Fa­ther Nick Meisl hears con­fes­sion in the park­ing lot at St. Patrick’s church, where Easter mass will be de­liv­ered from an empty sanc­tu­ary. In a time of cri­sis, faith lead­ers are hop­ing to help Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims alike find rea­son to cel­e­brate.

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - DOU­GLAS TODD dtodd@post­ twit­­glas­todd

There is sor­row across the land.

Peo­ple ev­ery­where face de­grees of lock­down. Worry per­vades hu­mans in their iso­la­tion. Tens of mil­lions have been laid off from their jobs. Hun­dreds of thou­sands are sick, many re­ly­ing on ven­ti­la­tors. Some are dy­ing.

How can Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims mark their most im­por­tant fes­ti­vals this month in a time of COVID-19? Where is the joy in all this? Is it all right to talk about “cel­e­brat­ing” Easter, Passover or Ra­madan when so many are suf­fer­ing?

In any time it would have been re­mark­able for the Chris­tian fes­ti­val of Easter, the Jewish week of Passover and the Mus­lim pe­riod of Ra­madan to oc­cur in the same month. But that is what is hap­pen­ing this mid-april, since the lu­nar cal­en­dar guides these sa­cred Abra­hamic events.

What makes the next weeks even more as­ton­ish­ing is that very few of the al­most four bil­lion peo­ple around the world who would have shown up at their churches, syn­a­gogues or mosques will get the chance to at­tend their places of wor­ship, where they would ex­pe­ri­ence sol­i­dar­ity and share how to keep up spir­its in a dif­fi­cult time.

Even dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, fight­ing a hu­man en­emy, the faith­ful were al­most al­ways able to gather. Now, against a vi­ral en­emy, they are ab­nor­mally sep­a­rated — re­sort­ing to phone trees, group email no­tices, Zoom gath­er­ings, and ser­mons and hymns ex­pe­ri­enced via livestream­ing.

Al­most all are be­ing asked to stay at home to avoid spread­ing the virus that in De­cem­ber took root in China and by Fe­bru­ary be­gan wend­ing its way across the planet. In Italy alone, more than 85 Catholic priests have been killed by COVID-19. One of them, Fa­ther Giuseppe Ber­ardelli, 72, died af­ter giv­ing up his ven­ti­la­tor for a young pa­tient.

“It feels to some like so­ci­ety is crum­bling,” says Fa­ther James Hughes, of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at East 12th and Main in Van­cou­ver, a parish of more than 1,600 pre­dom­i­nantly Filipino fam­i­lies, many of whom are anx­ious about their health and wor­ried about their jobs.

In lock­down, Hughes and fel­low priests have been shift­ing to their church’s out­door park­ing lot to of­fer “drive-thru” con­fes­sions for ad­her­ents, some of whom re­main in their ve­hi­cles while oth­ers stand be­hind a screen on the pave­ment.

In­stead of hold­ing five well-at­tended masses this long week­end, Hughes will stand alone in an empty sanc­tu­ary and ap­pear on cam­era, lead­ing video ser­vices for Good Fri­day and Easter Sun­day.

Al­most none of Canada’s roughly 22 mil­lion self-de­fined Catholics and Protes­tants will be in church to phys­i­cally in­gest the eu­charis­tic bread and wine, the body and blood of Je­sus Christ.

Most re­li­gious lead­ers around the planet are telling their flocks to obey the so­cial-dis­tanc­ing dic­tates of sec­u­lar health author­i­ties. The seat of Pope Fran­cis, St. Peter’s Basil­ica in Rome, is be­hind bar­ri­ers. Po­lice are keep­ing Jews away from the Wail­ing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Mecca and Me­d­ina, Is­lam’s il­lus­tri­ous pil­grim­age des­ti­na­tions, have banned trav­ellers.

A few re­li­gious sects have been ig­nor­ing health of­fi­cials’ warn­ings, think­ing God will pro­tect them. But gov­ern­ments are press­ing ex­treme evan­gel­i­cal churches in the U.S., ul­tra­ortho­dox Ha­sidic sects in Is­rael, and Mus­lim mis­sion­ary groups such as Tab­lighi Ja­maat in South Asia to stop meet­ing.

Scores of faith lead­ers across B.C. took part in a video con­fer­ence this week with Premier

John Hor­gan, hear­ing his dis­tanc­ing in­struc­tions. Down­town Van­cou­ver’s his­toric Holy Rosary Cathe­dral, for in­stance, is closed for the first time in 120 years.

