, 31 March, 2020 / 7:12 AM
An African nun who is a scripture scholar has, after interacting with people “devastated” by the reality of locked up churches occasioned by the raft of measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, encouraged the people of God to adopt a learning attitude and look at the experience as an opportunity to reflect “about what it means to be church.”
“This week, and especially today, I have interacted with a couple of people, who are devastated by the directives to lock up churches and not celebrate Mass publicly even on Sundays, as a measure to curb the spread of the virus,” Sr. Teresa Okure, a member of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus (SHCJ) wrote in a reflection shared with ACI Africa Monday, March 30.
She added in reference to the closure of churches for public worship, “This is particularly testing especially during this peak season of the church’s liturgical year and life,” said Sr. Teresa, a professor of New Testament and gender hermeneutics at the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA) in Nigeria’s Rivers State, Port Harcourt.
In her reflection, Sr. Teresa highlights instances where Christians in different parts of the world have expressed concern over the closure of the churches saying, “Many people are asking: how can the church run away from coronavirus, especially at this time? Does it mean that the church has no faith; etcetera?”
According to the Nigerian nun, the lay faithful feel abandoned by the Church, which she says shouldn’t be the case.
She considers the questions and concerns legitimate “at face value.”
In her considered view, however, the situation of the closure of churches can be looked at “in a different light,” guided by a series of questions for reflection, which she enlists.
“Who is the church? What is the church? Does our daily going to church on Sundays make us truly the church, body of Christ, family of God? Or a congregation of people coming to sing, dance, feel good; then leave the church without connecting with each other, knowing each other and caring for each other even during the Mass?” the Nigerian scripture scholar poses in view of provoking thoughts and reflections.
For her, “the closure of the churches may be God’s way of asking us to return to our roots, to our scriptural roots about what it means to be church. It invites us to make faith-filled effort to believe that in God we live and move and have our being. No door can be closed to our reaching God and to God reaching us.”
Referencing the Gospel of John where the risen Jesus reached out to his disciples gathered behind locked doors in Jerusalem for fear of the Jewish authorities who had crucified him, Sr. Teresa says that Jesus did not ask the disciples to leave that room.
“Rather he asked them (disciples) to wait there till they were strengthened with power from on high, the Holy Spirit. This Spirit would transform them from fearful persons into faith-filled disciples and launch them on the bold and unstoppable mission of proclaiming the gospel.”
Closure of the Churches across the world, according to the Catholic nun, is also a call for Christians to “enter into our inner rooms, into the depths of our hearts and pray to God there.”
Quoting the Gospel of Matthew 6:5-6, she reflects, “Concerning where and how to pray, Jesus tells us that when we pray, we should close the door; enter into our inner rooms, into the depths of our hearts and pray to God there. That the God who puts the good thoughts in our hearts, in the first place, hears and answers our prayers in the depths of our heart.”
Even with the stay-at-home directive in the face of the deadly COVID-19, Christians have an opportunity to find intimate unity with the person of Jesus Christ.
“No human agent or creature can cut us off from Christ, or lock Christ out of our lives and make him inaccessible to us. It is a matter of faith,” she continues to reflect and adds, “So let us rejoice that this pandemic of COVID -19 has helped us to return to our gospel roots. Similarly, national disasters helped the Israelites to remember who they were as God’s covenanted people.”
Sr. Teresa who is the founding president of the Catholic Biblical Association of Nigeria (CABAN) notes that the pandemic is helping families to stay together in their Sunday worship and in all their prayers.
“Parents will have time for their children and assume the God-given responsibility to accompany them during the worship and explain to them the different parts of the Mass. We hope so,” she writes in her five-page reflection and adds, “We recall that the Jewish religion of all the ancient religions was first and foremost a way of life and a religion of the family starting with the Passover meal which foreshadowed our Lord’s Supper. Today we call it Mass.”
Referencing the Jewish Passover, Sr. Teresa recalls that each family at the time was to celebrate it, “and if a family was too small to finish the sacrificial lamb they were to join with another family.”
She adds in reference to the New Testament testimonies, “The early Christians celebrated the Lord’s Supper in private homes, what biblical scholars call ‘house churches’. A number of the key house churches were owned by women,” she recalls in her reflection and highlights the example of Mary, the mother of John.
The Nigerian nun appeals to Christians to stop protesting over the “locked church buildings” but instead “ask pardon for ourselves and for others, especially Christians, who have shut their ears to what Jesus tells us about our God-given identity and worth.”
There is a need for Christians around the world, according to Sr. Teresa, to realize that “we are the church and that no human being can close or lock up that church, except ourselves.”
“We can attend Mass daily and even every Sunday, receive Holy Communion, and yet not be or see ourselves as the church of God,” she reflects.
She goes on to quote St Paul telling the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:1-34) that when they meet to eat their food according to their rank, tribe and so forth and do not discern, understand that all the people gathered constitute the body of Christ, they are eating their own supper not the Lord’s Supper and consequently, they are eating and drinking judgement to themselves.
Referencing the letter to the Corinthians, she says, “Today we interpret this passage as referring to unworthy reception of Holy Communion. This was not Paul’s way of understanding the body of Christ. For him Christ’s body are believers that Christ has united in himself as integral members of his body.”
In praying in the silence of their homes with their loved ones, Sr. Teresa says that the Church has triumphed over COVID-19 disease.
“COVID-19, where is your victory? Where is your sting? Where is your ability to destroy our true worship of God? Thanks be to God who has used you to remind us of who we truly are in God and of what it means for us to be church. We are God’s own gathering and reconciling of humanity and creation to the divine self in and through Christ,” she reflects.
Sr. Teresa’s reflection captioned, “Being the Church in the face of COVID-19” is a call on Christians “to assume the responsibility to be church, a living member of the body of Christ.”
“Above all, I hope this reflection will help you to assume the responsibility to be Church, a living member of the body of Christ; to assume personal responsibility to be this church not only on Sundays but as a total way of life in Christ. Against such worshippers, there can be no locked churches. It is a matter of faith,” her March 30 reflection reads.
“We need further to remember Jesus' promises to be with us when pray "When two or three are gathered in my name I am among them" (Matt 18:20). If only we would take Jesus at his word! The entire chapter, Matthew 18, is about being church and relating as church,” Sr. Teresa told ACI Africa in a separate message Monday, March 30.