The photo of Pope Francis speaking on 27 March to the completely empty square in front of St Peter’s in Rome spoke volumes. Isolated and alone, like so many others because of the corona virus outbreak, he epitomised the dilemmas we face as the crisis spreads everywhere.
An estimated 11 million people reportedly listened to him on TV or radio, especially in Italy of course which has been so severely hit by the crisis. People everywhere are fearful of what the future holds, not just of the virus which has killed some 65,000 people already, but also for the economic effects as millions lose their jobs, businesses close, major industries like airlines, travel and tourism close down, and trade is disrupted.
For the first time in living memory, worship services throughout the world are being cancelled to prevent the pandemic spreading. At this holy time for Jews and Christians, churches and synagogues will be almost deserted.
The Easter services usually attract packed churches but not this year. With churches closed, services and Masses will be conducted by celebrants and a few helpers only. However, IT is coming to the rescue, as many parishes and dioceses will offer online services and people can join in from home, singing the hymns, listening to the readings and preaching and praying together.
What effect will these new arrangements have on the churches? Will people later watch services online instead of attending in person? Or will the current emergency draw people into stronger church involvement, to experience mutual support and companionship. Singing expands our hearts and invites us to practical solidarity with others.
Reforming social and economic policies
The corona crisis is forcing a rethink of social and economic policies in many countries, moving away from the neoliberal economic agenda that has resulted in growing alienation and anger at the astonishing inequality, with many millions barely surviving while others revel in comparative and sometimes shameful abundance.
Even conservative governments have been forced to jettison much of their ideological baggage and pour astonishingly large funds into supporting their people and prevent their economies from collapsing. We may be witnessing a new level of bipartisan policy-making, opening up needed rethinking to ensure a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity.
The corona virus takes us to task for forgetting that in our globalised world we are indeed ‘all in this together’. What happens in the Pacific, in PNG and Indonesia has consequences for us in Australia, not just in epidemics, but for the movement of peoples as well as peace and social stability in our region.
Implications for the churches
It is unclear how the COVID-19 earthquake will affect the Catholic Church. Is this God’s way of giving the churches an enormous shake-up, sloughing off outdated processes and ways? Pope Francis has been calling for such major renewal in the Catholic Church. One of his favourite images is of the Church as a ‘field hospital’, caring for the sick and wounded in what may be very messy situations. We have exactly such a situation with the corona crisis.
What does prayer add to this? Prayer is an interior act of love and solidarity, especially with those in need or distress, and hopefully inspires practical action. ‘Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate’, said Jesus. Prayer can lift us out of ourselves to step into the shoes of others, giving us space to scrutinise our lives and values. Prayer acknowledges our vulnerability but trusts in the promise of Jesus to walk with us always, and never abandon us whatever happens. Faith gives us strength, motivation and a sense of deeper meaning in what we do.
Christ is no Santa Claus
Christ does not promise us an easy life. He is no jolly Santa Claus. He warns his followers to take up their cross every day, and to love one another as he has loved us. Such love is demanding. It can imply even dying for others, as exemplified in the lives of people such as Martin Luther King, the martyred Oscar Romero in El Salvador, or the Australian Josephite Sister Irene McCormack who was executed by Shining Path rebels in Peru in 1991.
Belief is not just ‘solace for the afflicted’, as Marx claimed. Solace, yes, but solace from a God who is outraged at injustice and indifference to the distressed who like Lazarus are sitting at our gate. Solace from a God who identifies intensely with those ground down by hunger and poverty: ‘that was me you saw’, as St Matthew recounts God saying in Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment.
This is right at the core of Pope Francis’s message, as outlined especially in his 2015 document Laudato Si’, written to support the Paris climate conference and to encourage international commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
His message is not just for Catholics. He speaks collaboratively with leaders of other Christian churches and faith traditions to emphasise that God insists we work urgently for universal human wellbeing. He appeals to all people of good will everywhere, whatever their beliefs.
With the corona virus infecting the world, it is even more urgent for Australia to honour our 2015 commitment to the SDGs, to improve equity, health and living standards in every country, and care for the environment in the face of climate change. The Goals summarise the most promising and informed ways forward to a more just and peaceful world.
Alas, many Australians are likely not to have even heard of these Goals. Despite Francis’s constant appeals for social reform and solidarity in caring for our planet, one might wonder if even some Catholic leaders and clergy, with notable exceptions, have taken a vow of silence about the SDGs and the overarching issue of climate change.
Perhaps the corona crisis will help mobilise our churches and nation for more decisive action to confront also the wider challenges we face.
Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest lecturing at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne. He is Director of Social Policy Connections.