Hughes says the virus has jolted Chris­tians, as well as ev­ery­one else, out of their rou­tines, in­clud­ing sa­cred ones such as mass. “It’s a great the­o­log­i­cal co­nun­drum. Mem­bers will be in a stance of long­ing.”

His hope for the faith­ful is that they will yearn more than ever for phys­i­cal com­mu­nion with the holy through the wine and wafer. “Ab­sence may make the heart grow fonder.”

An An­gus Reid In­sti­tute poll re­leased Fri­day sug­gests one in five Cana­di­ans are be­ing sup­ported in this cri­sis by their faith in­sti­tu­tion. Of the three of five Cana­di­ans who nor­mally pray, a por­tion, mostly women, are do­ing so more of­ten. Those who pray say it is eas­ing their anx­i­ety, grief and sense of iso­la­tion.


Rabbi Dan Moskovitz does not see this cri­sis as an act of God.

“This is just the world we live in. Some­times life is dan­ger­ous,” says the se­nior rabbi at Tem­ple Sholom, a 900-fam­ily con­gre­ga­tion in Van­cou­ver.

With many of the tem­ple’s fam­i­lies anx­ious about their health and fi­nances and wor­ried about se­niors near and far, they were im­pro­vis­ing this Wed­nes­day to con­nect on­line for the tra­di­tional Seder meal, which is at the heart of Passover.

Even though the eight days of Passover that end Thurs­day, April 16, are meant to be a joy­ous event mark­ing the lib­er­a­tion of an­cient He­brews from slav­ery in Egypt, the rabbi has been re­flect­ing on how the Book of Ex­o­dus says God took ad­van­tage of a plague to weaken the Jewish en­emy.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing,” he said, “to be ac­knowl­edg­ing plague at a time of plague.”

One of the texts re­cited dur­ing Passover re­minds Jews that “in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion ‘they’ rise up against us to de­stroy us.” But this Passover, the rabbi is aware that “they” is a non-hu­man en­emy, a virus, that health author­i­ties are com­bat­ing with sci­ence and medicine.

It is not in­signif­i­cant, Moskovitz said, that through­out Passover an em­pha­sis is placed on both spir­i­tual and phys­i­cal clean­li­ness, in­clud­ing height­ened wash­ing of hands.

The an­cient pu­rity guide­lines of Ju­daism, Is­lam and to some ex­tent Chris­tian­ity are rel­e­vant to the coro­n­avirus. Mo­hammed, the sev­enth-cen­tury prophet, told his peo­ple how to avoid spread­ing plagues, and added “Clean­li­ness is part of faith. The bless­ings of food lie in wash­ing hands be­fore and af­ter eat­ing.”

Raza Mi­rani, a vice-pres­i­dent with the B.C. Mus­lim As­so­ci­a­tion, be­lieves most of Canada’s more than 1.1 mil­lion Mus­lims are fol­low­ing hy­gienic pro­to­col by not gath­er­ing at their mosques. In B.C., Sunni Mus­lims are in­stead watch­ing imams’ daily ser­mons via livestream­ing, of­ten from Sur­rey Jamea mosque.

Ha­roon Khan, a trustee at Van­cou­ver’s Jamia mosque, said Mus­lim males nor­mally fol­low a tra­di­tion of stand­ing tightly “shoul­der to shoul­der” in mosques. For­mally, mosques must re­main open and “en­livened” at all times, Mi­rani said. But dur­ing this out­break only a hand­ful of elders are al­lowed into each B.C. Sunni mosque to per­form the five daily prayers.

Mi­rani’s hope is the re­stric­tions caused by the pan­demic will en­cour­age many Mus­lims to take Ra­madan, a time for in­ner re­flec­tion that be­gins April 26, “a lit­tle more se­ri­ously.”


How are peo­ple meant to find mean­ing and grat­i­fi­ca­tion in Easter, Passover and Ra­madan dur­ing COVID-19?

The an­swer seems to lie in com­bin­ing a sense of sor­row with cel­e­bra­tion.

Pope Fran­cis, while en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to ac­knowl­edge they may be fear­ful that the Earth is floun­der­ing, called on Chris­tians to trust that “God will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.”

