By Andrew Kaufa smm
What Pope Francis is doing following the cancellation of public masses and the Wednesday General Audiences in order to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus through physical contact continues to challenge our traditional ways of interacting and praying together: he is now using the Vatican’s media, i.e. the radio, television and YouTube, to remain connected with the faithful worldwide and reach out to all the people infected or affected by the Coronavirus pandemic and national lockdowns.
Today, March 27, he invited all the faithful to join him in a prayer service which start at 18:00 Hour (20:00 Hours East African time) which he was presiding in the empty Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. Earlier during the week, he also invites the faithful to join him in prayer for the sick and through what Vatican News called ‘The Pope’s worldwide Prayer Network’.
In AMECEA region, Bishops Conferences have indicated their appreciation of the national directives including the lockdowns that governments are imposing because, at the end of the day, the purpose is to arrest the spread of this invisible enemy. The Church must always stand out as champion of life. However, there is fear in some circles of Christians that some o government directives such as restricted mass gathering, lockdowns and curfews, are compromising some Church values.
By resorting the use of the media, what the Holy Father can be looked at as creative and innovative thinking, more especially when it comes to Christians remaining connected during this difficult times. However, when it comes to virtual worship, it is a different thing for the faithful who value physical interaction.
On this note and in our AMECEA context, a number of questions do arise: how much is the Church innovative as Conferences, dioceses and parishes comply with government directives? What are Christians saying about live-streamed Eucharistic celebrations on Catholic radios and televisions via Facebook: are these offering an alternative to on-site gatherings for Mass in an effective way? More importantly, what about Small Christian Communities (SCCs) meetings which are central to our way of being Church in Africa?
How does Online Small Christian Community work?
To respond to this question, I needed to look at the specific case of Saint Isidore of Saville International SCC which started in 2012 and appreciate what distinguishes it from the traditional SCCs in AMECEA region.
According to Dr Alphonse Omolo who is a member of Saint Isidore SCC and trainer on SCCs in Kenya, what is distinctive is that “members of online SCCs meet virtually (e.g. via Skype) while the traditional SCCs meetings are face-to-face or rather physical; Works of charity are conducted but at individual level whereas in the traditional SCCs model such works can be conducted by all the members of the concerned community as a group or as individuals.
Furthermore, online SCCs are not overwhelmed with financial demands as they sometimes have international membership rather than parish based. However, it is also possible to have a hybrid a parish-based SCCs meeting, i.e. partly physically and partly online whereby each member is connected online using a Smart Phone or a laptop computer.
Then, the second question was how are the online SCC meetings conducted. According to Dr Omolo, “both the traditional and online SCCs are lectionary based, meaning that they must be structured around the Word of God in the Catholic liturgical calendar.”
“The meeting processes of the online SCCs are similar to the face-to-face meetings,” he continued.
“Similarly, the members of an online SCC take turns in leading the weekly meetings while the Convener or Moderator sends meeting reminders to the members via email, Skype or WhatsApp. But the members must be accessible with one another via online platforms for video or audio conference calls such as Skype, WhatsApp, Zoom and FaceTime,” he explains.
Obviously, there must be some challenges to expect with online SCCs. And this is what Dr Omolo shared, “The occasional fluctuation of the internet in most countries, and even sometimes the quality of the gadgets can interfere with the quality of the sound or picture during the meetings,”
“Members who do not have stable income may find it difficult to purchase internet bundles upon which they can connect through internet,” he continues.
Dr Omolo further explained, “When members travel to relocate to rural areas or other locations with low network coverage, there is always a challenge for them to attend the meetings.”
What does the international aspect add to the online SCCs?
Belza, a member of Saint Isidore online SCC but based in Texas, Unites States, posted on March 24, 2020 saying, “We had a virtual faith circle meeting on Zoom; the free version has a 40 minutes; the quality is excellent.”
Posting on March 23, 2020 from Nairobi Kenya, another member said, “With the present Coronavirus crisis, Pope Francis is calling us all to consider the Blessed Virgin Mary not as an abstract helper but as a mother who has a proven track record of healing, protecting and watching over the people. We are reminded of the Maasai people in East Africa’s beautiful names for God: a nursing Mother. Let us remember all this as we prepare for the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord on Wednesday 25th March.”
Again, Joseph, a member of the community also based in Nairobi had this to share, “On Wednesday, 25th March at 2 p.m. Kenya time please join live with Pope Francis in Rome to pray the ‘Our Father’ together as we respond with the universality of the prayer, compassion and tenderness for the pandemic caused by the coronavirus.”
In response another member says, “I joined live through the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) – television channel no. 348 on DSTV.”
A Critical Analysis
From the posts above, what one notes quickly is that even though both the physical and online SCCs are communities of Christians are inspired by the Word of God, pray together, share stories and do charitable works, the online model of SCCs is not exactly the same as the traditional one.
However as Dr Omolo noted, “Online SCCS present an important opportunity for the members to attend the meetings even if they are traveling or when they have relocated for one reason or another.
Online SCCs are certainly a sure way to keep SCCs alive for the Catholic Christians to give one another social and spiritual support especially during the unprecedented times such as we are living in, of the Coronavirus pandemic.”
Against the background of quarantining and social distancing directive as a result of the Coronavirus Dr Omolo writes:
“The online SCCs provide the chance for Christians to strengthen their faith amidst challenging times of the Coronavirus. What does God teach us us about such pandemics and what must we do to safeguard the health of our loved ones and the immediate communities; how can we sustain our spiritual nourishment especially without the chance to receive the Holy Eucharist? With the online meetings of SCCs, the chance to share the Word of God with one another while ensuring social distancing, and compare it with our daily lives is assured.”
Pope Francis is certainly helping the Church in Africa to recognize the power of digital technologies and how they can be used for evangelization in different circumstances. Obviously, virtual community technologies cannot replace the beauty of people physically meeting and praying together. However, they are becoming a powerful way of connecting with one another and sharing about faith and life. And they demand of us some degree of open-mindedness and innovativeness as Pope Francis and the Vatican are pushing us on to explore new ways of becoming ‘church’ given our new circumstances.