The magnitude of the impending crisis caused by COVID-19 was not clear to me in the beginning. Travelling to Atlanta for a conference in early March, I began hearing buzzwords in the media like corona virus, Wuhan China, and lockdown. Paying little attention, I enjoyed the CAPS (Christian Association for Psychological Studies) conference in Georgia with its flurry of talks, discussions, and breakout sessions; socialization was quite normal. The strangeness began upon my return just a few days later and was happening so fast. Seeking to grasp the meaning of the unfolding reality at the time was like a scene from Hitchcock’s Cary Grant, searching for a man who never existed in the movie North by Northwest. The normally bustling airport was cold and deserted. Flight attendants on the Delta airplane were reserved and cautious about following the new “guidelines.” The pilot’s instructions were strange and unfamiliar. The 90-minute flight home was turbulent but not because of the weather. Pensively, each time I looked out the window, it felt like the world was experiencing the presence of an angel of death, stealthily on the move.
I returned to Maryland on Saturday, March 13th in time to celebrate the evening vigil Mass. My pastor relayed the stress during the three days I was away and voiced his concerns about mass cancellations. There was news that some bishops were closing churches in their dioceses. Then it happened! At about 3 pm, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore issued a notice that all public masses in the archdiocese would be canceled until further notice. Churches would remain open for private prayer, but no liturgical activities would be allowed. A short time later, private prayer in the church was taken away too. Priests were to celebrate masses in empty churches. The idea of live-streaming masses and having the faithful join virtually was borne. The Eucharistic community would participate through what is called spiritual communion and the Sunday obligation to attend mass was lifted.
Everything was different. The Orwellian strangeness of this time caused a lot of anxiety and frustration for both the clergy and laity alike. Parishioners bombarded us with questions about the virus and about the idea of locking the churches. Some felt it was a safe decision while others felt betrayed. Some thought that the church should be a refuge for those who were afraid by the situation. They argued that Christ would have kept the doors open for his flock. As a parish priest, it was hard to reconcile the mixed feelings and the mixed messages coming from the church authorities at the time. Personally, it was a hard pill for me to swallow. I come from a culture that never locks the church for any reason. I come from a background that seeks solutions from God rather than run away from Him. At the same time, I was shocked at the intimidating news updates and the data released by the media. The governor’s press conferences showed a constant rise in the cases recorded in Maryland. I felt sad, as if a veil was covering my face, suffocating me.
While the churches and most businesses closed, the grocery shopping madness began. I remember driving to four different shops without finding a case of water to buy. Luckily, a friend gave me a case until supplies restocked. The shelves were emptied of food in the mad rush. People stood in line for hours to shop, stock piling supplies as if the world were ending. Meats, rice and canned goods flew off the shelves. There was no toilet paper, paper towels or cleaning supplies. Hand gloves were twice as costly. Emotionally, this created a heightened sense of fear. Suddenly, people became suspicious of their neighbors. Masks, social distancing, then the concept of A-symptomatic COVID patients only added to the stressful air of suspicion. Although the CDC put out the known symptoms of COVID, the idea of potentially testing positive without exhibiting those symptoms created further fear. The mentality was, “If I come close to you, I might die. If I breathe your air, I might suffocate. If I look you in the eye, I might get infected.” Then, the elderly population was presented as about to be wiped out. They were asked to remain in their homes because they were considered “high risk.”
We were in lockdown. Since the virus had been described as a global pandemic, the entire world experienced the lockdown. It didn’t matter the gravity of the spread in different parts of the world, what mattered was that the COVID was an airborne disease and reportedly more contagious than any known disease. I remember speaking with a friend who made a joke with the craziness saying, “I’ll prefer to test HIV positive at this time than COVID positive.” This showed the gravity of the circumstance and the level of stress which individuals were struggling with.
