, 10 April, 2020 / 5:09 AM
All was well at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Parish in the Diocese of Manzini in the Southern Africa nation of Eswatini, popularly known as Swaziland, until Fr. Francis Onyango announced that Public Mass had been suspended. Fr. Onyango made the announcement that pierced the heart of an elderly woman who was attending Mass that morning on Wednesday, March 18.
“I was devastated,” says Mrs. Gloria Musi who does not recall a single day she missed daily Mass until the government banned social gatherings that included Public worship in a bid to combat COVID-19.
She adds, “I couldn’t imagine what it would be like not being able to attend Mass. I simply couldn’t wrap my head on the idea of not receiving Holy Communion when my whole life has been pegged on it.”
Mrs. Musi’s devastation was replicated on all faces that Fr. Francis saw that morning after passing the unpleasant message after that day’s weekday Mass.
People had already started anticipating suspension of Public Mass because they had read and heard in news reports that the Italian government had given directives halting gatherings including public worship as COVID-19 claimed lives.
According to the Consolata Missionary Priest, members of Sts. Peter and Paul had anticipated suspension of Public Mass when the Local Ordinary of Manzini diocese, Bishop Jose Luis Ponce de Leon announced guidelines against shaking each other’s hands during the sign of peace, guidelines on receiving Holy Communion as well as the removal of the water fountains in Church entrance and exit points.
“But when it actually happened, they were really devastated,” says Fr. Francis and adds, “I saw their spirits drop suddenly. And there was this quietness as people left the church that day. There was no exchange of pleasantries as they usually do outside the Church. It was like a funeral that day.”
Luckily for Mrs. Musi, it did not take her long for her to adapt to the new normal that had downed on parishioners that day.
The 75-year-old widow who leads different women’s groups at the parish had started a mission at the parish to propagate faith, which had taken root in families, giving families a platform to pray together even in the absence of a Priest.
Named after the theme of the Extraordinary Missionary month October 2019 (EMMOCT2019), ‘Baptized and Sent’, the mission was initiated by Bishop Luis to propagate faith within families and in the Church and the society at large.
“In November last year, I mobilized all women from the parish to join the mission and a month later, our mission was officially launched at the parish. There is the teaching of Catechism at the family level and in the Church and society at large, there is the teaching of prayer,” says Mrs. Musi.
The mother of two is grateful that COVID-19 stuck at a time that the culture of intense prayer and Catechism had taken root in many families in the parish.
“We encourage a lot of communication in our mission and the constant feedback we received is that family members have become more responsible in prayer. The women reported that their husbands had started leading their families in prayer, a role they never took before,” she says.
She adds, “When this thing happened, we saw an opportunity to teach in the families. And there is growth of faith in families. I see the images that people send on our social media platforms of praying together in the presence of a Crucifix, and in the presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
She says that the only thing that families miss now is the Holy Communion.
“Even then, our priest and the Bishop always design for us spiritual materials including spiritual communion materials and they always remind us not to be sad that we are not receiving the Holy Communion. They tell us that Christ dwells in us eternally when we read the Bible, when we pray and when we perform the act of Spiritual Communion,” says Mrs. Musi.
In a reflection, “Journeying with Our People During this Hard Time of Covid-19” that was shared with ACI Africa, Fr. Francis noted that the outbreak of COVID-19 had changed the way of worship in the African setup.
“For many of us, church has been like our second home, a place where we visit for solace when times are hard, a place where we feel free and comfortable to spend time and interact with fellow Christians and sometimes even after service we enjoy to hang around bonding with each other as we nurture our family spirit,” says Fr. Francis.
According to the Kenyan-born Priest, Sunday for many years has been a day of obligation, “a day set apart for the worship of God and we naturally wake up geared for church.”
“Then Corona virus came along and our church services were suspended. The government placed restrictions on gatherings and travels and God’s people were left unsure of what to do, breaking a long held tradition… Waking up on a Sunday morning without a clue of what to do or where to go or how to spend the day was the most boring thing to happen on a Sunday,” he says.
To keep the faithful engaged even as they stay away from Public Mass, Fr. Francis, together with his confrere at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish, has pinned names of the parishioners on the parish benches in a way he says will make them feel not forgotten even as they miss Public Mass.
“We requested all our parishioners to send us their names. We asked for the names of every soul in our parish from the youngest infant to the senior most citizen of the community. Within four days, almost all the names had been submitted and by Saturday a total of 405 names were already pinned on our parish benches,” said Fr. Francis.
He adds, “The idea was to make our people know that they are not forgotten. That even though they will not be able to sit on their favorite Sunday benches, their names will be there in their place and that Mass will still be offered for them. The presence of these names pinned on the benches is a sign of the longing of our people to be part of the celebration but due to the circumstances we find ourselves in, they can only be there in spirit.”
In an interview with ACI Africa Thursday, April 9, the Kenyan-born Consolata cleric said that the names had increased to over 500 as the Catholics in his parish felt an urge to connect with others in prayer.
The Priests have also asked the lay faithful at Sts. Peter and Paul “to keep our Sunday time for Mass sacred without substituting it with anything else.”
As a result, every Sunday between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. all our parishioners are called to join together in the celebration from their respective places using a guideline that the Priests sent to them on social media channels.
“It was quite interesting to hear the sharing of some members regarding their experience especially the feeling and the knowledge that as one prays back at home, they are united with many other parishioners and that in their prayers they are also united in the celebration of the Mass which the priests offer for them at the parish where their names are pinned,” Fr. Francis recounts.
Time of adoration at the Parish has also received a boost from monthly to weekly to every Thursday between 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., where the parish community comes together spiritually to adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament using a guideline.
Priests at the Parish also send reflections to the Christians every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
“These reflections are based on the readings of the day and are meant to help them in their spiritual journey. We hope this time of Staying Away will help us find more time to be with God in prayer and in his Word,” says Fr. Francis.
But the biggest setback to all these initiatives, according to the Consolata Priest, is failure to reach certain groups of Christians who have limited access to social media platforms. These include the poor who cannot afford Internet-enabled electronic devices, children and the sick.
Additionally, conducting family prayers is an arduous task in Swaziland where the family unit in many homesteads is weak, according to Fr. Francis who has been at Sts. Peter and Paul for the last three years.
“The family unit we have here in Swaziland is different from what we have back home in Kenya and in many other Africa countries. Here, it is common to find members of the same family belonging to different denominations. It therefore becomes difficult to come together as a family for prayers,” the native of Kenya’s Kisumu Archdiocese says.
Other spiritual gaps that Fr. Francis finds difficult to fill include spiritual counselling, visiting the sick and Confessions for those who need the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He says that the COVID-19 situation is especially difficult for people whose only satisfaction in life is going to church every day.
“There are people who would just go to church and get satisfied from just kneeling at the pews and looking at the Crucified Jesus without saying a word. These people are hurting the most and this is a gap we can’t fill for them,” Fr. Francis says.
Nevertheless, the religious missionary cleric adds, “as the wise men say, half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. We live in hope and trust that this situation will soon go away and the people of God will get back to occupy their benches where for now only their names are pinned.”