George Pattery, S.J

The Corona virus is world crisis threatening the life of man, both science and religion remain mute and helpless before the virus, man stand humiliated both in prayers and even blasphemy, how do you evaluate as a theologian and priest of the church?

Corona is an unprecedented pandemic: its global spread, its ways of infecting almost everyone and its virulent and resilient hold on the victim craft it deadly and unprecedented. By bringing human activities into halt and distancing humans from each other, with more than 80,000 dead, it threatens to wipe away human life from the face of the earth. All these factors lend themselves to make it seemingly apocalyptic moment.

There have been similar catastrophes both in historical and mythical times. In fact such reckoning moment blurs the distinction between the historical and mythical. Various kinds of plagues in history and floods in mythical time brought about destruction and creation – releasing the unbearable heaviness of being. Perhaps Arundhati Roy came close to this when she said: ‘The pandemic is a portal’ (FT, 03/04/20).

Where does that position the theologian and scientist? It remains a profoundly scientific moment to work together to find a vaccine for this killer virus. Science is capable of doing that. Perhaps the earlier political advice on research on pandemic response was not heeded. It is a challenge that science could and should undertake. Science is NOT made mute or helpless; it is confronted with a realistic challenge. Perhaps its reliance on a narrow analytical approach needs to be broadened to look for a holistic approach and method for healing. Similarly science’s achievement of super-specialty treatment for the rich is being interrogated by Corona. Unless we take care of the basic health of all, ‘health’ of humanity will remain an issue. Science is also politics! Corona is questioning the political philosophy that underlies science, catering to the rich, and leaving the majority at the mercy of charity. Science needs to be truly scientific – that is wisdom centred.

The theologian is also radically questioned by Corona. God of the theologian pretended to answer all questions from above, in advance, in precise terms for all time to come! Corona brings up a God who is the ‘within’ and ‘without’ of evolutionary creative process, journeying with creation, recreating it from within and at the same time remaining ‘without’ Evolutionary theologians like Ilia Delio and Michael Dowd have been enunciating the Divine as the within and without of evolutionary creative process.

That brings us to the church and priest today. Liturgy centred,  neatly and precisely fabricated rubrics defined priesthood today, laying immutable foundation for clericalism. Corona suspended all the liturgies, even of the Holy Week! Priests are unemployed; the sheep are lost without a pastor! Post-Coro-nachurch has to be different. Does sacramentality necessarily involve physical presence for its efficacy? What is presenc-ing in Corona context?  Distancing is the best way to presen-cing? How do we grasp the  implications of incarnation in Corona-thought pattern? God’s presence is to be conceived as absenting! Pope Francis in his Urbi et Orbi (27/3/2020) says that Corona storm “exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities.” The clear example is a church centredon clericalism is made totally vulnerable! Post-Corona church has to reinvent itself!

A character in Camus the Plague is the talented preacher and a Jesuit Fr Paneloux stands for hope in a future life in the plague-stricken town of Oran.He pronounced in the Cathedral two sermons, human suffering is no longer a scandal, and the right attitude in front of the plague is not rebellion but submission. Does his theodicy justify God from the complicity of the Plague?

Corona brings suffering, evil and God to the fore as does good literature (Camus). That throws up a larger question of the word of God. Where do we find the word of God…only in the designated and determined texts of the Holy Scriptures? Can good literature and a deep conversation generate word of God? If God is the within of evolutionary-creative process, then divine word could irrupt anywhere and everywhere – in good literature, in cinema, poetry, drama, conversation. It is all over. We need sensitive  antenna to pick them up. I am reminded of Arnos Padiri’s explanation of virgin conception as  coconut water, not poured from outside but emerged from within! Our theology has been imprisoned in argumentative philosophical jargons and unintelligibleliturgical vocabulary based  on the dualistic thinking of the separation between the secular and the sacred. Corona invites us to a new narrative that is profane-holy. Recall Teilhard de Chardin’s hymn of the universe!

Is God implicit in the Corona crisis of suffering? Yes and no. God is the within of our creation; the divine suffers in and with creation; groaning from within. But this happens not only through Corona. When we fought wars in the name of nationality, race, and religion, God suffered; when we segregated people in the name of caste, ethnicity and religion,  God was weeping. When we burdened people with rubrics and laws, God suffered.

Arundhati Roy warns us: “The mandarins who are managing this pandemic, are fond of speaking of war. They don’t even use war as a metaphor, they use it literally. But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US? If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets and nuclear bombs, would there be a shortage?” (FT, 03/04/2020). God is weeping in the absence of life-saving masks and in the proliferation of bombs!

And God is complicit? Yes, God of religions was complicit to save true religion and protect ‘our beloved Rashtra? …that is how manuvatis might argue. This pandemic is to wipe out Muslims from this Punyabhhomi? And our God is complicit? Whose God is he?

Probably Jesuit Fr. Paneloux, in the Plague (Camus) is right to stand for hope in a future life and submission in the plaguestricken land. Suffering is no longer a scandal. Unless wheat falls and dies, there can’t be hundred fold. Evolutionary creation progresses through self-gifting, self-emptying process of dying. That is the logic of reality, of God – of total giving and total receiving. This kenosis is the secret of life and love; this is from where everything originated and moving on. Suffering is NO scandal; it is the logic of and in love. Suffering that is enforced, inflicted is sin and scandal. Corona tells us to distance in order to be present. Distancing is presencing; presencing through distancing. We had trivialized love and life into possession and having. Recall Eric Fromm’s To be or to have – that is the choice that Corona is placing before humankind. You need to have in order to be; you can’t be in order to have. Leonardo Boff once said: poverty alone can remove poverty. Not so long ago  Gandhiji said: world have enough for every one’s needs but not for everyone’s greed. We need to ‘suffer’ in order that all may have! Corona teaches us that suffering is no scandal;  self-gift is written all over; but we do not see.

