Church, where have you gone?

(This is the English translation of my Blog „Kirche wo bist du? Sent in by a friendly reader. Thank you! Translation: Kathrin Enke)

The other day, I got a call from a friend who was worried about her father. A dementia sufferer, he is used to going to church several times a day to pray the Rosary. Faith is an important anchor in his daily routine, particularly now that he has been widowed. Suddenly the church is closed. He does not know why, he does not know where to go, and he is constantly having to be prevented from setting off on his devotional missions. Scenes from a village in Bavaria.

It is Palm Sunday today, but the Bread of Life is not on offer in Germany. The Church has simply closed its shutters. I am writing this text for a newspaper. It won’t be printed. They fear the bishops‘ displeasure. I’m writing it anyway. It has to be said.

In Germany, we have been witnessing the closure of everything deemed non-essential and dispensable in the eyes of the State: fitness centres, amusement parks, shopping malls, cinemas – and churches. Churches? Correct me if I am mistaken, but I did not hear the outcry from my Church when the state ordered the suspension of worship services. Where is the uproar, where is the uprising of chaplains, shepherds, priests and pastors insistent on standing by their flocks at this hour of need? It is deeply unsettling to see the wiling acquiescence and silence with which the official churches in Germany have yielded to the will of the State, thus giving their tacit agreement to the premise: You are dispensable.

Easter is a week away. Will the Resurrection be cancelled this year? In good times, that same Church likes to remind us that man does not live by bread alone. Yes, that’s it exactly. Church, where are you? Where have you gone, now that people are in need, are confined, are filled with existential dread, are worried about their relatives and health? Where are you, one wants to scream, now that elderly people are dying alone in quarantine and in isolation wards rather than surrounded by family? An acquaintance of mine, an ambulance driver, reports that there is already an uptick in suicides. In the news, a man kills his wife and children, then leaps to his own death. On my Facebook feed, a father dies alone in hospital and no family members are permitted to say good-bye, not even the wife he was married to for 60 years. Rage, despair. Who is there to catch it?

The throat constricts at the thought of how many people need support right now, whether as patients or as loved ones. They are in desperate straits – and all alone. After the crisis has passed, who will still have need of a Church that cut and ran when things got tough? Jesus, for one, did not seek permission from Caesar before attending to the lepers. I don’t expect a priest to put his own life at risk. But what about those complaints we’ve heard all these years about empty churches, about people leaving the Church, about church closures?

And now we’re supposed to believe there is no room to celebrate Mass in those half-empty pews? I don’t buy it. It could be managed, even if more people than expected turned up. I know this may seem a strange idea to some, but you could celebrate five Masses in a row if you really had to limit the number of worshippers to avoid contagion.

Change of scene: Weeks ago, in the midst of the direst news reports covering the Corona crisis, pictures and videos from Italian villages were circulated on social media. In them, priests in their vestments carry the monstrance through the streets, blessing the people standing at open windows. One priest reads a Mass for the whole neighbourhood from the roof of a high-rise. If you cannot come to us, we will just come to you, then. That’s one way to do it. Another priest flies over villages in a propeller plane, a statue of Mary and holy water on board, which he pours out over the land in blessing. One may write it off as twee, or acknowledge it as deeply touching. A blessing from above ­ isn’t that something we all have need of these days?

Easter is a week away. Open the doors. We are celebrating the Resurrection. It takes a lot of trust in God to believe an incredible story in which fear is overcome, hope offered and death defeated. I am no Bible scholar or theologian, but one thing I do know for certain is that Jesus never hid away, never closed the door, and always sought out the places and the people He was counselled to avoid.

This world needs healing, that’s for sure. I am grateful to all the doctors, nurses and carers who are out there serving others, working to ease pain and provide succour, and who are putting their own health on the line in the process. The body needs help, but so does the spirit.

Man does not live by bread alone. The Bread of Life, however, is not to be found at the bakery or petrol station on Sunday morning. Open the churches. They should never have been closed in the first place.