By Fr. Anthony Aneke
With the gradual increasing cases of Covid-19 cases in Nigeria, we are beginning to face a reality that we never wanted to come to terms with. The panic is building by seconds. Globally, every day the number of confirmed cases and deaths arising from the dreaded virus is rising uncontrollably. At the time of writing this script, NCDC has confirmed a total of 46 cases of Covid -19 in Nigeria, active cases as 43; total discharges as 2 and total deaths as 1. By the time you get to read this piece, the numbers of cases and deaths would have climbed to uncomfortable heights (I pray not). I mean, we have had all kinds of viruses including Ebola and SARS, but there has been nothing like this in medical history. Italy and America, irrespective of their highly advanced health care system and infrastructure are facing their worst nightmares. This alone terrifies Nigerians and we know the reasons.
To be sure, the average Nigerian sees Nigeria as a failed State. One sociologist opined that this very reason accounts for the high ‘religiosity’ of Nigerians which demonstrates man’s inevitable desire and unreasonable dependency on the absolute being since everything has failed. Naivety and gross ignorance has of course a part to play. For Covid-19 to be contained, Nigerians depend solely and ultimately of the absolute being’s special intervention. It is so unfortunate that the religious arena in Nigeria is awashed by syncretism, fideism and most recently gradual atheism.
Directives of public health officials are rolled out. Measures and advice of medical experts on containing Covid-19 are in fact heralded as national anthem. Religious leaders adapt these measures as it affects their congregations following the directive of the Government. Just recently, the Catholic Bishop of Enugu Diocese released some pastoral measures. Few days later, another document named “further pastoral measures” was also released. It was pointed out in that document the possibility of stricter measure being taken as the situation is being monitored. Total lockdown is gradually beginning in Nigeria: schools are closing soon; Land borders have shut; FEC meeting suspended till further notice; CJN closes down court; Government orders federal civil servants to stay at home; Federal government may draft military, police to enforce no mass gathering order. It may get to a point when churches are lock down completely as the situation develops.
The lockdown of Churches to ensure social distancing has been a cause of controversy throughout the world since this pandemic developed. A subtle atheism is being fanned into flame as this controversy arises. In Nigeria, this controversy is taking a special turn since the religion is the last hope of the common Nigerian. Some are of the view that the Church is scam as they feel the Church is completely helpless in the face of this pandemic. In fact, thousands of believers are beginning to question the essence of their faith while unbelievers across Nigeria have risen up to attack the body of Christ with everything they can. As a priest, I have received much already.
At the release of the document ‘Coronavirus (Covid-19): Further Pastoral Measures’ by the Catholic diocese of Enugu with regards to Covid-19, I have received a number of harsh mails: Father, so your Holy water cannot save us from the virus; why have you leaders of the church suddenly desacralize the ‘body of Christ’ – is it not Jesus in body, blood, soul and divinity again. So Christ body can’t save us; In fact, why can’t prayers save us from Covid 19. Hey! where are your healing centres, are they open or closed; And adoration grounds? Why cant all powerful priests in Nigeria gather and say one powerful healing mass for us. It is even asked, if we have faith, is attending Mass not even a way out to the current situation, rather than its possible cancellation. To be sure, Covid-19 is threatening Christian faith in Nigeria. In fact, the underlying question from these propagandists is : It is either there is no God or God is punishing the Church for her sins through this virus. Record has it that over 60 priests has died in Italy. This raises some interesting question regarding the essence of the Church and her sacraments, her faith and the place of prayer during times of national and global epidemics right now.
