Anecdotal evidence coming out after the lockdown points to a massive increase in separation applications (Times of Malta, June 8).
Pastoral encounters with people talking about their experience of lockdown vary from the idyllic – “Oh, I already miss lockdown, we were all so good together”, to harrowing stories of anxiety spikes, traumatic losses, work balance confusion, and tales of discord in families that faced the monsters of violence, alcohol and abuse in a more confined and on a more intensified scale.
Stories of children not doing well at all give the lie to alternative modes of education. Other stories were of elderly people dying alone. The emerging picture of the mental health of our population is complex.
Similarly with religious practices. Some found the comfort of online Masses a good enough alternative to actual Masses where they are also spectators. We hear stories of emerging congruence of those who will not return to church any time soon.
Some have been taken to the edge of sanity and coping, and to the hitherto unvisited spaces of doubting their faith and its expressions. Others struggle to recreate the sacred space that they used to slot in their life.
Some discovered the true meaning of the Sabbath: genuinely being with their children and family was more ‘restful’ and ‘recreational’, than rituals that they experience as totally alien to their lived realities.
The divide between sacred and profane in our country has always been large, and at the same time enmeshed. The disconnect could now become an abyss.
Those who have become the newly non-practising Christians are earnestly searching for alternate overarching meanings for their life triggered by the lockdown crisis.
Whether they have endured difficult times in relationship, whether lockdown triggered dark shadows that had been normally muted, or whether COVID pushed their coping skills to their extreme limit, many have been invited to enter more deeply into the mystery of their own life, asking the all-important questions: What is this all about? What is the meaning of this? What do I really seek?
It is to this that the Church must respond. The other external signs of our religion, the social distance-defying ‘briju’ and the parochial piques pander to the least common denominators in a journey of faith.
Unless the Church starts to address the real concerns emerging from lockdown, the chasm between ritual and life, between arcane liturgies and daily angst, will become insurmountable. On the other hand, wherever the experience of Church is also a source of meaning, communities of faith will thrive.
In due course, an epochal analysis of how the world has been reshaped by the pandemic will have to explore its lasting effect on society and also on religion.
Our nostalgic reminiscences of the previous epochal period of the last century – World War II – conjure up grainy images of priests celebrating in underground wartime shelters, close to the people. We are now challenged to respond to the effects of the psychic trauma of COVID.
The words of Jesus: “Come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28) are a renewed call for a different kind of presence to the needs of the people struggling with faith in this time.
Fr Frankie Cini, member of the Missionary Society of St Paul (MSSP)
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