YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – South Africa has been in lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 corona virus: So far, it seems to be working – confirmed daily new cases have dropped to only about 50 a day.
The country currently has just over 2,000 confirmed cases, with 24 deaths.
Like many other places around the world, South Africa suspended Church services to stop large gatherings of people. Archbishop Abel Gabuza of Durban told Crux one positive of this has been the fact Christians are worshipping God at a family level.
“In the attempt to treat the infected, we should allow the professionals to do what they know best. These people have been trained. There is no point in being reckless and not take precautionary measures in mitigating the effects of the pandemic,” he said.
Following are excerpts the archbishop’s conversation with Crux:
Crux: How have you been managing to reach out to your faithful following the lockdown by government?
Gabuza: As citizens of South Africa, we have listened carefully to the address of our President, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa. We have also listened carefully to the directives coming from Pope Francis. We also listened to the directives given by the South African Council of Churches.
Before the lockdown was proclaimed, we had met as Church leaders from different denominations on March19 and gave directives to our Christians.
We committed ourselves to providing pastoral care, emergency relief and all other activities needed to mitigate the impact of the impending disaster. We called on all Christians to have a special day of prayer on March 26. We urged – and still do – individual to pray wherever they are for God’s intervention.
On March 23, we met with other leaders from other faiths together with the premier and his executive in order to share notes about how to work together, coordinate our health desks in disseminating information relevant to mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the lockdown was promulgated on March 26, we urged our Christians to comply and not show dissent.
Each diocese in the SACBC had published guidelines concerning facing this pandemic. In the Archdiocese of Durban, we reached to our people by providing guidelines regarding what to do during the lockdown.
We called upon our parishioners to comply with the demands of basic hygiene, no public Masses and Services during the lockdown. We called upon our Christians to stay and pray at home. We urged the use of sanitizers at the entrance of our churches and chapels.
There are a number of devotions that could be used during this time, and people could have access to following Mass from various parishes using the technology we have. We urge Catholics to use para-liturgies at home. We should be creative during this time
We gave directives to all our priests to be in their various parishes and be available through the use of phones in case their parishioners have various needs, especially for counselling and receiving requests for Masses. We clarified that that given the extreme unusual circumstances of the lockdown, it is not possible to administer the Sacrament of the Reconciliation. The confessions of serious sins could be done as soon as the circumstances allow it. There is nothing stopping a priest from being creative as long as social distancing and other measures are observed when a penitent comes for confession.
We are aware that more than 60 priests in Italy succumbed to coronavirus and most probably were infected as they administered the Last Sacraments, we therefore, advised priests not to take risks.
The lockdown is running Holy Week and Easter Sunday. And that means Christians cannot participate in the Holy Week ceremonies which are at the heart of the Christian liturgical calendar.
We have suspended in our Archdiocese the Celebration of Easter. No celebration of Palm Sunday was allowed. Chrism Mass has been postponed. Chrism Mass will be celebrated as soon we have been over the pandemic. No celebration of Holy Thursday (which was celebrated privately), Good Friday celebration suspended, Easter Vigil in private and Easter Sunday in private.
This of course is something unusual for us as Christians since these celebrations are at the center of our liturgical calendar. But desperate measures need desperate answers or responses.
We have underlined that not participating in these celebrations is not sinful. We can share that the Church of Christ started small in homes not in big structures that we have today. In a way we are going back to our roots because each family is a domestic Church. When we come together on Sundays or any other day we gather as various domestic churches.
If Christianity is about faith and with faith all diseases can be cured, what would you see to people that argue these measures is an acknowledgment of the inefficacy of faith?
Indeed, the lockdown and the fact that we are not able to attend Mass raises many legitimate questions about the efficacy of our faith. Some people have even suggested that we are giving in to the devil by suspending our celebrations. There are also those who claim that God is punishing us for the sins we are committing. I read somewhere that the world is about to end. I also read one person claiming that we need to just believe because our belief will simply cure the virus.
Some people have no sense of history and somehow want to manipulate God so that as they snap their fingers, God will respond immediately. It is important to remind ourselves that throughout human history we have had worst epidemics and pandemics. We have had terrible wars. During the time of the earthly ministry of Jesus of Nazareth there was leprosy. Human beings have survived.
We are to wait and pray. We wait and pray that the redeeming Passion and death of Jesus Christ on the Cross will help us remain strong during this difficult time. As a Church we raise our voice in prayer to God for all humanity. We pray for those who are infected, the medical staff and wisdom to the finding of a cure. We wait and pray to God Almighty. We do not dictate to God. God will never be manipulated at any given moment.
Beating coronavirus means carrying out a certain number of practices, including personal hygiene. Are you concerned that this could be a lost battle in some localities of South Africa where there is limited water supply and where extreme poverty means many cannot afford soap and hand sanitizers?
We have expressed our greatest concern when we met with government officials about people living in informal settlements, the homeless and the many vulnerable in our communities. It is heartwarming to see the efforts of the government and private sector in responding to these concerns. Things are happening and we commend our government for all the efforts done. We have made it clear that all of us are called to have a responsible consciousness in this crisis facing us. We have maintained that our churches are to be relief centers for distribution and support for those in need.
What is your evaluation of the handling of the crisis by President Cyril Ramaphosa?
We are aware that this crisis in our hands has in a way forced the president to act as he has done. He has responded with courage and has taken his rightful position as a statesman. He has been a blessing to us during this time of crisis.
The health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize said ‘what we may currently be experiencing is the calm before a heavy and devastating storm’ – an indication that South Africa could witness even more infections and perhaps more deaths. How concerned are you about such a prospect?
He has done well, and he has reminded us that there is a storm facing us ahead. He has not given us the impression that we need to relax but we need to be vigilant all the time. There are no magical solutions as far as this crisis is concerned.
We can and will survive this crisis when we work together and follow the directives given us. We should not be driven into a panic mode. To do so will lead us losing the battle.
Heading into Easter, what should the Risen Lord mean for Christians who are fearful for their lives as the virus continues to spread?
The celebration of the events of Holy Week should lead us to be faith followers of Christ in terms of our lifestyle. When our hearts are more merciful, and more compassionate. When we seek justice for all and live His truth. These virtues are not locked in buildings in such a way that when we go to these buildings, we are going to harvest these virtues. We reap these virtues in our hearts where we are, especially in our families. It all begins in one’s heart. Jesus teaches us, “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
We are not alone. We are encouraged by the fact that Pope Francis is urging us to raise our voice and pray for God’s healing to take place. Our Lord, Jesus Christ, went to Jerusalem as we are aware during these days. He was like a lamb and the suffering of humanity was taken by Him. He suffered, He died and Rose from the dead. Or faith tells us that before the tomb could be empty, there needs a body to occupy it. We face this storm with faith because we know at the end there will be joy.
How should Christians treat those who have COVID-19?
Those infected are our brothers and sisters. There is no need to discriminate against our own. We are all our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. There is no place for placing a stigma around the infected. Their dignity is not suspended because they have the infection.
In the attempt to treat the infected, we should allow the professionals to do what they know best. These people have been trained. There is no point in being reckless and not take precautionary measures in mitigating the effects of the pandemic.