It is very important to point out that religious faith engenders hope and encourages people hope in the face of crisis. It inspires positive ethical responses and changes in lifestyles that limit unsafe behavior than can expose people to diseases and infections. However, Christians and people of faith have diverse opinions and convictions about the efficacy of prayer in bringing an end to an outbreak of this kind. In the opinion of Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, this is because of the diverse ways in which religious people respond to the two crises of faith that emerge during an epidemic. No religious explanations, no religious solutions. The first is the inadequacy of religious explanations for outbreaks like COVID-19. The second is the ineffectiveness of religious solutions to contain and mitigate the spread and effects of epidemics without paying attention to the germ-theory of diseases. These two realities were clearly evident in the greatest outbreak in human history, the Great Plague (1347-50) that killed more than one-third of the population of Europe. This plague created a crisis of faith among Christians about God’s ability to save them, because religious leaders were among the many people who died. The prayers, rituals and religious processions through the streets to ask for divine intervention apparently did not bring physical healing. The people quickly realized that being religious or spiritual does not immune anyone from diseases, infections and death. However, religious people believe that prayer and religious faith do offer an access to spiritual energy. Faith makes an appeal to a higher power, which brings comfort to Christians by the healing grace that – Christians believe – only God can give. Religious faith also helps Christians to make sense of evil, diseases and outbreaks like COVID-19. It helps them look with hope beyond the shadows of the present uncertain times. Historically, Christians everywhere have always relied on prayer in moments of anxiety and uncertainty (Stan Chu Ilo, Can prayer save us from COVID 19),
It is also very important to point out that the Catholic faith understands itself in rational terms. Hence, rational activity is called in to understand and explain faith. Therefore, Catholic faith always goes with reason. It loses its identity and meaning when it is divorced from reason. Faith without reason is simply fideism. Practically, when our Lord says the Sabbath is for man not man for the Sabbath, he points to a deeper meaning of Sabbath. This, he expressed as he heals people on Sabbath day. Since Sabbath is meant for man to rest and revitalization, and healing brings revitalization, then healing a person on the Sabbath does not contradict the deeper meaning of the Sabbath. And so, for Fr. Idahosa Amadasu, one can also say from here that temporarily not going to Mass in order to avoid the spread of the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic is not against the inner meaning of the Sabbath which is meant for the good of man. Sometimes, a little departure from the letters of the law is important to live its true spirit, especially for actions that are not intrinsically evil.
Going further, the limitation and suspension of certain Christian gathering is not a sign of faithlessness, or a sign of spiritual weakness on the part of the Church. Nigerians who betray their scriptural ignorance should get that. Kindly, read 2 Chron. 26:21; Lev 13:45-59; Numb 5:2; 12:14;. These passages show how Yahweh instructed Moses to keep in isolation those who had contracted leprosy to avoid infecting others. In Exodus 12, the people of Israel were supposed to keep, among other things, two last instructions, to mark their doorposts with the blood and to remain indoors until the angel of death has passed. Corona virus, at the moment, is the angel of death. Therefore, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should all obey the directives of public health officials and heed the advice of medical experts. It is important to know that Christians are no special people in this respect. Christians share the health challenges and personal anxieties of all people and we bear the same responsibilities during this crisis.
We should know that “risking one’s health and that of one’s neighbor” by congregating in large numbers for religious services is not an act of charity. Praying for ‘health without taking any precautions to prevent the spread of the disease is not faith but fideism“. This is conviction of Bishop Raymond Centène of the Diocese of Vanne in northwest France. The bishop’s message is more adrem and apt for Christians in Nigeria who celebrates a blind faith, which could actually worsen the outbreak. Fideism thrives in Nigeria because, as people of faith, Nigerians seem not to proactive in taking necessary precautions validated by science, while believing and praying that God will protect them from infection.
Fideism is also thinking that the Sacraments and Sacramentals of the Church are meant to replace or improvise for the role, function and efficacy of conventional and traditional medicine or therapy. Yes, they are all gifts from God to man who is composed body and spirit. Their efficacy depends on the roles God has assigned to them. Therefore, it is very wrong to begin to drink Holy water when you should be treating Malaria or typhoid as much as it is wrong when you should confess your sins but taking hard drugs to forget or deal with them. In all, every healing depends on God who is omnipotent.
So what do I do as a priest of my people in the face of a possible pandemic? I must be very careful to push the preventive measures and pressures more on the selfish and visionless leaders in our states and countries. I must continue to create more awareneness as regards to the directives of public health officials and advice of medical expert in containing this virus: use of hand sanitizers, constant washing of hands after every touch with people and money etc. I must continue to educate our people on pastoral according to the directives of my diocese
I must not be intimidated by fear and aloneness in the face of a possible pandemic, I must not just be following civil instruction which is right and clearly necessary in this moment to avoid contagion, like the courageous doctors, nurses, volunteers, workers and fathers of families who are on the front lines, I must provide the pastoral and spiritual need of my people, of course with caution. I am not unaware of the fact that pastors could be the most vulnerable in Nigeria, but I must continue to say masses, confessions, visit the sick (especially the aged) and bury the dead (including possible death in the pandemic). The stage, I believe, is set to test my Christian faith and priestly vocation. I am braced up for it.
I believe in the power of prayer. I am Praying as if everything depends on God, and I am working as if everything depends on me. Therefore, prayer must go hand-in-hand with good works, good science, best practices, sound judgment and bold human effort and action, as Fr. Stan Chu Ilo puts it.
In all, Good will certainly triumph over evil. God will and always win.