People in almost all sectors are facing huge challenges due to Covid 19 and pastoral care is not an exception to it. Although the Churches have been closed since March 25, some conscientious parish priests have been in constant touch with the families under their care and responding to their various needs. In fact, they have redefined the meaning and purpose pastoral care because of their holistic approach to the people.
Last week I phoned to a priest friend of mine on his birthday to convey my greetings and best wishes. He is in charge of a city parish. He spontaneously told me the difficulties and problems faced by the families of his parish. He also shared with me about the extraordinary generosity of the members of his parish to help each other. I spoke to him for about 45 minutes and we had a very interesting conversation on his proactive approach during the lockdown, the problems faced by his people, his learning both for his personal life and pastoral ministry and how he visualizes pastoral care in the post Covid 19 period. My friend wants to keep his name and the name of the parish confidential. Therefore I have avoided both in this write up.
His parish has 185 families and almost 40% of the families depend on nursing profession for their main source of income, as women are the main bread winners of these families. Most of the nurses work in government hospitals under increasing stress and strain because of the phenomenal increase in the number of corona virus infected patients and scarcity of protective gears. Wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for more than eight hours and serving the patients in the extreme summer without air conditioners is physically and mentally exhausting. The fear of getting infected always haunts them. Two Catholic nurses are already infected with the virus. The government quarters in which they live have limited facilities and one or two toilets and they are not able to keep safe distance from the family members including children. The stress is so devastating for some of them that they think of leaving the job.
In about 50 families one member lost job during the lockdown and in 30 families both husband and wife lost job and they are staying in rented buildings. They do not have money to pay the rent as well as to meet other expenses. The house owners are not ready for postponing payment of rent. Some families have taken loan for building /purchasing house or vehicles and they don’t have any means to repay the loans.
Many young people are doing higher studies even by taking bank loan. For them the future appears to be bleak, as they see many people losing job and the economy drifting towards great recession. As their hopes are fading, they can easily become victims of mental trauma.
As a first step, my friend with the help of his Parish Council members collected detailed information about each family of his parish. As a result he is aware of the problems of the families and he has become a ‘shepherd with the smell of the sheep’. In consultation with the Parish Council members he has prepared a plan to reach out to all families, especially the families that are in dire need.
He has formed various WhatsApp groups for the parish members like youth group, nurses’ group, mothers’ group, children’s group etc. He keeps in touch with the families by sending and receiving messages. He also speaks to as many members of his parish as possible every day. Besides the daily virtual Mass, he sends positive and encouraging messages every day based on the Word of God of the day. His main concern is to keep up the fighting spirit of his people by instilling in them hope and making them aware of the divine strength within them.
His first priority has been identifying the families who do not have the means for survival. 25 families are given kits containing all essential items in every 15 days. Any family that does not have the means of sustenance can approach the parish and they will be supported. My friend is optimistic of continuing this support as long as the families are in need.
20 families are assisted for paying rent with an average amount of Rs. 10,000/- per month. 8 persons who need continuous medication, but do not have the means to purchase medicines, are assisted to buy medicines. Children who need milk are given additional support along with the rent and essential items. Besides the supports given from the parish, individual parish members are directly extending their support to the needy families not only to the Catholics but also to their non-Catholic neighbours.
The finance needed for all these activities is raised through the generous voluntary contribution of the parish members. The parish did not have much saving prior to the lockdown. It is the generosity of the members of the parish that makes seemingly impossible things possible.
As already mentioned, nurses are the backbone of the parish and they are in dire need of spiritual and psychological support. Every day, my friend says Mass online for them and encourages them with positive message. He has formed a Whatsapp group under the name, Nurse Fraternity, for sharing inspiring messages and videos. Over the phone he gives counselling to those who are under great stress.
My friend is aware of the fact that corona virus is going to stay for a long time and even if people are freed of the grip of coronavirus, unemployment will continue as a menace because of the economic recession. Even before the lockdown some people had lost their job and many were not paid their salaries for a few months. Hence helping and guiding the parish members to find suitable jobs is his top priority for the future. He is planning to create a data bank of the parish members with regard to their educational qualification, skills, experience and aptitude. Once the lockdown is relaxed he will be organizing in collaboration with other organizations training sessions for imparting new skills as well as for skill up-gradation of the needy parish members. Organizing sessions for the youth in view of saving them from depression and mental trauma is another priority for him.
My friend has agreed with me that experience is the greatest teacher and crisis is an occasion for abundant learning. He shared with me some of his key learning. Prior to Covid 19 the families and the parish were spending a lot of money for celebrations. The most important lesson he has learned is to avoid unnecessary celebrations and use the saved money for the human resource development of the parish members. The families are to be motivated and encouraged to save for the future.
