There is so much pain and confusion around the world. The coronavirus pandemic has caused panic. Under lockdown, people remain in their houses, and their spiritual, social and economic lives have been seriously affected. All of us are feeling confused, discouraged and indeed frightened by the coronavirus and by the attempts to prevent its transmission. The news is so disturbing, we worry. We don’t know what lies ahead. Churches are closed and priests and faithful are detached, with Catholics and Orthodox Christians bereft of the sacraments. People are hungry for Christ present in the elements of bread and wine. Priests celebrate the Holy Eucharist, but in empty parish churches.
In Ethiopia many people do not have access to electricity and the internet, so it is difficult to livestream religious services. People feel the importance of prayer and they are crying to God.
The closure of the churches for the public may be God’s way of asking us to return to our roots, to the very meaning of what it means to be church. It invites us to a make faith-filled effort to believe that in God we live and move and have our being. No door can be closed to our reaching God and to God reaching us.
The first action taken by the Catholic Church after the coronavirus arrived in Ethiopia was to immediately close the schools. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia issued guidelines to be implemented in all institutions and parishes. In the first two weeks, religious functions were not suspended, but other protocols — such as social distancing and the washing of hands upon entering churches — were applied strictly. Some changes made to the liturgical norms were a shock for many Catholics. Personally, I found it difficult to explain to our people why we had to take such precautions in response to COVID-19. Also, we have been advising people to stay at home to be safe. But this has been difficult, since many families need to bring bread home every day.
Priests, religious men and women and other pastoral ministers are engaged in intensive prayer and spiritual guidance for the faithful. After practicing social distancing principles in churches for two weeks, it was decided that the churches should be completely closed in consultation with all religious confessions and the government. Once the decision was made to close churches, priests continued to offer daily Mass on behalf of the community. Bells continue to ring to remind the faithful of the main prayerful moments of the day: morning, midday and evening prayer.
Once the government declared a state of emergency, leaders of all religious confessions declared a month-long period of prayer, so that the faithful could cry to God for the eradication of COVID-19. The government, together with the media, agreed to provide television air time for religious services for all religious denominations. This has created a very important means to reach our faithful. It helps them to trust in God and regain their hope by listening to the word of God and uplifting homilies broadcast publicly.
All forms of social and traditional media are used to reach our communities. Priests and sisters have collaborated in organizing prayer services from different convents and parishes. Since the Catholic Church in Ethiopia does not have its own television station, using whatever media is available has become very instrumental to reach our Catholic faithful. We are grateful to CNEWA, which helped us to cover some of related costs for transmission. People of different faith communities, too, are praying together, and they are working hand in hand to combat COVID-19, mobilizing financial and humanitarian support to support poor families. Many of these volunteers are youth who are of different ethnic and religious groups.
The coronavirus has seriously affected the poor. People were supposed to stay at home, but since they need to work, they were forced to leave their houses. But the economy has also been affected by this crisis, and people are not able to bring bread home for their children. Our parishes are trying to mobilize Catholics to support poor families. These efforts have reached some of the poor, but we cannot meet all the needs since the magnitude of need is so huge.
Besides offering prayerful support, priests and religious men and women have tried to support the local poor however they can. Catholic health care institutions have been using all their resources to combat COVID-19. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia has made an emergency appeal to all Catholic organizations, asking them for help. With the financial support we have received so far, we have provided communities with awareness about the virus, along with some protective equipment and materials that were delivered to Catholic institutions.
COVID-19 has affected all of us. I’ve had some sleepless nights. Celebrating Mass in an empty church and listening to peoples’ fear and anxiety all make me cry. I have intensified my prayer life, taking time to meditate and read, and following all prayers and Eucharistic celebrations televised from Vatican City. Since we decided to close our office, I have been working half days. I have tried to rest well and watch news selectively, so as not to be overly stressed. I have taken time for some recreation at home as well, which helps one keep healthy mentally, physically and spiritually.
As the lockdown is further prolonged, and restrictions of movement are enforced, low-income families who live on daily subsistence find life more challenging. This worries the church more than ever before. Yet, the spread of the virus seems to be slowing here in Ethiopia. And so we pray, and we hope.