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2020 LENTEN PASTORAL LETTER

BE CONSOLED, MY PEOPLE (Is 40:1):

Facing the Covid-19 Pandemic with Precaution, Solidarity and Trust in God

 

2020 LENTEN PASTORAL LETTER

By

+Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji,

Catholic Bishop of Umuahia and

Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara

 

Introduction

1. For the past weeks our homeland, like many other countries across the world, has been shaken by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The number of those infected by the virus has continued to rise at an alarming rate. Its death toll is also soaring high. As a measure to contain or slow down its spread, many States in our country, including ours, have been locked down. No one knows when and how this state of affairs will end. Consequently, many of our fellow citizens now live in fear, anxiety, isolation and loneliness. The mass hysteria felt among our people stems from the fact that as a country, we seem psychologically, economically, culturally and technologically ill-equipped to face the many challenges arising from this particularly insidious and highly infectious virus.

 

2. In this moment of national distress, when a dark cloud of uncertainty and despair hangs over our nation, I appeal to you in the words of Prophet Isaiah: “Be consoled, be consoled O my People” (Is 40:1) and encourage you and indeed all men and women of good will to face the Covid-19 pandemic with necessary precaution, fraternal solidarity and unwavering trust in God, our rock of refuge and deliverer in times of plague and pestilence. Our God is faithful. He does not abandon us in turbulent times. While we cry out to him for deliverance, we have to faithfully play our role of avoiding the deadly virus and standing together in mutual support and solidarity. In these difficult and challenging times, we need to heed the admonition of St. Augustine: “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you”.

 

Take the Necessary Precautions to Avoid Covid-19 Infection

3. Much about this unusual coronavirus is shrouded in darkness and remains unclear. However, it is known to have a long incubation period of 14 or more days in an infected person before its symptoms of high fever, tiredness, sore throat, coughing and sneezing begin to appear. Some carriers of the virus are said to be asymptomic, that is to say they carry and spread the virus without exhibiting any symptom. People could be infected through the eye, nose and mouth via droplets produced through coughing or sneezing by an infected person, which can hang in the air for hours and spread beyond ten feet. They can also be infected through close contact with him or her or through contact with contaminated surfaces. It has been observe that senior citizens over sixty years of age and people with underlying medical condition are easy prey to Covid-19.

 

4. There is yet no vaccine or antibiotic to tackle it. Medical experts advise that the most effective means of protecting ourselves against the virus is to always keep a safe distance of at least one and half meters or six feet away from each other; avoid group gatherings in which people are in close proximity with others; wash hands frequently with running water and soap for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based sanitizer regularly; avoid touching our mouths, eyes or noses with unclean hands as well as handshaking and hugging. To protect others, experts advise that we cough or sneeze in the inner side of our elbow or use disposable tissues; refrain from visiting crowded places when sick; self-isolate when we have a fever, cough or difficulty breathing; and to seek medical attention when feeling unwell.

 

5.Therefore, to tackle Covid-19, with its possible death toll and the fear that stalk our communities, we need to always heed the advice of experts on how to protect ourselves and others against the virus by staying at home, observing social and physical distancing, avoiding group gatherings and keeping to a high standard of personal hygiene. For prevention is better than cure. No doubt, no one wants to contract the illness connected to coronavirus or be responsible for someone else contracting it and be in danger of death. We have to rise to our moral duty of protecting our lives and health as priceless gifts from God and ensuring that we do not put the lives and health of others in danger.

 

Be Aglow with Charity and Solidarity

6. While we are troubled with the rapid rate with which Covid-19 is sweeping across the world, leaving death, tears and pains in its trail, we cannot ignore the economic devastation resulting from the spread of the virus, with its harsh effects on families and individuals. Our thoughts naturally go particularly to indigent families around us that do not have any savings to fall back on and who must starve any day they do not go out to work. With the total lockdown in our State, these poor families are daily tormented by hunger and starvation and seem condemned to a life of wanton suffering and undeserved misery. This situation calls for urgent attention and challenges our sense of Christian solidarity. With the eyes of faith, we must recognise Christ who encounters us in the hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick and imprisoned (cf. Mt 25:35 -40). At this time the cry of Lazurus, a sickly hungry beggar to the insensitive rich man in Luke’s gospel (16: 19 – 31) continues to challenge our sense of solidarity and generosity to the needy among us.

