The impact of COVID-19 on religion – Redlands Daily Facts

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Gregory Elder is Professor Emeritus of History and Humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. (Courtesy picture)

It was during morning services that the deacon read aloud the passage from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus argues with the rulers of the day about things that are clean and unclean.

The situation was that Jesus’ followers ate their food without the usual ritual washing of hands, which drew criticism from religious authorities. He does not take criticism from his followers lightly. Scripture says:

“Then the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why don’t your disciples follow the tradition of the elders, but eat a meal with unclean hands?’ He answered, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard the commandment of God, but you cling to human tradition. He went on to say, “How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition! (Mark 7:5-9)

In seminary, when we covered this passage, it seemed to me to be yet another passage where Jesus challenged the religious and civil leaders of the time. But living as we do in the age of COVID-19, when many people obsess over things that are clean and unclean, the shift has taken on a whole new meaning. This raises the question of how far one should go in obedience to modern civil and religious requirements. To what extent do the civil authorities as well as the clergy have the right to issue orders which are in one way or another contrary to conscience?

At the height of the medical crisis, the city of Greenville, Mississippi, banned public worship, even for drive-in services, and local police issued $500 tickets to violators. Drive-through restaurants were excluded from these closures, however. In the state of Oregon, houses of worship were limited to 25 people per service, but they were allowed to use their auditoriums to hold exercise classes for any number as long as social distancing was observed. . These cases and others like them were sued, and the state of California was hit with $2 million in legal fees that were paid to attorneys who challenged the state restrictions.

This issue of the government shutting down religious services came to a head at the local level when in March 2020, a blanket shutdown was imposed on the state. On March 18, 2020, the California Conference of Catholic Bishops ordered the suspension of all public Masses. We were given 24 hours to complete all the details at the office before leaving. This led to a number of situations. Your author had to call two different brides to tell them that they had the choice of postponing their weddings indefinitely, or that they could go to church with their bride and groom and no more than 10 people, including me. They managed to clear their schedule. The sums of money couples lost across the state when they had to walk away from their wedding venues must be enormous.

One would like to think that this was a pleasant but unexpected break for the clergy. It was not.

Many of us have held video services, and my own spare bedroom has become a temporary chapel and classroom for online Bible studies. Telephone and Zoom pastoral counseling became common, but it was not as effective as face-to-face might have been. Certain ceremonies, such as confession and receiving Holy Communion, became impossible. A priest I know became adept at illicit last rites through cellphone cameras, leaving it to the Almighty to determine the validity of such a grant rite. On one occasion, when a member of his ward got his home phone and pleaded for the opportunity to make a confession, he replied that he couldn’t…but was planning to sit on an outdoor bench at a certain location the next day. day at a certain time and if anyone passed by, he could not avoid hearing their contrite prayers.

The clergy of different denominations reacted very differently. Some obeyed the new restrictions and some did not. A pastor made headlines by refusing to stop congregational worship and denounced the whole thing as a conspiracy. He quickly contracted COVID-19 and died. Those of us who had taken a vow of obedience had a tense choice of obeying our superiors or dropping the congregations we had pledged to serve. A minister quietly asked your humble servant, “Are you going to go underground?” He meant to do secretly like the Christians of the time of the Caesars when they worshiped in the catacombs. I replied, “Not yet. But my suitcases are ready. After restrictions were relaxed and some outdoor worship was allowed for small groups, this author often got into trouble for not observing the rules as strictly as possible.

Let’s be clear: I am not one of those who thinks that COVID-19 and mask-wearing is a means of social control, a government plot or that necessary restrictions in the name of public health are a harsh attack on our freedoms. acquired. The seriousness of this medical crisis is very real and clear to me. The friendly reader will remember that your author gives the last rites and performs funerals to earn a living. I have been in the intensive care units and I have seen the suffering of the infected and the tears of the bereaved. I have been vaccinated several times. At the same time, I saw elderly women kneel on the concrete sidewalk outside my church because they couldn’t enter the building, and others flee the property when they gathered to say the rosary together.

The religious consequences of the COVID crisis will be with us for a long time. Some people whose health is already impaired will not come to church out of fear. Regular attendance at weekly services in many places has dropped dramatically, and who can blame them for dropping out of services after their leaders told them that attending church was no longer a requirement. In many denominations, regular giving to congregations has been drastically reduced. There is still an outspoken minority who refuse to wear masks and can make life difficult.

Freedom of religion is a wonderful but frightening thing. On the part of our political and religious leaders, it is a moral imperative to maintain public health and safety, although it is disheartening to see some of them, like the Pharisees mentioned above, imposing rules on people they don’t respect themselves. To this is opposed the imperative of respect for the religious right of conscience, without which one falls into barbarism.


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