Church: ‘The Last Refuge when Everything Else Fails’
Editor’s Note: McKenzie Flowers Fergus, a McMurry University graduate, is actively engaged in various human rights, anti-discrimination, sustainable development, and peace-building organizations. After graduating with a Master of Divinity (M.Div.) from Yale University, she was awarded a Russell Berrie Fellowship in a program that collaborates globally with interfaith institutions and universities to promote interreligious dialogue. She also received her degree in Interfaith Studies at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. McKenzie is a Ph.D. Candidate in the World Christianity program at the University of Edinburgh.
By McKENZIE FLOWERS FERGUS
For the first time in history, all churches in Rome closed in totality on March 12 (an estimated 900 churches). And with the pandemic comes more questions to grapple with than answers. Early March, a graduate student at a Pontifical University in Rome asked: “Surely the churches can put in place measures? They served the people during the bubonic plague and Spanish influenza. If churches are closed now when many people seek refuge, one has to question their overarching purpose. A Catholic Father commented that if churches do not embody their core purpose, then they will only further be seen by others simply as sites of artistic interest, thus, the many dividing gulfs will only widen, possibly irreparably.
The day all churches closed across Rome, a Catholic Father alerted me about the severity of the situation for Catholic churchgoers: “All of the churches are closed. They aren’t allowing priests to conduct Mass…so many people are being denied the holy sacrament.”
As a Protestant attending a Vatican graduate school, I delved into questions about the role of the eucharist for a Catholic church-goer during times of crisis. In a sense, the eucharist is the life-blood of the church. Father Richard Gokum explains why: “The eucharist is the source and summit of the Church’s life. The doors of the Catholic Churches in Rome have never closed, even in times of famine and war, because people recognize the church’s presence as the last refuge when everything else fails.” Catholic priests especially draw strength from the Holy Sacrament to do work and charity.
Father Gokum sums up the words of so many Catholics I interviewed. The essence of communion is seen as a form of “life source.” Gokum goes as far as saying: “Without the eucharist one’s soul is starved. The experience is like going without food.” Father Gokum also understands that precautionary measures must be taken during these difficult times. As the virus spreads, the clergy must not put themselves or others in danger. For those who can both afford the technology and have the tech-savvy skills to participate, some churches conducted remote online services.
Despite the strict sanctions imposed by the government, Pope Francis did admirably encourage priests to “have the courage to go out and see the sick, bringing the strength of the word of God.” On March 13, a decision was made to reopen (as news headlines read) “some churches” in Rome. News reports announced that this decision was due to Pope Francis prompting authorities “to consider another need.”
Mass is a sacred time that is meant to remind believers of life and all that it encompasses. Globally, the holy sacrament is no longer as accessible. Just a few weeks ago in Rome, for example, Catholics knew that a church was only a stone’s throw away. Now, due to the pandemic, most churches are closed.
There are many places in the world where access to a church (let alone the eucharist) is not possible for weeks, months, and even years at a time. In China, it’s not easy to imagine how a Christian lives his or her entire life without ever seeing the eucharist. A Catholic Father from Pakistan offers critical insight: “I know the value of the eucharist. Or rather, I learned of its precious value as many towns in Pakistan are located far from a Catholic Church, and believers often are unable to take communion for up to two months at a time.”
Imagine if, ever since you could remember, you went for months on end without something you found precious and fundamental to your spiritual wellbeing? Those facing these difficult times and challenging sanctions may soon catch a glimpse into the lives of many other churchgoers around the world.
No matter where we exercise our faith, whether that be at a synagogue, temple, shrine, mosque, or basilica, perhaps these challenging times offer opportunities for us to better learn to evaluate and re-examine what we are grateful for. Americans, for example, may generally see church services as a basic right available to all —but many forget that they are the exception.
Not only due to the crisis, today Christians worldwide remain isolated or physically far from an open church or place of worship. For those who are unable to find the solace of a place of worship right now—maybe they sit in a hospital bed or fear leaving home due to high-risk vulnerabilities—wherever they may be or whatever their unique situation, I hope that they can look to find meaning in the little wonders and blessings that we regularly take for granted. Fresh meaning can also be found in pondering why it is we desire and what this desire signifies.
Christians are representatives of the way, the truth, and the life. A life that is wrapped up in serving others (as the Catholics like to say) through virtues. So, what will all Christian Churches resemble during the pandemic? Perhaps we must first begin answering this question by asking ourselves what this period resembles—on a personal and spiritual level. It might look like: praying on the telephone with friends instead of at Bible studies; or attending online church services. And there are numerous ways to give back; reach out to the elderly through electronic mediums; pick up some groceries for those out of work. At the store, do not hoard products and only take what you need. The more you overstock on supplies, the less it is available for your sick neighbors, doctors, and emergency response personnel. Steering conversations away from “what is missing” and towards “what can I do to help society” contributes to the image of the church, even if in a small way.
A myriad of forms of the Golden Rule can be found in most religious affiliations. Imagine if the teachings of love your neighbor as yourself were widely considered a universal lesson that all people practiced. How different would this international crisis look?