The second lesson he has learned is that people of his parish are extremely generous to help each other and share their resources with the needy. He has realized that this is the greatest strength of his parish. He wants to build up on this significant capital.
The third lesson corona times has taught him is that pastoral care should be holistic, touching all dimensions of a family and the parish priest must be able to give personal attention to the families, as a good shepherd taking care of the sheep.
His fourth lesson is regarding his prayer life. Involving with lives of the people and sharing in their agonies enriches the spiritual life of the pastor and he is able to pray intensely. He says that his prayer has become more sincere and passionate.
I asked him how he visualizes pastoral ministry in the post Covid 19 period. According to him, holistic development of families and preparing them as role models of Christian living should be the focus of pastoral ministry in the post Covid 19 period. Building Churches and organizing mega celebrations shouldn’t have any place in the post Covid 19 period. In the cities of India, if the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro Malankara Rite Churches function in collaboration there is no need for building new churches and thereby putting a lot of pressure on the faithful for contributions. The existing church buildings could be used by the three Rites. Unnecessary competition and duplication among the three rites result in wastage of scarce resources and emergence of conflicts. Hence he visualizes a scenario in which the three Rites will collaborate and will focus on building up the Christian communities and they will be able to witness effectively to the message of Jesus and thereby influence the wider society.
The Catholic faithful could keep alive their faith and spiritual life for about three months without going to the Church and receiving the sacraments. Even when the government granted permission to open the religious worship centres, most of the churches in India remained closed because of the fear of spreading infection. The three months have been a period of great stress and agony for many Catholics, especially those who live in the cities and lost their jobs. For many such persons their faith in the person of Jesus and the spiritual, emotional and material support given by their shepherds were the mainstay of their life. They have understood the difference between religiosity and spirituality and realized that they can survive without religiosity, but not without spirituality.
Covid 19 and the lockdown are going to alter the perception of the Catholic faithful about pastoral care. They are not going to be satisfied with ‘rituals and devotions centred’ pastoral care because they have already experienced spirituality without rituals. Their expectation from their pastors is going to be more than rituals and devotions. They will expect a holistic pastoral care.
Twelve years ago when I addressed the bishops of Hindi speaking area, I shared with them 10 points programme for the empowerment of Catholic communities through HOLISTIC PASTORAL CARE. The goal of holistic pastoral care should be transforming the Catholic communities and families as role models of Christian living, anchored in the core values of Jesus, particularly all inclusive love. It is nothing but forming persons with the mind and heart of Jesus, persons who are sensitive and compassionate, persons who are liberated from greed and use their talents and capacities for giving life to others.
Holistic Pastoral Care for the Empowerment of Christian Communities: 10 Points Action Plan
1. Create a computerized data bank of the Catholic families of each parish and update them periodically.
2. Practicing the core values of Jesus like forgiveness and reconciliation, sensitivity and compassion, respecting the dignity of all, doing justice and sustainable use of natural resources etc. should be the main focus of pastoral ministry. In the whole parish there should not be any family or member who lives in enmity or disharmony with others.
3. Train the faithful to reflect/contemplate on the word of God in relation to the context and to grow in contemplative prayer so that they become conscious of the Divine power within them and face challenges with grit and determination.
4. Motivate the faithful to become compassionate like Jesus and encourage all families to set apart 10% of their income to help the poor and the needy and to support each other in difficult situations.
5. Motivate and support Catholics to become agents of peace and harmony in a highly polarizing socio-political context by accepting, appreciating and celebrating differences in religion, language and culture.
6. Guide and support families to have sustainable income so that they can live with human dignity.
7. Motivate and encourage every family to save something for the future. “ Don't save what is left after spending; spend what is left after saving. - Warren Buffett.
8. Ensure that all Catholic children will have minimum education of 12th class pass, although graduation is the ideal.
9. Arrange career guidance for all Catholic children when they are in class IX and see that there is no unemployed Catholic youth in the parish. Make them understand the dignity of any kind of labour and prepare them to accept whatever work that is available.
10. Arrange coaching for talented Catholic youth for Civil Service Examinations in view of getting them into decision making positions in the bureaucracy. Organize periodic leadership training for the youth in view of forming them as enlightened leaders with character and competence and encourage them to enter politics.
Bishops, priests and Religious have to change their mindset and attitude, if they have to cope up with the pastoral challenges of Post Covid 19 period. They have to say goodbye to the approach of building opulent churches, erecting huge statues, organizing mega religious events and multiplying rituals and devotions. Contemplation and reflective prayer should take the place of loud and shouting prayers. They have to go back to the approach of Jesus for building the people of God, focusing on their holistic development and giving witness to the values of Jesus through their own life examples. In other words, a radical shift from the style of Emperor Constantine to the people centric style of Jesus is urgently needed. Pope Francis presents an excellent example of the style of Jesus.
(The writer can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)(Published on 22nd June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 26)