Around the world, religious orders brace for aftermath of COVID-19

Around the world, religious orders brace for aftermath of COVID-19

In this Sunday, April 22, 2018 file photo, priests pray during a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino,/AP.)

With restrictions beginning to lift in many parts of the world hit by the COVID-19 coronavirus, in many of these places religious orders will be on the front lines of the recovery process, from education to healthcare to assisting the poor.

ROME – With restrictions beginning to lift in many parts of the world hit by the COVID-19 coronavirus, in many of these places religious orders will be on the front lines of the recovery process, from education to healthcare to assisting the poor.

During an April 30 webinar with Jesuit Father General Arturo Sosa, head of the Society of Jesus, he observed that “The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the transformation of human life demanded by the changing times we live in. But we still don’t know how deep this change will have to be.”

The pandemic, Sosa said, “has highlighted the importance of care in many dimensions of our lives. It has brought to light so much neglect accumulated over decades in the way human beings have related to each other, to nature and to God.”

In the aftermath, “We can learn from it how caring for oneself and caring for others is intimately related.”

Religious orders around the world have long been on the front lines of this care, with the most visible members being the many priests and sisters during the outbreak who rolled their sleeves up and took this care to heroic levels through their service as doctors, nurses, caregivers for the sick and distributors of the sacraments.

Many others have had to either put a halt to their ministries or find creative new ways of exercising them amid tight public lockdowns. Each case is different, but looking toward the future, the priorities are largely the same: To continue the work of evangelizing either through service to the poor, education and social work, in whatever way possible given the different policies in place for handling the coronavirus.

For the Jesuits, their efforts going forward, according to Sosa, will hinge on finding a balance between two different aspects of this care: The cura apostolica and the cura personalis, or apostolic care and personal care.

“To take care of the mission, the Society of Jesus needs to take care of the people who make it possible and who form its apostolic body,” Sosa said during the webinar, and called for greater collaboration within the order.

This caring, he said, will require process of “open-mindedness and conversion” with the aim to “free us from clericalism, paternalism, individualism and authoritarianism, which are found in so many current contexts.”

He specifically highlighted care of the poor and care of the environment, saying that “caring for the lives of the discarded takes on a profound meaning at this time. Their number has multiplied exponentially as a consequence of the unjust structures of our world.”

“Our global structures seem incapable of putting human beings and the common good at the center of local, national or global political decisions,” he said, adding that in the post-COVID-19 era a priority for Jesuit social centers ought to be the homeless and the need to help society focus more on the common good and less on individual interests.

In terms of decision making, if people do not agree on how to handle major problems such as the coronavirus, Sosa said “you cannot simply issue a decree and you cannot simply push people,” to do something.

“You have to convince people, you have to take the whole responsibility, people have to become citizens,” he said, adding that in his view, with regard to measures such as social distancing, he believes that people have understood that by staying home, they are not only caring for themselves, but others.

Sosa also stressed the importance of accompanying young people, who even before the coronavirus struggled with unemployment and a lack of opportunity, insisting that there has been “a big wake-up call about the need and also the possibility to respond as one single humanity without distinction of culture, age or religion.”

Although they are not a religious order, the Personal Prelature of Opus Dei – which places a strong emphasis on holiness in everyday life, including the sanctification through one’s professional work – is also emphasizing the importance of stepping up the spiritual life of its members, largely within the family.

Given that the vast majority of members are married with children, they will likely experience the “post-confinement” phase like anyone else, said Manuel Sanchez, spokesman for Opus Dei, in comments to Crux.

Most members, he said, will follow plans laid out for the gradual return to life as normal, including the access to the sacraments, as laid out by the government in countries where they live.

During the coronavirus lockdowns, Sanchez said, Opus Dei led “a lively spiritual activity” of electronic Christian formation through spiritual readings, stories, podcasts and other resources made available on the prelature’s website, which members are encouraged to use still as lockdowns tentatively end.

In a recent letter to members, the Prelate of Opus Dei, Monsignor Fernando Ocariz, stressed the importance of making the most of the month of May, which is typically dedicated to the Virgin Mary, even if families are still stuck at home.

“In many countries the beginning of May finds us still inside our homes, with a very reduced ability to move, but this will help us to live the customs of Marian piety more in the family,” Ocariz said in the letter, pointing specifically to traditional Marian prayers such as the rosary.

Although it is currently impossible to visit shrines and chapels, “it will always be possible to visit these places with digital means that technology makes available to us, also inviting relatives, friends and acquaintances,” he said.

In a May 1 article in Italian newspaper Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, Ocariz stressed the importance of focusing on service, saying the context of one’s family and professional work is an opportunity to help others understand “how much God is concerned with each one of us.”

“In the coming months or years it will be important to remember what we have lived, as Pope Francis has said, and to remember that we realize that we are all in the same boat, all fragile and disoriented; but, at the same time, important and necessary, all called to row together,” he said.

Capuchin Father Joseph Mary Elder, director of vocations and communications for the Province of St. Conrad, told Crux that given the hands-on ministry of so many of the order’s friars, the coronavirus has “changed the way that we interact with people.”

Priests are no longer able to see or meet with their congregations, and even serving the poor and homeless has become more difficult. In Denver, where Elder lives, the homeless have been moved off the streets and into different complexes, meaning the friars are coordinating with the mayor’s office to get food and basic supplies to those in need.