 

7. When faced with plagues and pestilence, Christians of past generations have always risen to the occasion with remarkable acts of charity and solidarity, and distinguished themselves as a caring Church, whose heart beats for the needy and whose face reflects God’s face of love to the distressed. In this regard, we can easily recall one of the deadliest pandemics in human history known as the Cyprian Pandemic (249 to 262 AD), when the city of Rome was reported to have lost about 5,000 people in a day at the height of the outbreak. In noting the difference between Christian and non-Christian response to the pandemic, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria said of non-Christians in Alexandria, who were solely concerned with self-preservation:

At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treating their unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease...

In contrast, Bishop Dionysius noted the response of Christians, which was marked by unselfish, self-giving and self-sacrificing love. In his words:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking of only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need ...

 

8. Inspired by the self-giving and self-sacrificing love by Christians of past generations, we cannot ignore the plight of the poor in our midst,who daily groan with anguished hearts for succour in the face of the harsh effects of the total lockdown in our State occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic. Accordingly, I have established an intervention programme known as Covid-19 Food Bank Intervention Programme to mobilise support and bring material relief to poor families and individuals who may otherwise die of hunger and starvation following the restrictions on movements and economic activities in the State at this difficult time in the history of our nation. This is a platform to enable us work together in synergy and solidarity to alleviate the suffering of the hungry.

 

9. I earnestly appeal to you: “share your bread with the hungry” (Is 58:7) by donating to the Covid-19 Food Bank Intervention Programme. In the words of St Paul, I urge you: “Be kind and tender to one another, each of you generous to all, as God in Christ has been generous to you. As God’s favoured children, you must be like him. Order your lives in charity, upon the model of that charity which Christ showed to us when he gave himself up on our behalf...” (Eph 4:32 – 5:2)

 

10. To counter the spread of the virus, we are all forced into a life of social distancing and self-isolation. We are confined to our homes and are unable to express our normal signs of affection to family and to friends. As social beings, we need to socialise and interact in our different communities. Public gatherings at weddings, funerals and religious worship serve also as a roll call, especially for our senior citizens. They help us to monitor who in the community is missing and enables us enquire about his or her welfare. We need the moral support and closeness of our loved ones to live our normal lives as social beings.

 

11. We should not underrate the psychological impact of coronavirus-induced social distancing and self-isolation may be having on our neighbours, especially the aged and lonely. Bereft of public gatherings and social interaction, many may be dying in silence. According, during this period of social distancing and self-isolation, try to check out relations and friends through regular telephone calls or chatting on social media. Support and encourage each other. Please avoid circulating fake news or messages that can cause panic in the stressful situation we now find ourselves. By disseminating or forwarding such messages you may unwittingly be causing irreparable psychological damage to people with mental health issues.

 

12. In this period of social distancing and self-isolation, my heart reaches out to patients of Covid-19 who are quarantined for close monitoring and treatment. Their isolation is clearly more severe. Such patients are not being able to have contact with anyone, not even at a distance. Unfortunately, thousands of these patients have died in isolation and loneliness, without the usual closeness and affection of family members and friends. No doubt, many of them passed away with invisible emotional wounds and scars in their hearts. These emotional wounds and scars are borne not only by dying patients but also their surviving loved ones. This is the most inhuman aspect of our collective response to Covid-19 that may haunt our generation in years to come and trigger off mental health problems worse than the deadly and dreaded virus. There is need to seek more creative ways of bridging the communication gap between a quarantined patient and his/her beloved ones.

 

13. As we wage war against Covid-19 through social distancing and self-isolation, I cannot fail to applaud our heroes and heroines in the medical profession, who are in the frontline of this battle and who put their lives on the line to save the lives of the ever rising number of patients. They go the extra mile, labouring day and night, to take care of patients even when they lack needed medical supplies and adequate personal protective equipments (PPE). In trying to save lives, many of them have contracted the disease themselves and died. May God grant eternal rest to the deceased medical professionals and protect the actively engaged!