Sim­i­larly, Queen El­iz­a­beth, a de­vout Angli­can, said the pan­demic “presents an op­por­tu­nity to slow down, pause and re­flect, in prayer or med­i­ta­tion.” Bet­ter times will come, said the 93-year-old monarch. “We will meet again.”

Hughes, of St. Patrick’s parish, said Je­sus Christ, whose cru­ci­fix­ion was marked on Fri­day and res­ur­rec­tion will be cel­e­brated Sun­day, said, “The pro­found mean­ing for Chris­tians of this week­end has not changed.”

Ad­her­ents will be “called to a spir­i­tual com­mu­nion” with Christ through the tele­vised eu­charists presided over by priests.

Christ didn’t abol­ish the pres­ence of evil in the world, but suf­fered with hu­man­ity, Hughes said. Even when hu­mans face death, the priest said, Je­sus brings strength. “We can’t be drawn into hope­less­ness. We’re called to be sor­row­ful be­cause of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, but not sad.”

The priest said it was “heroic” of Ital­ian priest Ber­ardelli to give up his ven­ti­la­tor for an­other, sim­i­lar to how Je­sus sac­ri­ficed his life on the cross. Hughes com­pared the priest to Max­i­m­il­ian Kolbe, a priest at Auschwitz con­cen­tra­tion camp who of­fered to die in the place a stranger.

Rev. Brian Fraser, of Brent­wood Pres­by­te­rian Church in Burn­aby, which has sus­pended its reg­u­lar jazz ser­vices, said Easter is about over­com­ing the “con­fused dis­ap­point­ment” sur­round­ing the cru­ci­fix­ion.

The foun­da­tional event of Easter res­ur­rec­tion is ul­ti­mately about heal­ing the many lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive “in­fec­tions” from which hu­mans suf­fer, Fraser said. “It is that vi­sion of heal­ing that is be­ing high­lighted so pow­er­fully in this pan­demic.”

Dur­ing Passover, Moskovitz will be tem­per­ing the joy linked with the lib­er­a­tion of the an­cient He­brews from op­pres­sion with mourn­ing the Egyp­tian sol­diers who died in the Ex­o­dus story. Sim­i­larly, he will stress com­pas­sion for the many strug­gling to­day be­cause of COVID-19.

Moskovitz also be­lieves this is a time for the coun­try’s 330,000 Jews to be thank­ful for the “God-given tal­ents” of the health-care work­ers who are striv­ing to “re­deem us out of our slav­ery to iso­la­tion in our homes.” He com­pared physi­cians and nurses to the leader Moses, who em­bod­ied the power of mir­a­cles.

The rabbi also sees this Passover as a mo­ment “to cel­e­brate the vir­tual tech­nol­ogy that still al­lows us to be to­gether.”

Khan, who is in the phar­macy busi­ness when not over­see­ing the Jamia mosque, be­lieves there is “no such thing as co­in­ci­dence” and the pan­demic might be bring­ing the world a “global spir­i­tual awak­en­ing.”

Khan goes even fur­ther in his Is­lamic the­ol­ogy, say­ing, “There is pre­des­ti­na­tion in life, and what mat­ters is how you deal with it. Hope­fully, we come out alive, but I think we’re learn­ing we’re all in this to­gether, all of us.”

His friend Mi­rani, who is also a high school prin­ci­pal, says the COVID-19 lock­down may help Mus­lims go deeper into Ra­madan, which is al­ways a time for re­flec­tion and pu­rifi­ca­tion.

“This pan­demic is sim­pli­fy­ing things. It’s got many peo­ple, in­clud­ing my fam­ily, look­ing more at what’s im­por­tant. It might help all of us to slow down and get our act to­gether.”

Easter, Passover, Ra­madan. They have never been uni­di­men­sional fes­ti­vals, in the best and worst of times. They have al­ways been sea­sons in which to con­tem­plate life’s sweet­ness and bit­ter­ness.

Dur­ing this pan­demic, peo­ple are again learn­ing lamen­ta­tion and cel­e­bra­tion of­ten go hand in hand.



Fa­ther James Hughes of St. Patrick’s Catholic parish of­fers drive-thru con­fes­sions.


Rabbi Dan Moskovitz pre­pares with a lap­top for a vir­tual seder in an at­tempt to pre­vent the spread of COVID-19.

Ha­roon Khan

Brian Fraser

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