India is one of the countries hardest-hit by Covid-19 with more than 4.8 million recorded cases and over 79,000 deaths. The Indian Catholic Bishops Conference has organised “web prayer meetings” in response.
A bishop declared that Pope Francis had called for such prayer on May 3rd last. The aim of the meeting, the spokesman claimed, was to “implore God to save humanity from the pandemic”. Indeed, many devout Catholics in India believe that we need a miraculous intervention by God.
A song on YouTube by sisters of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel in Kerala, India, has gone viral. They sing: “Go away, Corona! We have Jesus who will destroy you for ever!”
In response to a critical remark by me on the song, an anxious pastor from Mumbai sent me a letter: “Jesus is a God of miracles. He has the power to burn away the virus from our bodies.
He has the power to wipe the virus from the face of the Earth. He promised: ‘If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in Heaven’ (Mt 18,19).”
It harks back to the medieval God-rules-the-world spirituality.
Pilgrims would walk hundreds of miles on foot to visit a shrine where a saint could intercede with God on their behalf. They believed it would secure them good health, a happy marriage or abundant crops. When Europe was devastated by the plague, processions of “flagellants” would roam from town to town.
They were priests and their flock whipping themselves till blood would stream from their shoulders to move God to pity. Their ideas are still alive to some extent when we glibly petition God to cure a sick parent or bring us back home safe and sound when travelling by air.In this spirituality the underlying concept does injustice to God. If it is God who releases the virus, how cruel on humankind. If God destroys the virus at our request, how fickle God proves to be. If God spares an individual because we pray for that person, how partial since others who have no friends to pray for them are left to their fate.
It reduces God to a chaotic manager, whimsy, treating us as toys in a puppet theatre – the God that avowed atheist Bertrand Russell rightly rejected.
However, when we read what Pope Francis actually did say during his Regina Coeli appeal on May 3rd, we get a different picture. He did call for all leaders of religions to join in prayer. But they should do so “to implore God to help humanity overcome the pandemic”.
Notice it is we, humanity, who should overcome the pandemic. Pope Francis also mentioned explicitly the importance of “international co-operation to respond effectively to this pandemic, with common efforts to find vaccines and extend their benefits to all”.
Role of mini-creators
In the creation story ,we read that God said: “Let us make humankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals” (Genesis 1,26). What does being made in God’s image mean if not that, by giving us intelligence, God made us mini-creators who could and should rule our own world?In the Gospel, Jesus added the priority of love. On the day of reckoning we shall be judged by how we treated the hungry, strangers, the sick, outcasts and prisoners (Matthew 25,31-46).
In short therefore: we ourselves are responsible for the world we live in, a charge guided by reason and compassion.
We ourselves will need to eliminate the threat of Covid-19, paying special attention to the needs of the most vulnerable in health or finance. It is natural, being the creatures we are, that we cry out to God for spiritual support.
After all, we are anchored in God. God pervades us, sustains us in being, inspires us to love, gives ultimate meaning to our lives.
But God expects us to defeat the virus ourselves.
Founder of the UK-based Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research