By Fr. Ugochukwu Stophynus Anyanwu
I write this essay from the standpoint of a cleric who has been trapped in the ‘thought- web’ of what COVID-19 pandemic that is taking its swipe across the globe could be saying to the Church as regards her mode of celebration of the sacred mysteries when physical presence of the Christian faithful becomes an impossibility. My interactions with people as a pastor in this critical time has revealed their frustrations, devastation and seeming ‘disappointments’ with the directives to lock up churches and not to celebrate masses publicly even on Sundays as a measure to curb the spread of Corona Virus. After receiving a letter from the Bishop stating no worships were allowed in churches on Sundays until further notice, an octogenarian in my place of assignment exclaimed, “never in my 87 years of life, did I see Church being closed for worships on Sundays”. Many have queried: how can the Church run away from Corona virus? Does it mean that the Church has no faith? Can Jesus Christ in the Eucharist allow contagion in the Church? These questions and concerns are legitimate.
Thus, the choice of this theme has been informed by the frantic effort the church ministers make to connect with their faithful in the celebration of the mysteries of faith through the digital technologies while the restrictions on physical closeness is in vogue in the battle against COVID -19. No gainsaying, humanity has stepped into a high tech age. Progressively, a sophisticated digital space is being hoisted with ‘unlimited possibilities’. With Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics being touted daily, the future of humanity will be dazzled by human creativity. Many possibilities are unfolding with new digital technologies: for instance, the hyping of the possibility of a simChurch, e-church, online church, Facebook church, church on the screen shows the Church is being invited by ‘digital natives’ to take a prestigious position on the platform of digital technologies which hitherto was an unfamiliar environment. As an expert in humanity, it would be neglectful on the Church’s part not to heed this call. Shane Hipps shares this sensitivity in his stunning book, Flickering Pixels: How Technology shapes your Faith (2009) when he sees the Church as God’s own technology—the medium through which God makes the gospel available to the world. This essay examines whether the attempt to utilize opportunities opening up in the digital arena will be exercises in displacement and replacement of the real for the virtual church.
- 2. COVID -19: Redefining the way of being Church in a High Tech society
The Calendar year 2020 has been a turbulent one for humanity. Its baggage has been crushing and scourging: the dreaded Corona Virus. Corona Virus as a pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan, China and first reported to the office of World Health Organization (WHO) in China on 31 December 2019. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020. On 11 February 2020, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19. In the past few weeks and months, the COVID-19 has gone global affecting almost all countries, societies, and health systems. It is disrupting varying spheres of our social, political, or economic lives; the world has been on the standstill button. It is also intruding into our spiritual domain. It has enormously affected religion in various ways, including the cancellation of the worship services of various faiths and pilgrimages surrounding observances and festivals. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have shut their doors in every corner of the planet. To attend to the spiritual and pastoral exigency arising from the COVID-19, the Church recourses to celebrating the liturgical mysteries and services via radio, television and online livestreaming. Some Christians are using online apps, which contain prayers and daily devotionals to remain engaged with their faith communities. Thus the most dramatic result on religion has been the exceedingly quick shift of religious services from in-person to online worship.
Teresa Okure in her article “Being the Church in the face of COVID-19” has remarked that the situation of the closure of churches can be looked at “in a different light,” guided by a series of questions for reflection: “Who is the Church? What is the Church? Does our daily going to Church on Sundays make us truly the Church, Body of Christ, family of God? Or a congregation of people coming to sing, dance, feel good; then leave the church without connecting with each other, knowing each other and caring for each other even during the Mass?” The challenge arising from COVID-19 is saying something to the Church as a faith community. It encourages the people of God to adopt a learning attitude and look at the experience as an opportunity to reflect ‘about what it means to be Church.’ Two great rediscoveries are emerging from the COVID-19 for the institutional Church; rediscovering the church of the home (ecclesia domesticae) and the summons to utilize the emerging potentials offered by the media pulpit.
Firstly, the closure of the churches may be God’s way of asking us to return to our roots, to our scriptural roots about what it means to be Church. It invites us to 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. Even with the stay-at-home directive in the face of the deadly COVID-19, Christians have an opportunity to find intimate unity with the person of Jesus Christ. Closure of the Churches across the world, is also a call for Christians to enter into our inner rooms, into the depths of our hearts and pray to God there. Amid this situation, people are encouraged to stay back, pray from home and use the liturgy and prayer resources provided. Through COVID -19, there is a rediscovery of the potency inherent in the baptismal priesthood of the faithful. In the liturgical context of a faith community, the ordained minister plays the major role of presidency, but a call to pray from home transfers greater responsibility to non-ordained members. Praying from home will bring in a faithful realisation that all can have access to God through Christ Jesus (Eph 2:18), and all have the priestly responsibility of interceding for other people to God (I Pet 2:9). COVID-19 has awakened the understanding that, similar to fellowships in physical Church buildings, family members praying together in their homes is also the real Church (part of the Mystical Body of Christ) in a spiritual sense. The call to pray from home equally assures God’s presence in line with what Jesus promises in Matthew 18:20. COVID-19 pushes us hard to rekindle our faith to see God’s intervention in overpowering the disastrous effect of corona virus (Psalm 91).
Secondly, COVID-19 has challenged the Church to explore the potentials in the virtual space; it exposes to the church the reality that the digital world remains an untamed field where the evangelization ‘megaphone’ can resound audibly. For the world of social communication amply represents an impressionable and influential cultural sector: the modern equivalents of the Areopagus where the message must be proclaimed. (Acts 17:22-31). In exploring the many scenes of the new digital technology especially in anchoring the message of the Good news, a bound- to be- forgotten issue will be the challenge of balancing the generational tension between the young who form the ‘residents’ of the digital space and the elderly, like the octogenarian at the beginning of this essay who doesn’t understand what it means to follow an online celebration while the churches are under lock and key.
