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Voices From the Pandemic: A Priest Among his People in Ethiopia

Father Misrak Tiyu is a Pastoral Coordinator in the Eparchy of Emdibir in Ethiopia.

The world these days is like a big ocean, moved and disturbed by a great storm. The storm is so powerful that the waves toss the ship on which people are traveling and living.  

That is our world right now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In my corner of the world, the reactions of the people are mixed: some are totally disturbed and paralyzed by fear, others are confused, some others are taking some precautions, such as staying at home and social distancing. However, many people in the countryside, due to poverty, are unable to get sanitizers and soaps to implement some precautionary measures. Therefore, the most vulnerable people are in imminent danger: they fear being contaminated easily and fear running out of basic needs, including food.

Others, though, are very strong in their faith. They seem to be very calm and rely on the intervention and protection of God.  

In the eparchy where I work, I have observed the strong and deep faith of some Christians who firmly believe that prayer is the solution. Despite restrictions on moving about, some of the people come to the church to pray every day — praying not only for their daily spiritual life, but also praying to halt the spread of the virus. 

For a short period of time, the eparchy has decided to halt distributing Holy Communion. In fact, for a time priests were celebrating Mass (Sunday Mass and daily Mass in some parishes) for the assembly, but they were not giving Holy Communion to the people, who have told us again and again how deeply they desire to receive the sacrament. 

There have been other challenges, as well. One was to convince people to change their way of life: to stop shaking hands, to stop drinking coffee together, to implement social distancing etc. It has taken a while to get used to living this way.      

For some, there are more pressing problems. As with so many things, the ones most affected by the consequences of COVID-19 are the poor. Due to the high prices of food, beverage and other necessities, they are unable to cope with the situation. Moreover, there is shortage of supplies in the market.  

“Right now, the big worry of the people is how to halt the spread of COVID-19. But there are also economic worries. Food and sanitary items are becoming more expensive.”   

Father Misrak Tiyu

The eparchy responded in various ways, such as creating an awareness program at parishes and markets — teaching people what COVID-19 means and how they can protect themselves against the virus. 

With the collaboration of parish priests, young people in different parishes collected funds to buy some necessary materials for the daily life of poor people in different villages. The eparchy, through the socio-pastoral office, bought handwashing materials and sanitary items, which were distributed to health centers.

One concern we have is that important ongoing formation programs and liturgical celebrations have been halted. Hence, some people are drifting from the church. In fact, besides common prayers in the church and in small Christian community programs, they have not developed other ways of nourishing their spiritual life, such as by reading books, using digital media to get some reflections from spiritual groups, prayers in the family etc.   

However, we have Bible study by a correspondence program which is prepared and distributed by the pastoral coordination office to many young people and adults in all our parishes. Some young people and adults keep themselves busy with these programs.

Priests, sisters and catechists are available, too. They are present when the people need to talk to them. Fortunately, in our area we haven’t yet had parishioners facing serious sickness due to COVID-19.

Right now, the big worry of the people is how to halt the spread of COVID-19. But there are also economic worries. Food and sanitary items are becoming more expensive.   

There are also economic worries for us as a church.

In the eparchy, there are about 50 Catholic schools. All students, with the exception of the very poor, contribute a monthly fee to pay for teacher’s salary. But the government has closed all the schools in the country and parents refuse to pay the monthly fee because their children are at home. The Ministry of Education also refused to pay the salary of teachers at private schools. Moreover, the government ordered all institutions to keep their staffs and to pay them their monthly salary in due time. The eparchy has nothing to pay teachers. So there are concerns about what may lie ahead in the coming weeks.

At the Pastoral Coordination Office, where many classes and workshops are organized, we are facing another problem. European donors have sent us letters, explaining that they cannot help us in the near future because of COVID-19. Some of them have already stopped supporting our pastoral activities. Therefore, we are obliged to revise our plans for the coming months. This will have a big impact in the lives of everyone — priests, nuns, catechists, youths, adults, couples and families.

Once the problem of COVID-19 is solved, we need to focus on ways to revitalize peoples’ faith. We need to strengthen and consolidate prayer groups, small Christian communities, gatherings of different spiritual associations etc. Right now, they are scattered, due to the precautionary measures that were implemented to protect against COVID-19.  

Other challenges remain. We haven’t yet worked and developed the digital media communication which is needed to reach the people. Hence, we are limited only to the usual ways of praying, preaching and teaching in the church and village gatherings or small Christian communities. However, television and other digital media which are owned by the government transmitted some prayer programs. This unusual transmission helped the people to pray at home.  

Having observed the fear and the confusion of the people, it is a big challenge for me as a Catholic priest to console, encourage and reach the people where they are. But the strong faith of the people — and especially their deep attachment to the Eucharist — will remain for a longtime deep in my heart. This pushes me to be closer to Jesus and to the Eucharistic celebration.

Meanwhile, we continue to pray for the storm to pass.

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