Nothing in living memory has altered the way we see reality and the way we live like COVID-19 Pandemic. For the first time, almost all the public institutions, like churches, schools, markets, businesses were closed. Entire societies, cities, communities were on lockdown as the mantra ‘stay at home’ became the new public safety slogan. People gathered food and much of what they would need in the foreseeable future and locked themselves and their families inside their homes, wilfully forfeiting their rights to freedom of movement and freedom of gathering and association. It is serious.

Depending on the perspective of view and the perspicacity of each person’s mind, this pandemic might simply be viewed as a passing phase on the one hand or a history-altering event on the other. I think it deserves to be viewed from the prism of the latter, comparable only to wars, technology-induced changes, social upheavals of great magnitude like revolutions. But the main point is that when such things happen, only institutions that respond properly to the changes are the ones that will inherit the future, the ones that are unable to do so will rusticate and fizzle away.

One institution that has been hard hit is the church. There is no other institution that brings millions of people under an enclosure like the church. Measured by the sheer number and spread of church and even the mind-blowing amount of human beings who worship daily and weekly in these prayer centres, the church is arguably the riskiest of all public institutions when it comes to the spread of COVID-19. Think for instance of the millions of young people in open air crusades and prayer carnivals where closeness and body contact are normal and where singing and shouting in key. Even for indoor services, churches are still packed to the brim. The pews are filled with people shoulder to shoulder. Without mincing word, the church is a very risky place during this period corona virus pandemic.

You would see of course that this pandemic is altering the operations of institutions, especially the church. The Vatican shut down its public Masses and public interactions with the Pope. In England, Germany, Italy, Spain, the USA, churches were shot down, and in some places remains under lock and key till date. Churches are opening with great caution in some cities across the globe. But then churches reacted differently to the shutting down of churches. Some dioceses, parishes responded by migrating online. Some local churches legalised the celebration of Masses and delivery of homilies online.

In the Catholic Church, Masses were celebrated in private chapels but were streamed live globally across the world. Anybody could connect from anywhere to any church. Some people connected to the Vatican where the Pope celebrated Masses and gave fantastic sermons. Some Christians hooked to the Masses of their own diocesan bishops or their parish priests. Some connected to priests of their choice, sometimes outside their own dioceses. While the churches were going physically empty, then, the community of online worshipers were intact and growing.

But something remarkable was happening. Now, Christians went on online stroll searching for solemn Catholic Masses and great preachers. Trans-national and pastoral structures neutral to physical boundaries were growing. Anyone who wished could log onto any Mass being celebrated anywhere in the world by any priest. Those who cannot follow live streams of Masses can log on latter to feed from the feast of the word of God deposited on the church and pastoral websites.

But there is another side to it, something more worrisome. In Enugu and around the South East of Nigeria, for instance, the churches were shut down completely for at least two months. Within this period, panic had enveloped the ministers who live directly from the proceeds of masses and celebration of the sacraments. What then should they do? Some might resort to celebrating in smaller units for the members of the Catholic Men Organisations, the Catholic Women Organisation, the Catholic Youths Organisation or to Knights of St. Johns or Mulumba etc., or to smaller units of the faithful organised under different units. But not to the Church as it used to be.

Because nobody anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic or the proportion of its devastation, nobody was adequately prepared for it. This first wave cut deep and today with more than eight million infections and nearly five hundred thousand deaths, it is the world will never be the same. In Enugu here, we have 126 confirmed cases with five deaths. Economies have been shaken and recession is suspected. But anyone who is listening to the news or reading the finding of scientists about future trends knows that there is every likelihood that there will be another wave of Coronavirus attack, much stronger than the first wave.

The explanation for this is simple. People want to take back their lives. They want to return to their old ways characterised by freedom of movement, freedom of worship etc., but without the wisdom to observe the precautions as it should be. Of course, observing the precaution might dictate that they do not go to places they would rather wish to go, like the churches because of the higher likelihood of infection. But because churches have all filled up now and lasting hours, and because singing is going on, with bands blasting music and people beginning to dance away, the future looks bleak.

Why? This new exposure will lead to a lot of new infections and of course more deaths. In Nigeria, infections are rising just as deaths, but people generally think that the confirmed infection statistics is grossly understated. But whether it is being recorded or not, a lot of suspicious deaths are beginning to happen in the neighbourhood and people are asking questions. Here is why the second wave will be deadly for the church and why pastors should start getting ready to cope with longer periods of church closure.

If the second wave arrives, it will be accompanied with inexplicable deaths. Churches will be shut down for longer periods exceeding two months. During this second wave, government will impose a stricter lockdown on churches and people will gladly comply because it will become clear that the risk of infections is much higher inside the church than anywhere. We should think about the best way to keep our people safe.

But more importantly, bishops, priests, pastors should think more of how best to serve the spiritual and pastoral needs of the faithful outside of the way we used to know the church as physical assemblage of worshipers. That era is fast disappearing before our eyes. Question is how do we confront this problem, what then should we do? Look out for our suggestions in the follow up article coming up soon ‘How to Run an Effective Pastoral Ministry in the Face of COVID-19’

Fr. Ikechukwu Odigbo is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu. Reach me on @ikemodigbo

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