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Kenyan Clerics Share 8 Enriching Avenues to Keep Faith Alive During COVID-19

Fr. Bonaventure Luchidio (Left) and Fr. Thomas Ngong (right) sharing enriching avenues to keep faith alive during COVID-19.

A Bishop in Niger, reflecting on the post-COVID-19 era, said that closure of Churches as a way to contain the spread of the virus spelt danger for lukewarm Christians much as it prepared believers who he said would emerge out of the pandemic stronger than before.

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Bishop Ambroise Ouédraogo of Niger’s Maradi diocese said that leaving Christians with the sole option of praying at home with their families has benefits, but also spells danger for “lukewarm Christians.”

“For some (Christians), being unable to take part in the Eucharistic celebration will deepen their desire and thirst for God and for union and communion with him and with their community. For the lukewarm Christians, however, this could be the end,” Bishop Ouédraogo said.

It is a message that has been reiterated by other members of the Clergy who explained how the Church can keep the laity engaged as long as churches in many parts of the world remain closed.

Priests who spoke to ACI Africa in separate telephone interviews also highlighted various ways in which Christians can still participate in church activities in times of pandemics.

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“If we do not come out stronger than ever before, to journey with our people who are now locked away in their houses, many of them will not come back when the churches are eventually opened,” Fr. Bonaventure Luchidio, the National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies (PMS) in Kenya said.

Describing the current situation of the Church all over the world, Fr. Bonaventure said Christians were witnessing strange times where “Priests are separated from the flock.”

“The situation is very pathetic. With the closure of churches and Christians moving to their houses, the Priests feel separated from their flock and the impact has been intense.”

On the other hand, the situation has presented what the Kenyan-born Priest describes as “a domestic church where families have brought Christ to their homes, making their houses the center of evangelization.”

According to Fr. Thomas Ngong of Luanda Parish in Kenya’s Diocese of Kakamega, COVID-19 has created a spiritual dilemma that the Priest says could provide a turning point for the Church in future.

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“The Christians are desperately feeling abandoned and spiritually dry within this period of COVID-19 especially in Kenya and other countries where churches have been completely closed. The pastors equally, feel the helplessness in their pastoral ministries within this period,” said Fr. Thomas.

The two Priests of  Kakamega diocese highlight the various roles of the Clergy, Catechists and leaders of various church groups as well as laity in keeping the church alive during COVID-19.

Get data of all your people

With the suspension of physical interactions, it works, more than ever, to have data of all the faithful who belong to the Parish, the outstations and in the various Small Christian Communities (SCCs).  

Having such data, including phone numbers, will help members of the Church community to stay interconnected through available networks of communication.

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“Such data will also help the Church management to map out the most vulnerable members of the community that need help at a time that many people are faced with emotional, financial and psychological challenges,” says Fr. Bonaventure.

“The basic way to collect this data is through Jumuiyas (SCCs). There, people are more closely knit together and they understand each other’s backgrounds,” he says.

The same should be replicated across different groups in the Church including women groups, men groups and even the youth groups.

Share homilies on digital platforms

When the government of Kenya announced the suspension of public gatherings including the celebration of public Mass in March, Fr. Thomas thought it was a temporary measure and that it would pass.

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And as he waited for the reopening of the churches, the Cameroonian-born Priest celebrated daily Mass in private and thought about Christians at Luanda Parish in Kakamega diocese who called, saying how they missed Mass. Bust as days went by, Fr. Thomas says he decided to act.

“At first, I thought the suspension of Mass was temporary but as I waited, I could see the situation only getting worse. That is why I decided to start sharing morning homilies,” he says, referring to the Daily Scripture readings that he has been sharing on the parish WhatsApp group wall for over a month.

Though the 94 participants on the Luanda Parish WhatsApp Group are just a small representation of the thousands of families in Parish, Fr. Thomas says better half a loaf of bread than no bread at all.

“When I started sharing the Homilies, I knew I wouldn’t reach as many Christians as I would have wanted. But ministering to that small number gave me some form of fulfillment,” he says, adding that he complements the WhatsApp messages with individual phone calls to those who do not have WhatsApp.

The daily Homilies have also reached those who never attended daily Masses, the missionary Priest says.

Visit the vulnerable

“There is lockdown in Kenya, but no one has restricted movement within our villages and our estates,” Fr. Bonaventure says, adding that people are free to check on each other, especially their neighbors.

Though the Kenyan government has banned movement in and out of a number of cities that have the highest number of COVID-19 cases, people are free to move within these cities and in the villages, observing the dusk-to-dawn rule.

Sharing his own apostolate to the poorest of the poor in Kenyan slums, the Priest says, “Last week, I was in Kibera (one of Africa’s vastest slums) visiting the poor who couldn’t leave their beds. I didn’t bring much; just a kilo of flour, two cups of beans and 500ml cooking oil and one sick elderly woman told me, Father, you have just given me a whole week of food.”

“Let’s not fear to reach out provided we observe the safety rules of wearing a mask and observing social distance. Let us not create a barrier between ourselves and those who really need us,” he says.

The Nairobi-based Cleric ministering under the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) has been working with the Religious Superiors’ Conference of Kenya (RSCK) to reach out to needy cases in several dioceses in the country.

