EVANGELIZATION IN THE FACE OF COVID-19: A WAY FORWARD

EVANGELIZATION IN THE FACE OF COVID-19: A WAY FORWARD

A PAPER PRESENTED BY REV. FR. DANIEL EVBOTOKHAI AT THE SEMINARY OF ALL SAINTS, UHIELE, EKPOMA ON THE OCCASION OF HER MISSION WEEK CELEBRATION

OCTOBER 15TH, 2020

Introduction

The topic at hand, calls us to reflect on evangelization alongside the present pandemic COVID-19. Evangelization is the primary mandate of the Church. The Church has always encouraged her children to always engage and foster the course of the Good News to the whole world. COVID 19 on the other hand rang a bell that set everyone on its toes. Those in charge of the socio-economic world must now develop better strategies to continue to keep the socio-economic phase of the world. Spiritual leaders of today and tomorrow must not be left out. They are to ensure that the mandate of Christ is fulfilled in season or out of season.

Evangelization

The word “Evangelization” is traced to the Hebrew word basar which means “to announce the good news or joyful tidings.” This is linked to the tradition in Old Testament of “bringing the good news of salvation” (Isaiah 52:7; 61:1). In the New Testament the word euangelion is a translation of the Hebrew word basar. It is in this sense that Jesus used it in the Synagogue (Lk 4:18-21) generally regarded as the manifesto of Christ. Jesus’ disciples continued this mission by proclaiming redemption and salvation to the world. Thus, Evangelization is the proclamation of the gospel, the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, to people who have not yet heard it. It takes place through the missionary activities of the Church which is built on the biblical theology of the Great Commission in Matt.28:19-20 to preach to the whole world.

The State of Evangelization Today

There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a great service to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.[1] For this reason the duty of confirming the brethren with the office of priesthood is a program of life and action, and a fundamental commitment to Christ and the Church. In this time of uncertainty, insecurity and pandemic we are encouraged to accomplish this task with ever increasing love, zeal and joy.

Today, no one talks about the state of evangelization in the Catholic Church without reference to the New Evangelization. The New Evangelization is the particular process by which baptized members of the Catholic Church express the general Christian call to evangelization. The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. It is carried out in three principal settings”.[2]  The three settings are: 1) Ordinary pastoral ministry (to inflame the hearts of the faithful), 2) Outreach to “the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism” and 3) Evangelization to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.

  1. Ordinary pastoral ministry: We are called to inflame the hearts of the faithful in our regular function as ministers. We must make that effort to go beyond the average otherwise our faith and people will not grow beyond average. Many parishes today are almost lukewarm. There are no passionate expressions of Christ’s love. 1:  6-7 calls us to fan into flame the spirit of God we have received. When we carry out our pastoral ministry we should apply some level of passion and conviction. Many of us have become so usual with these sacred mysteries. We celebrate them while we remain or appear so passive. The Spirit of evangelization should foster our sacred gestures. Your acts of reverence and sincere participation can inspire those within and outside the Church. If the burning desire with which some of us stir other extraordinary activities in parishes is directed towards the life of the people we would have been yielding abundant harvest.
  1. Outreach to the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism:The Spirit of the New Evangelization calls us to reach out to those Catholics who are said to be lapsed or falling. Many of our people need encouragement. Many of them have fallen because their faith was not nursed and nurtured by catechesis and Bible study.
  1. Evangelization to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him: Evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of such are around the corners of our cities and villages. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. We must share our joy and invite others to the delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”. The mandate is for us to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19).

The Menace of COVID-19

The Corona Virus Disease 2019 called ‘COVID-19’ is the defining global health crisis of our time and the greatest challenge we have faced since World War Two. Since its emergence in Asia late last year, the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It has been identified as a pandemic but it is much more than a health crisis. It is an unprecedented socio-economic crisis, a religious crisis and more.

Today, we have not fully recovered from the anxieties ensuing from the pandemic.  Based on statistics some nations are said to be recuperating while others are revealing dwindling figures which are either due to politics or scientific insincerity. Many persons are caught up in the tension between the politics and the reality. Therefore, there is need to pay serious attention to this issue. The Church both at the universal and local levels has come up with COVID-19 policies. Many parishes and Mass centers now have COVID-19 squad to help manage and control the spread of this virus at their local level.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 is (was) an eye opener. We never anticipated that in the year 2019/2020 desolation shall fall upon the earth. Even though we were not all infected; we were all affected. Cities and villages; markets and farms; schools and working places; in fact the world cried. Parishes couldn’t function as usual; thus its wider implication on the financial management of staff and lives. This experience was so sad and bad that even our obligation towards charity suffered. Increased numbers of persons were out to ask for assistance; those in private sectors were in daily tears! Just as if there was no hope; was the dawn of palliatives. Government and non governmental bodies were in for charity. The palliatives became the immediate remedy as the hunger death was on the increase. On the other hand, greed took the stage as to the proper sharing and delivering of these palliatives. Corruption was further massaged and domestic violence was on the increase.

