COVID-19 Interview

Interview With Fr Peter by Scanlon Foundation

Recently Fr Peter was interviewed by Trish Prentice from the Scanlon Foundation on the effects the Covid-19 shutdown had on our parish religious community.

The resulting essay talks about the role religious communities play in Australia in making it cohesive. The interview is one of several interviews Trish Prentice has done with representative of a number of religious groups around Australia and their responses to this changing life experiences. The groups interviewed include a Sikh community, two protestant communities, two Muslim communities, a Jewish community and a Hindu community.

The interviews have been published in essay form and may be viewed at: WE’RE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT: Stories of Adaption and Resilience from Australia’s Religious Communities in the Time of COVID-19

You will find Fr. Peter’s case study on pg. 14.  The Scanlon Institute is interested in other congregations or community groups sharing their community’s story.  Contact Trish Prentice through the above link.

Fr Peter’s contribution is also printed below.

 

 St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Hobart

St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Hobart is the oldest Catholic Church in the city. Today, its congregation is overseen by The Passionists, a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church.

St Joseph’s has a congregation of approximately 250. It hosts Mass twice daily on weekdays and once on Saturdays and 3 times on Sunday as well as Reconciliation (the Sacrament of Penance or Confession) each day after lunch. Congregational members also catch up regularly over coffee. As well as its religious services, St Joseph’s provides hospital chaplaincy services in Hobart, visits to retirement homes, refugees and works with the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Most of its congregational members are over 60 years of age, generally from Malaysia, Indian, Sri Lankan, European and Australian backgrounds. As well as its regular congregants, the church also hosts visitors to Hobart, including holiday makers, tour groups and cruise ships. The church’s services are advertised on board the cruise ships and St Joseph’s often sees 20-30 visitors from each docking.

As the government imposed various restrictions on public gatherings, Fr Addicoat, the church’s pastor, describes the congregation trying quickly to come to terms with each set of restrictions and what it meant for their usual activities. In those early days it seemed as if everything they sought to put into place was “useless” as restrictions became tighter and tighter. Once religious gatherings were banned entirely all of the church’s usual activities ceased. The church needed to quickly make a list of its parishioners from existing church rosters so they had a list of congregational members, and then devise new strategies to keep “being church.”

Once of the challenges the church initially experienced was how to host a funeral with the limitation of only 10 people in attendance. An elderly member of the church passed away and the family requested a church funeral. They quickly realised that 10 people included the funeral director, the pastor and another attendant to carry the coffin, which left only seven family members who could attend. Restrictions on interstate travel further impacted who could attend from the family. Fr Addicoat remembers looking out at the empty church with only three members of the family sitting in the front row. For him, this is when the impact of the lockdown became incredibly tangible.

During the lockdown St Joseph’s has not been able to livestream, because it lacks the equipment and expertise to do so, but it has encouraged congregants to watch other livestreamed services. A weekly newsletter is produced to keep communication going and this is published on the church website and posted to around 45 church members who have no internet access. The community also keeps in contact via the phone and has started a Zoom coffee group. This has been a really positive activity, a chance to speak and to listen to each other. It has many advantages over their former coffee shop gatherings because with zoom each person can engage with everyone present rather than talk to and listen to those physically next to them at table. They are learning to listen more to each other.

Not being physically able to attend church means that members of St Joseph’s miss out on participating in sacraments such as the Eucharist. While members of the church can watch another Mass being livestreamed and use their own bread and wine as representations of what the pastor would ordinarily administer, this does not meet their theological obligations as Catholics. For the congregation these religious rituals cannot occur remotely and therefore there can be no adaption of them to an online context. They must wait until church gatherings resume.

For Fr Addicoat, many aspects of church practice involve a ‘physicality’ that may need to change in the future in line with current understandings of how to stop the spread of the virus. The Eucharist, for instance, involves placing the bread on the tongue or in the hand of the person receiving it, acts that are now understood to place people at risk of the virus’ transmission. Many people at St Joseph’s are in the vulnerable age range. To maintain social distancing, bread and wine will need to be administered from 1.5 metres away. For Fr Addicoat, the “symbol of the outstretched hand as a sign of welcome and of healing has overnight been negated. It is now an outstretched hand with a red cross through it”. How will it be possible to listen to someone’s struggles or pray with someone who has shared their burdens from a distance that takes away the intimacy of these interactions? So much of church practice involves touching—reaching out a hand to share the greeting of the peace, placing a consoling hand on another person’s shoulder, giving an embrace or a handshake of welcome. All of these informal elements of community may need to be renegotiated.

One of the significant ministries of St Joseph’s was to welcome tourists and travellers to their church. With the tourist industry closed down and big questions over when state borders will open and international travel resume, including the fate of large cruise ships, Fr Addicoat wonders what this ministry will look like in the future. Outreach will have a different focus if you can’t “physically reach out” to people anymore.

For St Joseph’s, the lockdown has been a time of being patient, fostering gratitude and appreciating the simple things. The congregation is looking forward to meeting together again soon, yet aware that it will not be a straight forward process. How do they choose who may attend Mass if only 10, 20 or 50 people are allowed to attend? These are issues that the church, along with other religious communities, must find solutions to.

 

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