Priests “have placed everything in God’s care.” How do you explain the providence of God? “Do you believe in God, Doctor?”’ is the dichotomy presented, how do you see?

Indeed Corona challenges our constructed notions on God. We were and are so sure of Him/Her with definite Christian texture, Hindu colour and Muslim appearance. Our certainties are questioned by Corona! Pope Francis in his interview with Spadaro, sj (La Civilta Cattolica) said: “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. St. Ignatius wrote in the Spiritual Exercises, that God “labours and works” in our world. So I ask: “Do we have to be optimistic? What are the signs of hope in today’s world? How can I be optimistic in a world in crisis?” That is our task: to discern the way of the Lord labouring with us.

God is contained in the tiniest, and not in the biggest. Corona questions not so much God per se but god-men/women and their fabricated gods. Those ‘doctor-gods’ who used to be at their beck and call are hopefully disappearing, at least for Corona while. Probably they will come back with a vengeance! God provides as in the multiplication of loaves, through miracle of generous hearts, opening their bundles and baskets, creating plentiful to feed every one. There is no dichotomy between God and providence of God. God is a labouring Lord, labouring in this world, with us to bring his design of love come true. God is “Within and “Without” of this world. It is with us and through our struggles for the reign of God that providence of God operates. God provides in and through us, through scientists, doctors, poets and prophets among us.

In the novel Oran a town in Algiers becomes “the perfect ‘anywhere’ for the historically unthinkable to happen” for it is a town without pigeons, without trees, and without gardens.’ Residents are particularly uncomfortable dying in this place, it is impossible to catch a glimpse of the sea, which one must always seek.’ What is the significance of these details in Camus?

Perhaps the details of the town represent the ecological destruction that is all around us. Rereading

of Laudato si will bring home that fact. What was historically unthinkable to happen then, is a reality around us now. This pandemic reveals: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and  dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it” (Roy, 03-04-2020). Pandemic is a portal!

Camus writes, “The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; […] it can lie dormant for years in furniture and linen-chests; […] it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and […] perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city” (TP, p. 252). The plague in Camus is primarily means Narcissism, What is the meaning?

Today medical science is telling us that Corona can remain in human body hidden and can surface anytime. It has the capacity to be hidden, to be tiny and yet virulent. We are experiencing it now. As Pope Francis said in Urbi et Orbi (27 March 20) this pandemic exposes our vulnerability. Pandemic of prejudice, hatred, casteism, racism can also remain hidden and surface periodically as ‘communalism’ flares  up in India, especially before the elections. Narcissism takes many shapes and forms. Can we make sure of a social order  where food, health and shelter are assured for everyone? Today we have more tanks, missiles and weapons to meet any  eventuality of war, but not enough masks and ventilators to treat our patients. This is criminal.

All religions had to change all their absolute laws before the virus? What does it tell the religions?

The role of religions, along with other social systems is radically questioned by Corona. Role of religion has to be rethought. First, should religion be the sole guardian of God? Should we leave all God-talk to religion? Do they have the monopoly of God? Religion should be the space to bring in all references, searches, denials and proofs for/against God. It should be at the cutting edge of all knowledge and wisdom traditions. As mentioned above, Pope Francis makes it very clear that whoever claims absolute certainty about matters regarding God is clear sign that God is not there. What we thought non-negotiable and absolute norms, are getting challenged. Many good Catholics are bewildered without liturgy of the Holy Week! But they forget that Jesus died in most profane, god-forsaken space of Golgotha, outside the Holy City and died the death of a blasphemer. Perhaps it is time to re-enact John Abraham’s “Agraharathil Kazuthai’. Religion of his time got rid of Jesus; another religion emerged out of a gospel that was protest news against the religion of the time. Corona also makes clergy jobless. Hopefully post-Corona church will be different, freed of clericalism, centred around communities, marked as a discerning group, ever-seeking, ever-searching the will of the Abba in a given time and place.

Alvin Toffler’s prediction (Secular City) that modernity will make religion disappear has been proved wrong. Religion is the tool for usurping power at political, social and institutional levels. Corona could be a portal for another world, more humane, more eco-friendly and more just; less religious with less god-men/women. Science, art, music, culture, economics and history could equally reveal the infinite, the unknown and the hidden. God is the within/without of all that is!

During plague periods in the Roman Empire, Christians made a name for themselves. Historians have suggested that the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity, as Christians cared for the sick and offered an spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God. But the more famous epidemic is the Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colourful account of this disease in his sermons. What is Christianity’s answer to the plagues?

A genuine believer is invited to combat this menace of Corona in whatever possible ways, especially in becoming the good Samaritan, at the risk of one’s life, time and money! We shall also engage in serious research with a holistic method to find a solution; we shall join hands with others to establish a new and sustainable and just social order; we shall continue discerning the will of the Lord in and through this crisis, just as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane. Discernment is the key word for the church today; discern and initiate processes that will bring to the fore the spirit of Beatitudes, rather than occupying and maintaining ‘spaces’ for the clergy. Post-Corona church has to be less clerical and more evangelical, less institutional religion and more inter-religious in function, less dogmatic and more searching in spirit. Probably we are lucky to have Pope Francis with us during this critical time (St.Cyprian of our times!!), telling us: who am I to judge? … Church should be a field hospital … be the gospel joy! … enacting Paschal liturgy at the empty square of St.Peter’s and giving Urbi et Orbi blessing to an absent crowd! Giving hope and courage to a world made one in grief!! Another world is possible!