“I’ve been a busy man, working with RSCK to mobilize resources to give stipends to priests who are working in hardship places. So far, we have given out KES. 50,000,00 cheques to a number of communities in Nairobi and Malindi. We have also issued cheques to a number of children homes,” Fr. Bonaventure says.

Additionally, RSCK has reached out to victims of floods that continue to wreak havoc in the East African country.

“There is a Priest in Bungoma (diocese) whose house was flooded in the ongoing heavy rains. He had nowhere to stay and so we went and found him a place to stay,” Fr. Bonaventure narrates.

Many parishes in the Archdiocese of Nairobi, Mombasa and other places in Kenya have launched the ‘Adopt a family’ program that allows families who can comfortably afford three meals in a day to donate part of their resources to the Church. Whatever is collected is then distributed to families that cannot afford a meal.

Follow Mass on electronic and digital media

The Archdiocese of Nairobi has been working with local television channels to transmit live Mass on Sundays since lockdown. The Mass is also aired on YouTube for smartphone owners.

“There are many ways to listen to Mass these days both on local platforms and on international media through Facebook, YouTube and many other platforms.” Fr. Bonaventure says, adding, “I also encourage Priests to make use of available platforms to air live Mass celebrated in Private.”

“Recorded Mass is not allowed. People need to follow live Mass the moment it is being conducted,” the Priest cautions.

There is room for Church Sacraments

Fr. Thomas has been locked in Kenya’s Malindi Diocese from early April when he visited the Diocese, hoping to stay for a few weeks and going back to Luanda Parish, Kakamega diocese. Barely known at a Parish he’s never been to before, the Priest says he has already been approached by about five people who needed to make their confession.

“It is possible to arrange to have your confession with a Priest even as Churches remain closed. The priest can decide the number of people he can handle in a day and all should observe safety measures such as wearing their masks and observing social distance,” Fr. Thomas says.

The Priest who has also administered anointing of the sick urges fellow priests to readily offer Sacraments to the faithful while observing safety measures.

Keeping up with the new norms in Church weddings and burials

To many, weddings are never complete without pomp and colour and many invited and uninvited guests. But with the COVID-19 regulations, having a simpler Church celebration to solemnize marriage is the norm.

Burial of loved ones has also become an affair of close family members, a situation that Fr. Bonaventure finds refreshing.

“At some point, weddings and burials had become shows where people sought to outdo each other. It was some form of a competition,” the Priest says, adding, “People would contribute millions of shillings to have an expensive burial ceremony even when they never took care of the person when they were still alive. These COVID-19 regulations that restrict burials to a few people are a way of teaching us the value of life.”

He says that present-day weddings are a reminder that people do not need flashy weddings to settle down as husband and wife.

“With less than 10 people, you can get a Church wedding. All you need is a bride or groom, the Priests and a few witnesses and you are good to go,” he says.

The family altar

Cut away from the celebration of Public Mass, the family has become the center of evangelization with an altar complete with the Bible, the Crucifix and a Candle.

“We encourage personal prayers and family prayers where there is a family. Let people find time alone with God to pray and also to kneel around the table and pray as a family,” says Fr. Thomas.

The Priest says that through reading and reflecting on the Word of God alone, families accomplish the first part of Mass, which is the Word of God.

“It is very simple. Just light a candle, read the Word of God, elaborate on it, then pray. As Catholics, we are very lucky because the Church provides readings for us every day to guide us in our reflections,” Fr. Thomas says.

Fr. Bonaventure, the National Director of the Pontifical Missionary Childhood (PMC) in Kenya, a movement for children in the Catholic Church, urges families to give children leadership roles in family prayers in order to nurture the culture of praying in them from a tender age.

It also helps that Jumuiya (SCC) leaders strengthen their meetings using digital platforms.

In the Archdiocese of Nairobi, Christians have come up with innovative ways of conducting Jumuiya services on WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom and other social media platforms.

Christians’ financial obligation to the Church in times of a pandemic

Apart from charity work, Christians who have the call to help their Priests are urged to do so by making personal donations and remaining disciplined in tithing.

Fr. Bonaventure, however, notes that families are going through what he calls a “pandemic crush” after many breadwinners in the families lost their jobs or walked away with salary cuts. This, he says, has seen a significant drop in tithing in many parishes in Kenya.

“Many people have lost their jobs because employers are cutting on costs. The other day, Kenya announced that the manufacturing sector was the most affected in terms of job losses. In slums, families that depended on donation through their school going children now get nothing after schools closed. The situation is bad,” he says.

Fr. Bonaventure whose office is under the Nairobi-based Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) told ACI Africa that tithing in many parishes around the country had gone down by up to 60 percent.

“The people really want to give. But they just don’t have anything to give. Many can barely sustain their own families,” he says, adding in reference to the poor woman in the Bible who gave everything she had, “At this time, it takes the heart of the woman with a Widow’s Mite to think about the Church.”

“A priest shared with me his experience in a WhatsApp group where he approached parishioners to donate some money for him to pay the Parish employees,” Fr. Bonaventure narrates, and adds, “They contributed the first time. When the Priest approached them with the same request the following month, one woman told him that as much as she was willing to support the Church, she didn’t have any money left.”