COVID-19 is not only a medical, social, and economic problem but also a pastoral one. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the international pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has received many statements of solidarity from project partners all over the world but also learned of growing hardships and the heroic efforts of priests and religious in the battle against Coronavirus. In response, the aid organization has initiated a special program to promote these efforts. Tobias Lehner spoke with Regina Lynch, project director at ACN, about current relief initiatives and the efforts of the Church during the COVID-19 crisis.
What are we currently hearing from our project partners regarding the greatest needs in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic?
From our project partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Central and Eastern Europe we are not so much hearing about medical needs but rather about the effects of the restrictions on the daily life of the Church. In most countries where Aid to the Church in Need supports the local Church, governments have applied the same restrictions as in our donor countries. That means no public Masses, no public gatherings, schools are closed and more and more people have difficulty in earning a living. And these in countries where, for the most part, Christians are a minority – sometimes persecuted – and belong to the lower social strata. The Church itself is hardest hit by the fact that there are no public Masses or the possibility to carry out the normal pastoral and social programs in the parishes. In many of our partner countries, the collection at Sunday Mass ensures the survival of the parish. The money from the collection – or often instead it can be chickens, vegetables, rice, etc. – guarantees that the priest can eat, pay the sisters serving the parish, buy petrol for his motorcycle for visiting the sick or even have a small sum to help the poorest of the parishioners.
What is the focus of ACN’s aid in response to the COVID-19 crisis?
As a pastoral charity, ACN wants to help the local Church carry out its primary mission of bringing God’s Love and Word to people and ensure that it is not hindered in this mission by a lack of financial resources. That means that we are providing subsistence aid to priests and to sisters, both active and contemplative. We have continued to help the seminaries, as in many cases the seminarians are in confinement and the rector has no means to look after them. For example, in the major seminary in Goma, Dem. Rep. Congo, the rector sent us an SOS, as he could no longer rely on the local population to help feed the seminarians. We are providing funds for masks and other protective clothing to priests, sisters, and seminarians, for example in Chile or in Ukraine, where they continue to visit their parishioners, particularly the sick or the dying. And in order to bring the Holy Mass and the gospel message to the faithful at home via television or radio, we have funded the necessary technical equipment. For the Christians in Syria, who were already struggling to survive after nine years of war, we are launching a special program enabling each family to buy food and some form of protection against the pandemic. In Pakistan, another country where Christians face discrimination and sometimes persecution because of their faith, we are working on a program to come to provide aid because we heard from the Church that the Christians were not receiving emergency aid from the government.
ACN started an emergency program in order that the priests and sisters could face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. What have you done so far and what are the next steps?
Thanks to the generosity of our donors since March, we have managed to send out more than 385,000 Mass stipends (more than €3.1 million) to over 10,500 priests. More than half of these went to the Church in Africa, the continent where the Church and priestly vocations continue to grow but where the Church faces the challenge of an increasingly aggressive form of Islam, conflicts, and natural disasters. So far, we have made promises of some €800,000 as subsistence help to sisters in all parts of the world and more requests are coming in. This has always been a strong focus of our help for Central and Eastern Europe and Latin America in particular, where the sisters not only teach the catechism or prepare the faithful for the sacraments in isolated regions in Siberia or in the Andes, but where the sisters care for orphans, for the abandoned elderly or for girls forced into prostitution. One of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis is that we are being asked to help for the first time in dioceses where until now they have managed without our help. One example is the Diocese of Kamyanets-Podilsk in Ukraine, where normally the parish pays the sisters. With the absence of Sunday Mass and the growing poverty of the faithful, the bishop no longer can give the sisters what they need to survive.
What about aid to Asia, where the COVID-19 pandemic first emerged?
The Archbishop of Chittagong in Bangladesh sent us an urgent appeal for the sisters working in his archdiocese. With the schools, hostels, and dispensaries closed, there is no income to pay the sisters. Even before the crisis, the little amount that the faithful could contribute to the upkeep of the sisters was not enough but now the situation has become dramatic. In Mymensingh, also in Bangladesh, the Holy Cross Sisters together with the bishop are putting all the money available into helping the people, who are suffering, but the sisters need to survive and that is where ACN can help. In normal times the Holy Cross sisters, like many sisters in the developing world, teach the Gospel and also teach the people the skills they need to leave behind their poverty.
From the very beginning, ACN has been dedicated to helping not only the active but also the contemplative orders. How are they faring?
We should also not forget the contemplative nuns, who responded enthusiastically to our prayer campaign at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but who also depend on the generosity of the faithful and their own small income-generating initiatives for their survival. The Carmelite Monastery in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, have difficulty in surviving at the best of times by the production of hosts for Holy Mass but with the current restrictions there is no demand for the hosts and so the Archdiocese of Santa Cruz has appealed to generous donors of ACN to help the nuns through this difficult time.
We expect to continue these projects of support for priests and sisters for the next few months, because even if in some countries public Mases are beginning to recommence, the economic situation will worsen and our help will be needed more than ever. In other countries the pandemic is still raging.
Which project, where priests and sisters respond to the COVID-19 crisis, has particularly impressed you?
It is very difficult to pick out one project. There are the priests in the Diocese of Dolisie, Congo, who share the stipend from our Mass intentions with their poor parishioners. I am also impressed by the devotion of so many sisters, who at risk to themselves continue their work. One example is the Hermanas Sociales in Cuba. While respecting the restrictions put in place, they still find a way to continue their pastoral work and their care of the elderly, who live alone, and their outreach to the homeless. There are the seminarians in the major seminary of St. Peter and St. Paul in Burkina Faso, whose families have become IDPs because of terrorist attacks. Now they have lost one of their formators due to the virus and four of their fellow students are ill. We have helped them and their families and are now also sponsoring a program to protect the rest of them from Covid-19. And we have to recognize the creativity of the Church. Quite early on in the crisis, Bishop Dode Gjergji of Kosovo realized that he had to try to reach his faithful despite the ban on public Masses and asked us to sponsor equipment for broadcasting Sunday Mass from the Mother Teresa co-cathedral in Pristina. We gladly provided him support and just recently he has told us that during one Holy Mass broadcast online in Albanian there were more than 50,000 people logged on. This is where we should not underestimate the power of the media. In Africa, where we support different initiatives of Radio Maria, the Church is encouraging the Catholic families to become a “domestic Church” during this time of COVID-19 and to pray even more intensively together.
ACN is a pastoral charity: in public life the focus is on the humanitarian and medical sectors. How do we reconcile ACN’s response with these needs?
While a medical – and in many countries – humanitarian response to the COVID-19 crisis is absolutely necessary, this is first and foremost the responsibility of the local civil authorities. We know that in many countries where ACN helps, this does not happen and that NGOs and the Church do this work instead. However, while the ministry of charity or diakonia is one of the ministries of the Church, the pastoral mission, the care of the soul precedes it and in this time of crisis the people need the Church more than ever. They are afraid and unsure of the future. The Church comforts and brings both spiritual and material help to not only its own flock but to all God’s people. We have just granted subsistence help to four elderly and sick Dominican Sisters in Subotica, Serbia. Their superior wrote to us, “The people of Subotica are grateful for the presence of the sisters because they are the sign of God’s love for the people, the sign of everlasting life”.