- The Possibility of a Virtual church: Matters arising
Many have thought that until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church could not have realized what she could achieve through the digital media especially in disseminating the message of the Gospel. Seeing how prosperous the church’s evangelical outreach has been, many are tendering their apologia for a virtual church. Even though COVID-19 pandemic is showing the possibility of communicating some of the mysteries of the Christian faith on the virtual and digital space with greater efficiency; it ought to be understood that ab initio, the Church has used telecasting of the Mass and liturgical ceremonies as a strategy in pastoral accompaniment of some people who have been hospitalized, home-bound, or imprisoned and do not have the opportunity to be physically present with a regular worshiping community. The televised Mass is never a substitute for the Church’s pastoral care for the sick in the form of visits by parish ministers who share the Scriptures and bring Communion, nor is it ever a substitute for the Sunday Mass celebrated within a parish faith community each week. However, televising the Mass is a ministry by which the Church uses modern technology to bring the Lord’s healing and comfort to those who cannot physically participate in the liturgical life of the local Church and who often experience a sense of isolation from the parish and its regular forms of prayer and worship especially in these times of COVID-19.
With or without COVID-19, the Church fundamentally is the mystical body of Christ. It is faith community that is both spiritual and real. It cannot be replaced or displaced by virtual imaginations. The jarring shift to digital spaces for live-streamed masses for communities around the globe witnesses to an in-between space, a marginal space that’s not exactly liturgical. Even though the world of social communication represents the modern equivalents of the Areopagus where the message of Christ in its richness can be communicated, the campaign for a virtual church loses sensitivity to the hidden consequences of letting people think church can happen in a virtual world. When people are allowed to play church in the virtual world and led to think it is the real thing, they might be missing the real touch of the divine. The communication of the sacramental realities of Christ are impossible in the virtual space: administration of the Sacraments for instance. It is difficult to entertain the possibility of these sacraments being participated in by meditating on an image of the sacrament on the computer screen. This shows the impossibility of this form of virtual connection being church. This thinking betrays lack of sympathy for an understanding of the Church as God’s embodied community in the world. To underscore this, a pious Catholic recently told me: “No matter how immersive the virtual experience of mass gets, I think there’s still going to be that break when we get to the Eucharist, where we see the seams of the virtual experience that show that it’s not quite perfect. There’s this break where we realize, oh no, I can’t actually partake in this Eucharist. In our sacramental imagination, it’s important we hold onto the fact that this is a real break.
As the Church works to utilize the media platform in disseminating the message of Christ, it should be cautiously noted that the services of the digital community are ancillary. Thus the church involving experts can work to ensure that digital spaces augment or work alongside our liturgical spaces and not replacing or displacing lived realities. Digital spaces like Facebook and parish websites help provide what theologians, sociologists, and psychologists tell us we need, which is a thicker social matrix that extends beyond what we do on Sundays. This is part of the reason why seminary formation needs to include a substantive digital media literacy course, which I think could foster more clerical responsibility in online spaces. In order not to neglect liturgical details and go for the fanciful, it will be apropos for Episcopal Conferences to issue guidelines for livestreaming of masses so that the nobility and dignity of the liturgical celebration and space is maintained. One of such efforts will be directed towards sacralizing the virtual arena.
- Sacralizing the Digital Space
As the Church takes its prominent position in the digital arena it must recall as Pope John Paul II has noted that the mass media is a new and emerging cultural world; constituting a new culture that has its own language and above all its own specific values and counter-values and psychology. For this reason, like any culture, the mass media need to be evangelized. (Ecclesia in Africa n.71). Sacralizing the digital space is an exercise in inculturation. Inculturation involves dialogue. The inculturation dialogue with the digital arena involves engaging the digital natives with challenge of Christ’s love for all people, a love that the disciple must reproduce in his own life (Ecclesia in Africa n. 79). Creating a sacred space in the digital forum has to take note of the two dimensions of inculturation: “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity” and, “the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.” (Ecclesia in Africa n. 59) Inculturation is precisely this insertion of the Gospel message into cultures. Like every other culture, the digital sphere needs to be transformed by Gospel values in the light of the paschal mystery. Inculturation is a difficult and delicate task, since it raises the question of the Church’s fidelity to the Gospel and the apostolic tradition amid the constant evolution of cultures. Thus in the evolving world of social media, the fidelity of the Church will remain unquestionable. The inculturation attempt will involve purging the digital sphere of pornographic and obscene images and mentality. In becoming digital inhabitants, the Christians must be aware that the world of the media can sometimes seem indifferent and even hostile to Christian faith and morality. This is partly because media culture is so deeply imbued with a typically postmodern sense with its penchant for autonomous morality. Thus the world of the media can sometimes seem no more friendly an environment for evangelization than the pagan world of the Apostles’ day. But just as the early witnesses to the Good News did not retreat when faced with opposition, neither should Christ’s followers do so today.
COVID-19 throws an inescapable challenge to the Church. COVID-19 pandemic makes the mandate of the Lord: “Put out into the deep”: Duc in altum! (Lk 5:4) very apt for the Church in seeing the new world of cyberspace as an evangelical summons on her to the great adventure of using its potential to proclaim the Gospel message. As much as the world of the media may at times seem at odds with the Christian message, it also offers unique opportunities for proclaiming the saving truth of Christ to the whole human family. What is therefore needed in our time is an active and imaginative engagement of the media by the Church. Catholics should not be afraid to throw open the doors of social communications to Christ, so that his Good News may be heard from the housetops of the world. Against the apologist of a virtual church, we say: Virtual churches are not real churches; because the virtual world is not a real world. A virtual church cannot offer real community.