The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the political, economic and social life of a troubled world, already suffering by the financial crisis and imposed neoliberal austerity measures. With this current crisis, a strange unity has risen; a unity in fear of illness and death, anxious uncertainty for the future and collective mourning for the tens of thousands of deaths. Within a few weeks, the lives of hundreds of millions of people have changed in ways that only dystopian films could predict.
Subsequently, the spiritual life of faith communities all over the world has been dramatically affected in unprecedented ways. Due to the preventive measures against the spread of the pandemic, the churches in many countries have shut down under governmental orders. Physical participation was restrained or even banned for countless parishes and congregations; a harsh decision, especially during a very significant liturgical time. For non-ritualistic Christian communities with strong media and web ministries, the closing of places of worship was, perhaps, easier since many of their members are already used to “join church online”.
Certainly, this reality was very difficult for churches characterized by a strong, rich and, at the same time, non-modified worship life. Particularly in terms of the Orthodox Church, an additional problem was the unfamiliarity with the use of modern communication technologies as instruments for church engagement.
The challenge for the pastoral Church, how to accompany spiritually, prayerfully and liturgically the faithful amid physical distancing, became even more obvious during the Holy Week and Pascha celebrations. The televised iconic pictures of the Crucifix standing in the empty square of St. Peter’s Basilica, in the Vatican, on Good Friday night, according to the Gregorian calendar, and those of the empty Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Great Saturday, according to the Julian calendar, has saddened many people around the world. Together with the photos of the sealed coffins transferred by military trucks in Bergamo (Italy) and those of the unclaimed virus victims buried in Hart Island (New York), these immortalized moments became iconic symbols of the pandemic.
Clerics tried to respond in the situation of locked churches by adopting forms of electronic-online services; a familiar praxis known mostly to the sick, those far away from church communities, peoples on-duty, sailors or those experiencing religious persecution. For example, Orthodox priests in Greece invited, with some delay, the faithful to join, via social media, live-streamed Great Lent services performed in their houses. The General Synod of the minority Greek Evangelical Church, adopted the online services immediately as the preventive measures have been announced and thus preceded the decision of the Synod of the Church of Greece. The last-minute decision of the centre-right Greek Government to allow priests to hold Holy Week and Paschal services in their parishes behind closed doors has not made the situation easier.
An online war started in various countries between those who expressed anger for the closed churches and those who supported the preventive measures. Suddenly, participation in church life received wide criticism by the media and in social networks as a threat to public health. The belief in God became a matter of debate once again. Videos presenting Roman Catholic priests in Italy holding litanies and praying for God's intervention on empty streets and squares have been harshly mocked on social media networks. In Greece and other predominantly Orthodox countries, the receiving of Holy Communion became a tug-of-war issue. It caused not only a polemic situation between secularists and religious people, but it also divided the faithful. Hierarchs, members of the clergy, theologians and even politicians, physicians, jurists and journalists entered an often ideologicalized debate over the freedom to take part in the sacraments (mainly the Eucharist) and church services given the preventive measures for physical distancing.
The fear of the pandemic and the subsequent metaphysical questions have once again identified hidden but not unknown issues in the Orthodox Church. These issues are related to the theological and pastoral challenge of superstitious religiosity, and the need to deepen our biblical and patristic understanding of miracles, especially in times of widespread danger. Also, there is a strong need to deal theologically with the secularization of the Eucharist and the liturgical life of the Church as expressions of state-related, cultural, customary and even nationalistic religiosity. Such concepts, including the participation in Eucharist in individualistic terms, are distortions of the Orthodox ecclesiological understanding of the sacrament of the Holy Communion as the expression of organic coherence of the Church as the Body of Christ.
Interestingly, the demand for theologically traditionalistic minded faithful to receive the Holy Communion despite the preventive measures revealed a paradox: This demand was not made in the name of preserving the unceasing worship of the Church but in the name of their rights to exercise freely their religious beliefs. The conservative, often anti-western, anti-modern and anti-ecumenical chapter of the Orthodox Church, invoked the modern institution of human rights to justify its claim within the liberal democratic system.
Despite the denominational, regional or cultural differences, the more hostile reactions against the closing of churches share a basic argumentation. They are based on the disseminating of misinformation, on conspiracy theories combined with apocalyptic beliefs, on ideological affinity with the political (far)right, on distrust of the ecclesiastical authorities and, by definition, on identifying global organizations (in this case the World Health Organization) as dark decision-making bodies in favour of global governance. The implementation of a vaccine screening program has already started another round on the COVID-19 debate, and not all religious voices will contribute constructively.
Such phenomena should not describe the real fear that has emerged as a priori unjustified. People are experiencing an abnormal situation that includes not only the pandemic itself, the change of every day “normalities”, the “lost” time or the expected economic effects, but also restricted basic democratic rights.Supporting the pandemic restriction measures cannot imply the indiscriminate acceptance of every governmental or intergovernmental decision in the name of public health security. So, how could the churches respond in the above-mentioned challenges?
The Center of Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies (CEMES) and the International Hellenic University (IHU), both based in Thessaloniki (Greece), organized from 6 to 11 of April 2020, an international free web-seminar on “Religious Communities and Church in a Period of Pandemic”. About 200 participants, coming from the USA, Russia, UK, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Syria, Ukraine, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Georgia, and Greece, address the problem of pandemics through biblical, liturgical, historical, theological, ecumenical, inter-faith, missiological and pastoral perspectives.
The seminar highlighted the need to examine the Eucharistic ecclesiology under the light of the Baptismal theology. It also marked the necessity of re-addressing the priesthood and witnessing role of all believers, especially during a time in which the Church has to work in “non-canonical” terms. This step is not a break from the orthodox faith but it remains in line with the Biblical and Patristic Tradition. It draws inspiration from the past, especially of historical periods of persecution of the Church or previous pandemics. Such an initiative requests the liturgical renewal and re-catechism of the believers to understand the true nature of the sacramental life of the Church, beyond quasi-magical and individualistic false interpretations.
Many speakers and participants underlined the complexities of today's post-modern realities. For the Church, to remain faithful to witness to the Gospel, a re-emphasis on her eschatological nature, apart from clericalism, systemic processes and statist institutionalization, has to be made. In this direction, the renewal of early charisms and ministries, such as that of ordained deaconesses, has to go in line with a prophetic witness on contemporary social, environmental, economic and bioethical issues.
The ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the regional ecumenical organizations, offers a rich experience. The WCC’s early call and response to the AIDS crisis, already during the late ’80s, is such an example. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are called to address together contemporary perceptions on health standards, the forgotten remembrance of death (memento mori), the widespread irrational thinking, the politically-economically manipulated misinformation of the public opinion and the very much needed democratization of global decision-making processes particularly in times of crisis. Many speakers and participants underlined the complexities of today's post-modern realities. For the Church, to remain faithful to witness to the Gospel, a re-emphasis on her eschatological nature, apart from clericalism, systemic processes and statist institutionalization, has to be made. In this direction, the renewal of early charisms and ministries, such as that of ordained deaconesses, has to go in line with a prophetic witness on contemporary social, environmental, economic and bioethical issues.
During the 20th century, critical historical moments and global crisis fostered the ecumenical understanding and opened new ways for cooperation. As we commemorate the 100th anniversary (1920-2020) of the milestone Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate “Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere”, we can only hope that the current pandemic, through the shared fear and pain but also the same hope and common theological, pastoral, spiritual and bioethical challenges, will foster the quest for the visible unity of all Christ’s disciples.