Vancouver Sun


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.


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.

 ?? FRANCIS GEORGIAN ?? Father James Hughes of St. Patrick’s Catholic parish offers drive-thru confession­s.
FRANCIS GEORGIAN Father James Hughes of St. Patrick’s Catholic parish offers drive-thru confession­s.
 ?? NICK PROCAYLO ?? Rabbi Dan Moskovitz prepares with a laptop for a virtual seder in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
NICK PROCAYLO Rabbi Dan Moskovitz prepares with a laptop for a virtual seder in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
 ??  ?? Haroon Khan
Haroon Khan
 ??  ?? Brian Fraser
Brian Fraser
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