By Lara Pickford-Gordon
How do we make sense of COVID-19 as individuals and Church? The Caribbean Theology Conference Today (CTCT) held a virtual forum via Zoom April 16 ‘Theological Reflections on COVID-19’ to share a few perspectives. There were 35 participants.
Fr Esteban Kross, vicar general of the Diocese of Paramaribo, and regional director of the Pontifical Mission Societies -Antilles gave an account of when he and a group of 45 Surinamese pilgrims and three Dutch tour guides found themselves “in an explosive outbreak of COVID-19 crisis in Israel”.
They arrived in Israel Wednesday, March 4. On the first day of the pilgrimage they enjoyed a visit to Hebron. At 1 p.m. they found out from their Palestinian bus driver that the media was reporting an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
It was linked to a group of Greek pilgrims staying at a hotel in Bethlehem.
Fr Kross said investigations by the authorities found “several members of the personnel of that hotel, their bus driver and several persons in places they had visited, like Jerusalem and Nazareth had been infected by them with the virus.”
Fr Kross said when the Surinamese pilgrims entered Bethlehem to celebrate Mass in the Nativity Church fear was visible. “A number of locals along the street looked fearfully at our touring bus and shouted angrily at us and pointed fingers at our bus”.
During the distribution of Communion someone came in and ordered them to finish quickly because they were going to lock the church. “We were hurried out the church. We literally had to run as they shouted ‘Go! Go! We have to disinfect the place. Leave! Leave the church, the church will be locked!’”.
They hoped to continue their pilgrimage the next day, Friday, but were stopped at an Israeli check point along with 20 other buses and ordered by military with guns to remain in the bus on order of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. They were informed the government wanted all foreigners out and the tour bus should go to the airport.
Fr Kross recounted the ordeal of fear and anxiety and the vulnerability of being at the mercy of a foreign government. There were tense moments with the back and forth about their departure; the authorities had insisted they leave on a plane to Paris since the earliest flight to Holland was Monday evening.
Doctors more relevant than priests
Fr Kross said since the group did not speak French, “I told them I did not know what would happen to our group if we arrive at Paris airport given the circumstances of the outbreak”. They had to stay quarantined in the hotel and the hotel’s manager directed them to remain out of sight since Bethlehem was in lockdown.
During the stay, they gathered for “rich, beautiful Masses”, prayer, meals, and moments of sharing which helped “give some faith perspective” to their experiences.
Fr Kross said it was important to reflect on the consequence of the “poisonous combination” of fear and blaming others “with regard to polarisation and disintegration of social cohesion” and human solidarity and individualism.
The COVID-19 crisis also poses formidable challenges to faith and spirituality of many people. There are many who came back to their faith or whose faith was strengthened but the crisis can provoke changes as people question “the relevance of faith, prayer and liturgical gatherings”.
Fr Kross said, “The crisis in its unique, worldwide and prolonged nature could impress in the minds of many the conviction that in spite of religion, the fear and spread of the pandemic was not stopped and that doctors and nurses seem more relevant than priests and ministers.”
The virtual forum was the first instalment hosted by the CTCT, which usually hosts a theological conference every other year. The aim is to have forums in the interim and in the future, opening them to non-members.
Moderators were Fr Donald Chambers, general secretary, Antilles Episcopal Conference and Fr Stephan Alexander, priest of St Martin de Porres, Coryal.
Sr Julie Peters SSM, general assistant, General Council, Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, who is based in Rome presented ‘Lessons Learned outside the classroom’ and Gloria Bertrand presented a perspective of seniors, the group most vulnerable to COVID-19. Bishop Clyde Harvey of St George’s-in-Grenada offered a reflection on the pastoral situation in the Caribbean.
Bertrand narrated how taking care of her husband of 64 years Harold after he fell ill in 2017 prepared her for the changes which came with the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a financial, emotional, spiritual, and physical impact. Bertrand said, “COVID is calling us to manage our lives in a totally different way, not what we knew before but what we had to learn again”.
She suggested that the virus has opened eyes to the experience of many “shut-ins”. Being confined does not mean a loss of hope and dreams. “I call it living in the land of my captivity…because the other is depending on me,” she said.