenges of the Joy of the Gospel, the Caring for Our Common Home and Being a Communicating Church in a post-pandemic nation?
( Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 25th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 22)