Forbidden to gather, people of faith are finding ways to connect during the pandemic

Across Quebec, at noon today and on Sundays from now until Easter, church bells will peal  — to send a message of hope and mutual support that can be heard far and wide. Leaders of all faiths are turning to technology to reach out to their congregations and beyond.

At noon today and on Sunday until Easter, church bells will peal — just one way clergy are broadcasting hope

Church bells will sound at noon today and on Sundays until Easter right across Quebec. 'It is a way of demonstrating our solidarity and fraternity ... and of recognizing the dedication of the health-care personnel and all those ensuring the security and well-being of our city,' said Archbishop Christian Lépine of Montreal. (François Gagnon/Radio-Canada)

Across Quebec, at noon today and on Sundays from now until Easter, church bells will peal  — not to welcome church-goers to mass and Sunday services, but to send a message of hope and mutual support that can be heard far and wide.

Like theatres, concert halls and sports arenas, all places of worship are closed in the province, in response to the public health emergency declared two weeks ago, to try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The closing of churches, mosques, gudwaras, temples and synagogues is all but unprecedented, and has left religious leaders improvising to find ways to offer their communities solace and support.

"This 'Crescendo of the Bells' is a sign of hope and of solidarity, signalling that the Church stands with the people and the city once known as "The City of a Hundred Bell Towers,'" said the Roman Catholic archbishop of Montreal, Christian Lépine, in a news release.

"We want familiar bells to warm everybody's heart, especially those of the elderly, who may feel more lonely, worried and in need of reassurance during this period of confinement," said March Pelchat, the auxiliary bishop of Quebec City.

The necessity of a ban on gatherings to limit social contact and reduce community transmission was driven home last week, when three cases of COVID-19 in Côte Saint-Luc were traced back to one synagogue. A fourth person was infected after attending a wedding at another synagogue, in Westmount.

But for people of faith, the restriction makes coping with a difficult situation that much harder.

"It's been something that I could never imagine in my lifetime — that a time would come [when] we would not be allowed to come together," said Adil Ahmad, an imam in Pierrefonds and co-founder of the Canadian Muslim Alliance. 

Leaders 'try to fill the void'

For Ahmad, the biggest struggle was Friday prayer. Friday is when the Muslim faithful come together to pray as one.

"We are trying to fill the void in some way or another," he said. "It's not something that we can do entirely."

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom said she's been trying video conference technology as a way to offer services. (Carrie Haber)

Leaders of all faiths are turning to technology to help people connect and to continue the outreach that is a key part of their jobs.

Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth-Sholom said platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts are allowing her to hold services from a distance.

"Clearly, it's not nearly as good as seeing people in person, but it's a whole lot better than not seeing them at all," she said.

For Grushcow, it has been a "quick learning curve," especially for some people in her congregation who don't have access to technology or don't know how to use it. 

There's always the telephone.

"Our real goal," she said, "... is helping people not feel alone when they physically have to be isolated."

That goes for clergy themselves, too. Some who are livestreaming their services have printed out pictures of their members and put them in the pews — just to feel a little less like they are preaching to an empty room.

Father Rico Passero from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Grimsby, Ont. has taped photos of some parishioners to the church pews. Montreal-area religious leaders say they are also trying new ways to connect with their congregations during the COVID-19 pandemic. (St. Joseph Catholic Church)

Critical to be near at hand for the dying

Other aspects of a rabbi or minister's job are proving much more challenging.

"Since chaplains aren't able to visit prisons, some folks are writing letters to people in prison whom they would normally meet with once a week, at a gathering," said Rev. Roslyn Macgregor, an Anglican priest. 

"Clergy aren't allowed to hospital beds, so many [patients] are alone, ill and dying."

That's a concern echoed by Rev. Thomas Dowd, the auxiliary bishop of Montreal's Roman Catholic archdiocese. Catholic sacraments like reconciliation and holy communion must be received in person, and those have been suspended.

For Catholics nearing the end of their life, however, the last rites — to prepare a person's soul for death — are another matter. 

Dowd said that despite the pandemic, priests will try to find a way to administer the rites to those near death.

"Not everybody who's dying is going to be dying of coronavirus," he said.

"Someone who is dying, honestly, if they catch it — it doesn't really matter, to a certain degree."

"We just want to make sure that if it's to be administered, it will be done in a way that doesn't endanger anyone else," said Dowd.

A time of sacrifice

Bishop Thomas Dowd said for Christians, it's oddly appropriate that the pandemic should happen during Lent, the six weeks leading up to Easter, traditionally a period of sacrifice and penance. (CBC)

The pandemic has struck at a time when Jews prepare for Passover — one of the most important Jewish holidays, when families gather to celebrate the Israelites escape from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Christians, meanwhile, are in the Lenten season, the six weeks before Easter. 

For Dowd, that the coronavirus outbreak should strike during Lent is oddly appropriate.

"It's a time of penance and sacrifice," the bishop said. "It's a time for us to adjust our lives, you might say — sometimes in a way that's not supposed to be comfortable."

"That's exactly what we're living. It's really a Lent — not one we expected, but it's one we've got."

There is 'a place for doubt'

A pandemic also raises the age-old question that comes with such disasters: why would a higher power allow this to happen?

"There's room for questioning," said Grushcow. "There's room for grief. There's room for anger, and there's room for comfort."

"The issue is: how do we respond? What kindness do we show each other?"

Ahmad, the imam, said people should not consider themselves a success or a failure based on what happens to them in this pandemic.

"In this sickness or in this conflict, am I living my life according to the demands of God? The demands my Creator?" he asked.

"If I'm doing what He wants from me, then I'm preparing my way to the hereafter."

In the Christian faith, Easter, which falls on April 12 this year, is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, three days after he died on the cross. Dowd sees a lesson there, too.

"If suffering comes, it can have a redemptive quality," he said.

"As much as it sucks, we have to look for what is the gift in the suffering."

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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