 

Trust Firmly in God, and be Close to Him in Prayer

14. As we stage war against Covid-19, we must as a people of faith recall that the help of God is the most effective weapon we have in our spiritual arsenal. The Holy Scripture reminds us that “God is our refuge, our strength, ever ready to help in time of trouble” (Ps 46:1). While we practise social/physical distancing as a measure to curb the spread of Covid-19, we have to remember that Christ is never distant to us or disinterested in our distress. He has promised us: “I am with you always; yes to the end of time” (Mt 28:20). At this time of coronavirus pandemic, we have to draw close to Him in fervent prayer and implore His divine intervention to end the prevailing health emergency. Our Churches remain open at this time for private devotions by the faithful, who desire some closeness to the Lord in the Tabernacle, provided the mandatory social/physical distancing is maintained. Much as we may not see plagues and pestilence as signs of God’s retribution against a sinful world, we must concede that closeness to God involves approaching Him with a contrite and reconciled heart. As never before, we have to be in the state of grace at this time of pestilence and thus prepare ourselves adequately for any eventuality.

 

15. From the Holy Scriptures we learn that God, who is our refuge and fortress, delivers us from adversities and plagues (cf. Ps 91:1-16). Inspired by this belief the Church prays in the Litany of the Saints: “From plague, famine, and war, O Lord, deliver us.” Likewise in times of plagues and pestilence, the faithful of past generations often gathered together for the celebration of the Votive Mass for the Deliverance from Death in Time of Pestilence. With the provisional suspension of the celebration of public Holy Mass in many places at this time of pestilence, some are worried why we cannot gather to implore God to deliver us from the ravaging Covid-19. They wonder if the Church or Christians of today no longer have the strong faith of their forebears in the faith.

 

16. The suspension of public Masses in our Communities was not done as a result of lack of faith. Rather it was done in the interest of public health. Experience has shown that the novel coronavirus easily spreads in public gatherings. In a situation where people, including priests and lay faithful, could infect others or be infected in a liturgical gathering, no one would responsibly want to encourage people to attend gatherings where they could be exposed to the danger of death. The most effective way of curbing the spread of the highly contagious virus is through social/physical distancing and self-isolation.

 

17. Even though we engage in social/physical distancing and self-isolation, we are not spiritually disconnected or isolated from each other as a worshiping community. The spiritual bond that unites us with Christ, the Head and Shepherd of His flock on the one hand, and with one another as members of His Mystical Body on the other hand, is still intact. The Head and members of the Mystical Body are ever united, especially at liturgical celebrations. In this regard, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council remind us that “the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ ... in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the head and his members” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, art 7). At every cerebration of the Eucharist, Christ, the Priest and the Victim, is united with the members of His Mystical, even when the congregation is not physically present.

 

18. During this period of the coronavirus crisis, marked by physical distancing and self-isolation, the priest and his flock are to unite spiritually during the celebration of the liturgy. The lay faithful in their homes could participate at the liturgy through live streaming where this is possible. While in their homes, they can also spiritually connect with their pastor during the times of liturgical celebrations in the Parish Church and participate in them by reading and meditating on the liturgical text of the day.

 

19. This period of social distancing and self-isolation has brought families together as never before and offers each family the unique opportunity to strengthen the Domestic Church of the family. Conscious that Christ has assured us that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there in their midst (Mt 18:20), the members of a family constantly could pray together, especially the Rosary, share the word of God together and together participate in Spiritual Communion in their Domestic Church if they are in the state of grace. If in contrast, they are in the state of mortal sin and are unable to have immediate access to the Sacrament of Penance, they could obtain forgiveness of their sins by making an act of perfect contrition with the firm purpose of having recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1452). An act of perfect contrition disposes our soul for Spiritual Communion.

 

Conclusion

20. During this period of the Covid-19 pandemic, I entrust you all to the protection of Our Blessed Virgin, Mother of the God and Mother of the Church. May Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Health of the Sick intercede for us during this time of trial! May we seek refuge under her maternal mantle by the daily recitation of the Prayer of Pope Francis to Mary During the Corona Pandemic:

 

O Mary,

you always shine on our path

as a sign of salvation and of hope.

We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick,

who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.

You, Salvation of the Roman People,

know what we need,

and we are sure you will provide

so that, as in Cana of Galilee,

we may return to joy and to feasting

after this time of trial.

Help us, Mother of Divine Love,

to conform to the will of the Father

and to do as we are told by Jesus,

who has taken upon himself our sufferings

and carried our sorrows

to lead us, through the cross,

to the joy of the resurrection. Amen.

Under your protection, we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God.

Do not disdain the entreaties of we who are in trial, but deliver

us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

 

 

2 April, 2020                                                                                             Lucius Iwejuru Ugorji

Bishop of Umuahia, and

Apostolic Administrator of Ahiara

 

 

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