Celebrating Mass in an empty church marked off with tape, barricaded with stop signs and non-entry markers, was the strangest thing that has happened to me as a priest. At first, I couldn’t make meaning out of what I was doing. The empty pews were haunting yet seemed to be shouting back at me. The sound system echoing off the vacant church walls was unnerving. Preaching to a cellphone camera felt like an actor on a theatre stage not seeing his spectators. The weather was cold, reflecting the feelings of coldness in my heart. The days seemed the same, one blending into the next. The season in the liturgical calendar made it even more difficult. Palm Sunday came on April 25. We missed the congregation in an inestimable way. Everything fell within the Holy Week and Easter period, so, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday were all celebrated in an empty church. We felt the impact of the absence of our people: the choir, altar servers, ushers, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the lectors. We missed having sacristans prepare the altar for Mass. We missed the smiles of parishioners walking into the church with their hugs and handshakes. It was not the same.
The questions from the parishioners wouldn’t stop coming. In the middle of May, I had a call from a desperate parishioner who just needed to talk. I offered to meet with her with clear boundaries to keep the 6 foot social distancing. We met at the parking lot of Slade School, a very big space with each of us talking from inside our cars. This woman cried so hard that she had missed receiving the Blessed Eucharist. I went to the tabernacle and got a piece of the consecrated host for her. The feelings of joy and gratitude were evident, and she exclaimed, “Thank you Jesus.”
However, the COVID situation challenged us differently. At the parish, we started exploring new pastoral strategies to feed our people. Fr. Austin, Fr. Diego, and I began drive-through confessions at the parking lot of the church. Even though it was freezing cold outside, we felt happy doing it. It felt warmer than the empty church. Those who came for the confessions were happy too. We started in chairs then moved to our respective cars, administering absolution. It was emotional in the sense that penitents expressed how satisfying it was to come to church, albeit in the parking lot. We also rediscovered our friendships as brother priests at the rectory. We celebrated in the chapel set up by the seminarian inside the rectory. We had more time for breakfast and spent time sharing social, cultural, and theological conversations. We started getting used to the new normal, the new method of being priests in the glare of COVID.
In addition to the spiritual stress of COVID, another consequence of the lockdown was an economic downturn. While the developed countries had plans to take care of their citizens, the developing nations could not handle the pressure. Africa, for example, had no plan B. The citizens were forcefully locked in; no stimulus package, no unemployment benefits, and no strategy to cushion the effects of hunger which would become more destructive than COVID. We embarked on a Walk to support some of our African brothers and sisters.
As of this writing, it’s been nine months since COVID started (February – November) and we take stock of its toll. There have been lives lost and many businesses have shuttered permanently. Education had taken on a different dimension with online classes and schooling from home. Socialization is quite different now; no hugs, no warm exchange of greetings. Although churches have opened, it’s not the same. Church attendants have their faces covered with masks and are not allowed to sing. There is no kiss of peace. So much has changed. The world has experienced trauma: pandemic, protests, closures, elections, and other socio-economic upheavals.
On the other hand, these experiences have ushered in blessings too. Parents are more involved in the education of their children. We’ve made time for friendships and increased family connections. We’ve learned lessons in patience and how to press pause, slowing down our pace. Importantly, it seems like the hand of Divine Providence is making His presence known throughout the world. Think about how many plans you made prior to COVID. How much of them did you accomplish? And honestly, how important were they? We have all been forced to rethink our attitude towards controlling the things around us. The COVID situation reechoes the Psalm, “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, the world and all its peoples” (24:1). Everything and everyone belong to God. What have we learned? Can we begin to appreciate the value of human life as God's greatest gift? Can we accept that we cannot control the plans of God? Can we grasp that He can bring triumph from tragedy? Didn’t the COVID situation force all of us back to our homes? When the shops shuttered and the schools closed, when the stadiums went dark and the movie theatres hushed, when the bells tolled as the church locked its doors, we went home to our families. All that mattered was life. In the end, it was about faith and family, just like it's been since the very beginning. The joy of Easter Sunday comes after the pain of Good Friday. We might emerge from this bruised but will remain unbroken.
Fr. Vincent is a priest from Nigeria, currently serving as associate pastor at Christ the King Church in Maryland. Founder of the FA Ministry and FA Magazine, he holds a master’s degree in Communication and is presently a doctoral student of Marriage and Family Therapy at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.