This experience may just be an episode; what happens in the future if there is another pandemic either across the line of health, or something else? What will happen if there is drought? What will happen if there is another world war? In this last episode or on-going episode our inadequacies were glaring. We were not prepared; Church and State alike.

Common Reactions in the face of Pandemic (COVID-19)

In theology we were told that Theodicy is any attempt to reconcile notions of a loving and just God with the reality of human suffering.[3] Theodicy explains why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil. The old and New Testaments have interpreted disasters in many different ways. Those caused by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and many others. The Egyptian plagues have been a point of scriptural reference for many preachers. Much later the crisis of faith as caused by the death of Christ was also a point of reference. The disciples locked themselves in the upper room until they were empowered or vaccinated for the mission. Theological analysis of disasters did not end at the close of the biblical era, but has continued throughout Christian history and a number of so called Leibnizian philosophical models of theodicy have been developed. In recent times there has been a serious shift in the ways and manners Christian approach disasters; either health disaster or other disasters.

Today, once there is a pandemic or disaster the headlines are immediately hijacked by preachers; you begin to hear things like the world has come to an end; many end time talk on the pages of papers and magazines; others begin to confirm predictions social or spiritual predictions. Many subscribe to the fact that God is punishing the world because of sin, or God is giving a warning to the world or that the great retribution has come. All these go to give credence to the words of the German philosopher Max Weber (1864–1920) who saw theodicy as a social problem, based on the human need to explain puzzling aspects of the world.[4] So, these preachers are just trying to explain a puzzling aspect of the world. Blessed Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, used the Biblical story of Job to show us that suffering is not always sent as a punishment.[5] Christ alludes to a situation when 18 people died as a result of tower collapsing.  He asked; do you think they were guiltier than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? (Luke 13:4-5). So COVID-19 is not retribution. God is not out to get us, nor is he looking for payback.

Inversely, we had the few others who were of the more meaningful and reflective opinion that man is rather suffering the consequences of his actions. The devaluation of the ecology and other policies that devaluates human life and security can influence such pandemic. However, the fear factor and other weak appreciation of disaster could gain the public simply because the life of true doctrine is suffering. Catechesis is very poor in many parishes; homilies rather than been scriptural, traditional, doctrinal and moral have taken the modern and selling tunes of prophecies and prosperity.

 The true Christian approach to disaster is not all about making predictions and ratifying certain views with biblical events. Rather in the face of disaster Christians should express sincere faith, share and share our anxiety with God while seeking for a safety guideline for worship. The disciples caught up in that turbulent scene did the same thing; they expressed their anxiety and cried out to God to save them.[6]

 

The way forward: Safety Guidelines for Liturgical Celebrations 

Robert Cardinal Sarah, in his Letter to the Presidents of Episcopal Conferences, notes that “In times of difficulty (e.g. wars and pandemics), Bishops and Episcopal Conferences can give provisional norms which must be obeyed. Obedience safeguards the treasure entrusted to the Church. These measures given by the Bishops and Episcopal Conferences expire when the situation returns to normal.”[7] During the heat of the crisis, though the Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria could not meet to issue a guideline; they however, issued guidelines in their various Archdioceses and dioceses. Similarly, the Code of canon law noted that:

 “If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place, which is celebrated in accordance with the provision laid down by the diocesan Bishop; or they are to devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.” (Can. 1248¶2)

Generally speaking, the Safety Guidelines for Liturgical Celebration serve as the way forward in the face of COVID 19. However, the big issue of the safety guidelines is the debate about Communion on the palm versus Communion on the tongue.  Communicants in most parishes are advised to receive communion in their palm with utmost sacredness and sense of reverence. We must ensure we avoid abuses by consuming reverently possible sacred particles on our palm. However, if the introduction of this practice results to more indifference, outrages and sacrileges toward the Blessed Sacrament; it will be proper to return to the former place of prominence for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Basic Lessons for On-going Evangelization

The ongoing pandemic of coronavirus all over the world has thrown up many pertinent lessons for us all.

