Physical Distancing “one of most painful aspects of pandemic”: South African Archbishop

Archbishop of South Africa's Cape Town Archdiocese, Stephen Brislin

A South African Archbishop has described physical distancing amid the second strain of COVID-19 as “one of the most painful aspects of the pandemic.”

In his Wednesday, January 27 reflection, Archbishop Stephen Brislin says the restrictions seem to go “against human nature” that seeks to be physically close to those who are sick.

“One of the most painful aspects of the pandemic, and one which rebels against human nature, is that we have not been able to visit loved ones in hospital even if they are on their death-bed,” Archbishop Brislin says in a video reflection obtained by ACI Africa.

The Archbishop of South Africa’s Cape Town Archdiocese adds, “It is important to us to be with those we love when they are suffering, even if we cannot relieve their suffering and even when we cannot find the words to comfort them. Simply being present, holding a hand, wiping the brow, are important to us and of great solace and comfort to the one who is ill.”

While the pandemic is forcing people to rely on technology through virtual interaction, a phenomenon that seems “convenient, cheap and efficient,” Archbishop Brislin says such virtual contact “is not the same as being with people at a physical meeting.”


“We miss out on other cues, which help human interaction, body language for example. We miss out on the small talk, which enables us to get to know people better and to exchange information informally,” the 64-year-old Archbishop notes in his video reflection posted on his Archdiocese’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

To him, “Physical presence, ultimately, is essential for human well-being and balance. This is true for our relationship with God, as well. From the earliest times in the Scriptures, we read of the principle of presence.”

He underscores the value of face-to-face interactions and highlights various instances in the Bible where physical presence seemed quite significant.

In the Book of Exodus, the Archbishop says, God was present in the Exodus as a flame by night and a cloud by day.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, who after the Annunciation, travelled “a long and arduous journey” to be present to Elizabeth is another example of the value of physical interactions.

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“Most importantly and earth shatteringly, God became visibly and physically present in the person of Jesus Christ,” the Archbishop of Cape Town adds in his January 27 reflection.

The inability of the faithful to congregate for the celebration of the Holy Eucharist amid COVID-19 restrictions is also problematic, he says, adding that Holy Mass, “by its very nature, requires our physical presence” since “we make ourselves physically and spiritually present to God, just as Christ makes himself sacramentally present to us in the form of bread and wine.”

Church leaders in South Africa have been forced to resuspend public Liturgies and gatherings, after a new mutation of COVID-19 identified as 501.V2 variant led to a spike in infections.

The country has recorded at least 1.42 million cases of COVID-19 and 41,117 related deaths.

Among those who have succumbed to the second wave of the pandemic include six members of the Daughters of St. Francis in Port Shepstone, Marianhill Diocese who succumbed “within a period of a week, from 10-17 December 2020,” and the Coadjutor Archbishop of Durban Archdiocese, Abel Gabuza.


The surge in infections saw President Cyril Ramaphosa announce, on 28 December 2020, a return to level three lockdown characterized by longer curfew hours and a 14-day ban on all gatherings including faith-based ones.

“Sadly, we cannot be physically present to God at Mass during this time of pandemic, due to the lockdown and the need to keep people safe,” Archbishop Brislin says in his January 27 reflection.

He further notes that the faithful have resorted to other means “to express our desire and longing to be present at the Eucharist, such as by participating in a live-streamed Mass and by making a spiritual Communion.”

The alternative means of participating in the celebration of the Eucharist are “the best we can do at this time but we hunger and thirst for that time when we can – with our brothers and sisters – meet at the altar of the Lord and make ourselves physically present to God in the Celebration of the Eucharist,” the Archbishop of Cape Town says.

“Let us pray deeply within our hearts that the day that can happen will not be delayed,” he says, and implores, “Merciful Father, splendor of the Church and crown of all saints, give to your people that firm faith, which begets wisdom and nourish them with a love and desire for the heavenly bread until we can once again be reunited around your table of Eucharist.”

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