“We’ve really utilized our food truck ministry as of late,” he said, noting that in normal times, the truck would only be used periodically, but during the pandemic, it has become essential to get meals to the offices distributing them to the homeless and families in low-income housing.

Like many other orders, youth ministries and Masses for the Capuchins have gone digital, with between 500 and 600 people tuning into the livestreamed Sunday Mass at Elder’s community house alone. Some friars, however, have stayed on the ground, and are working in day and night shelters to provide clothing and other necessities to the homeless or needy who come by.

“We want to maintain that ministry of presence. We’re here, even if we can’t be there right in front of people, we’re here, we’re working with you, we’re praying for you, we’re collaborating with you. We still want to bring the Gospel out,” Elder said.

“Depending on what happens, we want to get back to what we usually do as soon as possible,” because, “as good as these online resources are, it’s not the same thing,” he said, adding that the coronavirus will “give all of us a much greater appreciation for things that maybe we took for granted.”

In terms of priorities going forward, as the coronavirus expands in some areas and lockdowns are being lifted in others, Elder said what they do will depend on how the situation develops, but efforts in evangelization, administering the sacraments, encouraging new vocations and service to the needy are all at the top of the list.

Elder said that, “with unemployment spiking and the stock market tanking,” he believes there will be more demand in terms of their work with the poor once the crisis is over.

“It certainly seems like a lot more people are going to be in greater need,” he said, adding, “That’s our primary mission, is to be with those people who are in need, and to bring them not just the Gospel, but the alleviation of human suffering, so to provide food, clothing, whatever we can provide.”

For Dominicans in the Province of Saint Joseph in the United States, the return to normal life will look different depending on which state they are in, and their priorities will depend what the specific tasks they are entrusted with.

Dominican Father James Mary Sullivan, pastor of St Pius V Parish in Providence, Rhode Island, told Crux he will specifically be focusing on the safety of his congregation as they begin to celebrate public Masses again, implementing social distancing and taking proper sanitary precautions.

Despite the unique circumstances, “being brought back together by the Eucharist will be the greatest remedy for what we face in the weeks and months ahead,” he said, noting they will sanitize the parish “in ways that we haven’t before,” including wiping down the pews and door handles after Masses.

“But just worshipping the Lord as the gathered and united Body of Christ will make it all the easier for us to hold the door for each other and to wipe the pew before and after we use it,” he said.

Father Jacob Bertrand Janczyk, vocations director for the Province of Saint Joseph, told Crux that “Our priority is always service to the Church,” and that even during a pandemic, men still show up to join the order and to give their lives to God.

Pointing to Dominican motto, “preaching for the salvation of souls,” Janczyk insisted that “the mission of the Order carries on,” and that he personally is trying to find ways to help young men who wish to enter go through the process in the safest and healthiest way possible.

Part of the discernment process for potential new novices is getting to know Saint Dominic and the order through reading essential texts, which is still possible, Janczyk said, but the other half of it, getting to know the community by spending time with members on weekends and during visits, is currently off the table.

The province had to cancel a planned vocation weekend in April, and they are currently about a month behind in finishing up the application process. For the moment, fall vocation weekends are still expected to go forward as normal, however, “these too may be impacted” depending on what trajectory the virus takes.

“For 800 years, Dominican friars have lived a life of contemplation and study for the sake of preaching the Gospel. The fundamental parts of our life do not change, and this is something that we try to impress on men when they are looking at the Order,” he said. “We believe that our faithfulness to the life is attractive in itself, perhaps especially during this time.”

Dominican Father Joseph-Anthony Kress, chaplain at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville, Va., told Crux that life dramatically changed for students when the coronavirus hit.

“We had a major tectonic shift in our ministry. All our students went away for spring break, and never came back,” he said, calling the process of reevaluating what to do, “a very big shock.”

Almost overnight, they went from in-person ministry to online bible studies, reflection nights, group hangout sessions and one-on-one check-ins using Zoom and Facetime.

On the whole, Kress said the students “are very much more engaged” than they were before, and some who were unable to attend in-person bible studies due to class schedules are now able to participate in the virtual discussions.

“Our student leaders have done a phenomenal job of understanding the weight of the shift from in person ministry to virtual ministry and the demands that places on them. They’ve done a phenomenal job of balancing their course load while still creating opportunities for our students to engage,” he said.

With much of the immediate future still uncertain, Kress said the plan for now is to continue the same online outreach they have been doing during the lockdowns, and to brainstorm on how to engage new students when the fall semester comes, with different plans depending on whether the semester will be virtual, in-person, or a mix of the two.

“It’s a trying time, it’s a struggle, but I think that our Church will be able to live in the resurrection in a new and beautiful way once we return back,” he said, adding that in his experience, “There’s a new life, and there’s going to be a new breath of the Holy Spirit in all that we do.”

Kress said he believes the coronavirus has helped the Church to grow in ways that it might not have otherwise.

“I don’t think we lost anything. I think we’re going to gain one hundredfold,” he said. “We just have to be attentive to where the Spirit is leading us, and throw up our sails and allow the breath and the wind of the Holy Spirit to carry us into new shores…I think we’re going to gain a tremendous amount as long as we continue to trust and follow him.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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