  1. More than ever before Church leaders must now pay attention to other means by which the Church can survive with her basic roles outside Church collection. There is serious need for Church investment to finance the Church’s affairs.
  2. Attention to Church building development to the detriment of the human spiritual development has to be corrected. A lot of decorated expensive Church building became empty because of the lock down. Yet many of our people could not pray as a family or as individuals. The Church buildings were locked down but the Church was on.
  3. It was said that the pastoral role of many priests was reduced to repeating the advice of medical experts and other COVID 19 propaganda. While our parishioners were in dire need of true pastoral reassurance and practical spiritual guidance. Thus, it was not just enough to dispense them from the obligation of Sunday Masses; we could have given them other spiritual obligations that must be respected.
  4. COVID 19 has redirected the thought of the body of Christ to the fact that this world will come to an end. The lockdown can be said to be Partial. How are we preparing for the absolute lockdown in the second coming of Christ?
  5. Evangelization must now go beyond regular pulpit homilies. At the dawn of COVID 19 many parishes and diocese came out with jingles; but am yet to see many jingles fly daily just for evangelization. It behooves us therefore, to take up the challenge to foster evangelization beyond the pulpit level. What we do on mission Sunday ought to have a regular scheme in our parishes. We must go out and speak to people about Christ. Along these lines the Latin American bishops stated that we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings”; we need to move “from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry”.[8] We must now go to the street, come up with more jingles or agenda to conquer our world for Christ.
  6. Our people should be made to study the Bible, understand basic catechesis and the teaching office of the Church. The reason many Christians are gullible today is because of the lack of bible study. The Second Vatican Council emphasized the need to study the Sacred scripture as it remains the best guide for us as pilgrims until we reach our heavenly inheritance.[9] Pope Francis says the Bible is a “love letter” from God to humanity, therefore, those who follow Jesus should read it daily.”[10] As students no doubt you must read your textbooks but the Bible –the primary textbook of the Christian faith should not be downplayed.
  7. COVID 19 has taught us the paramount place of the media in evangelization. The pandemic as a matter of necessity has forced many of us to adopt creative ways in reaching our congregants. The media became very useful in this regard as many priests could air their masses. Though abuses crept in; it goes to show therefore that we should be taught the right use of the media and social networks in relation to the celebration of the sacrament.

More so, our people need to be taught either by way of seminars or during homilies the extent to which they can participate in liturgical celebration through the media or social networks. On this issue, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Robert Cardinal Sarah, said in a letter to bishops’ conference that virtual liturgies, while useful, were no replacement for the real thing. He said physical presence by the faithful in churches was “vital, indispensable, irreplaceable.”[11] While he applauded the impact of media broadcast he also noted that “liturgies in which the faithful participate only virtually risk distancing us from a personal and intimate encounter with the incarnate God whose presence among His people was not virtual but Real.”[12] Therefore, while the media may assist the faithful it does not in any way replace our presence in public worship.

  1. Evangelization like never before must now emphasize the place of charity, solidarity and humanitarian services. We must extend our hands to the poor and foster means by which their needs can be served and their anxiety addressed.

Conclusion:

The Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization. To the disciples whom He was about to send forth He says, breathing on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”(John 20:22). The Apostles became courageous witnesses to Christ’s resurrection because they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit we cannot evangelize the world.  Biblical tradition suggests that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection were not enough to get the early disciples into evangelization. In the face of this present pandemic if we must fulfill our mandate we need the Holy Spirit. The Church needs to rely and call on the Holy Spirit for strength and revival.  The apostles went forth, strengthened by the Spirit, to proclaim the Gospel to the world despite the crisis of their time. On this note I will like to conclude this paper by drawing our attention to the words of Pope Paul VI and Pope Francis.

Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit. The most perfect preparation of the evangelizer has no effect without the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man. Without Him the most highly developed schemas resting on a sociological or psychological basis are quickly seen to be quite valueless.[13]

Pope Francis says in this year’s Mission Sunday Message  that “In this year marked by the suffering and challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the missionary journey of the whole Church continues in light of the words found in the account of the calling of the prophet Isaiah: “Here am I, send me” (6:8). This is the ever new response to the Lord’s question: “Whom shall I send?” This invitation from God’s merciful heart challenges both the Church and humanity as a whole in the current world crisis. 

Endnote

[1] Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) Apostolic Exhortation promulgated on December 8, 1975.

[2] Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013,  p. 14

[3]  Philip A. Pecorino, An Introduction to Philosophy: (2000), Chapter 3: ‘Philosophy of Religion’, Section 11.

[4]  Richard Swedberg, Ola Agevall, The Max Weber Dictionary: Key Words and Central Concepts, Stanford University Press, 2005, p. 274.

[5] John Paul II Salvifici Doloris February 11, 1984 no. 11

[6i] Pope Francis,  Message for World Mission Day 2020/ Meditation in Saint Peter’s Square, 27 March 2020

[7] https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2020-09/letter-congregation-worship-celebration-liturgy-covid.html  Retrieved: 10/13/2020 

[8] Pope Francis, Evangelium Gaudium, nos. 14-15

[8] Pope Paul, VI Dei Verbum on November 18, 1965.

[10]Pope Francis’ Homily during the Mass for the Word of God in St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2020/01/pope-francis-says-the-bible-is-a-love-letter-from-god/ retrieved 12/10/2020

[11]Carol Glatz   “Catholic News Servicehttps://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2020/09/14/cardinal-sarah-bishops-facilitate-mass-person-soon-conditions-permit retrieved 12/10/2020

[12] ibid

[13]Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi no.75

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Fr. Daniel Evbotokhai is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Auchi, Edo State, Nigeria. He was ordained October 20th, 2018. He offers his daily homilies, talks and articles that bother on, faith, theology, morals and many other burning issues in religion and politics. Fr. Daniel writes poems, inspirational quotes and clips.