In the annals of the Church versus Covid-19 Pandemic, one of the must-read chapters is on His Grace, the Most. Rev. Dr. Alfred Adewale Martins, the indefatigable Archbishop of the Metropolitan See of Lagos. Just as the Apostles did in the precarious days of persecution, the Archbishop played a central role–of rallying the church, rallying resources and coordinating the effort that brought relief to Catholic Parishes and Parishioners and helped to stem the tide of the ravaging pandemic.
At the heart of apostolic duties of ministering by Mass, he played the leading role at the time the doors of places of worship were shut. He was the central ﬁgure of the virtual Masses brought into the homes of the faithful through Lumen Christi Catholic Television Network and Halleluia channels of DSTV and GoTV respectively. For ﬁve months non-stop, Archbishop Martins celebrating Holy Mass almost every Sunday in the Holy Cross Cathedral was beamed into the home of Catholics, not only in Lagos but in the country and Africa at large. In this fashion, he celebrated the extraordinary Holy Week in the Cathe
dral, and other special occasions including Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday. Till date, He still celebrates Mass with the Children and the elderly who are yet to resume worship in the physical Church through the DSTV Lumen Christi Channel. Similarly, his resolve, relentlessness and role in reopening the churches stand him out in bas-relief in the effort in the Covid-19 chronicles.
In this interview with the Editor, NETA NWOSU, Most Rev. Dr. Alfred Adewale Martins gives an overview of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Church and a balanced analysis of the relationship between the State and the Church viz their interactions in the heat of the pandemic and the behind-the-scenes efforts that went into the reopening of places of worship. The Chief Shepherd also underscores the ramiﬁcations of the new normal and the dynamics of the unraveling challenges before the Church. Excerpts.
We would like to know the major effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Archdiocese of Lagos.
Well, the pandemic obviously impacted upon individual members of the faithful, impacted upon the economic lives of families. Some families suffered loss of jobs, there were families that suffered from half payment of salaries, and there were families that
were very negatively impacted, at least, from a material point of view. And so, it certainly now became part of the responsibility of the Church to reach out to as many as those who were negatively impacted, in terms of material needs, and by the grace of God, we did the much that could be done. However, in terms of the Church in the Archdiocese of Lagos, that is the local church, the fact that people could not access the sacraments was a major negative effect on the Archdiocese.
The fact also that people could not receive the Holy Eucharist was even by far more painful for most of our people. Naturally, the reduction of income for the management of the Churches was also another major impact because, at that point in time, it was difficult to run the normal things in the parishes, and so again, by the grace of God, some efforts were made to support the parishes that had the need. The impacts were wide-ranging from personal, to family and the entire Church.
Was the prolonged closure of the worship centres, including the Churches justified? What case did the Archdiocese of Lagos make against the continued closure of Churches?
I think the fact of the matter is that this pandemic caught everybody by surprise. No one knew exactly what to do, and so everybody was just hanging along and learning what to do and how to do it. So, it is from that point of view that one can understand the directive or the instruction to close down places that could bring people together; one could understand it from that point of view.
But of course, as people began to understand more and more, how this pandemic is panning out, and then, other places that attract crowds were being opened up, we thought that the government needed to open up the Churches as well. And so, we did make contact with Catholics who are at the top in the political ladder in the state, as well as with the Governor, so that the lockdown can be reviewed; we thought all was going well, and we got a date and the dates were shot down, so to say, and that created a lot of concern. Eventually, we learnt to accept it as the will of God until the Church was reopened with the regulations we have now.
You said you reached out to Catholics in politics, what did you say to them, what reasons did you give that the Churches should be reopened?
We appealed to the sense of the fact that for us Catholics, it is not just adequate to just participate at worship virtually, that for us, the Eucharist and the reception of Holy Communion is the highest form of worship, and therefore, if we were ready to put in place all the regulations that government imposed, then, we should be allowed to go on rather than be made to wait when peoples of other religions and peoples of other Christian denominations were ready. We thought we were ready because we knew the importance of the Holy Communion and other sacraments, such as penance.But as I said, we made the efforts and we did all the arguments, we thought we were getting the results until it was cut off.
What is the difference between a handful of people gathered in the Church in strict adherence to the safety measures, and the buyers and sellers in the market who do not believe in the existence of coronavirus, let alone maintain physical distancing?
Everybody was nervous about whether the coronavirus was going to spread rapidly and become a major problem. From that point of view, one could reason with government if it was very concerned about the fact of spread. But we argued that if people who don’t take any precautions were allowed, and Churches were allowed with a restricted number, does that give the impression that God and prayers are not given the right perspective in dealing with the problem? That argument we made and we had expected that that would be taken in view.
However, the other side of the argument that we were receiving is that food is a necessity, and therefore, people cannot be stopped from going to market and the rest of it. We said well if you also consider the fact that spiritual upliftment is also an essential need for people, it ought to be part and parcel of government consideration. However, we are where we are today, and we hope that things will get better.
The Nigerian people believe that the Church has the power to heal and that the church has the power to stop the spread of coronavirus. Nigeria is a multi-religious country, and come to think of it, we have a lot of worship centres in Nigeria whose congregants believe in the omnipotence of God and in spiritual healing. Yet, the government suspended religious worship for almost five months.
From your experiences of the pandemic and the tackling of the pandemic itself, where do you think the government placed God and the Church?
Well, I believe that government was much more inclined to listen to scientists and health professionals, and all those people in cognate disciplines. The fact of the matter is that even the peoples of different religions were divided on whether we should open up the worship centres or not. There were Muslims on the one hand who were ready to wait for as long as September in this whole matter. Other Christian denominations were also not accepting the fact that the churches needed to be opened. So, naturally, it became an opportunity for government to say ‘well, we have to strike a balance, and therefore, wait until science and health experts say so.’ I believe that if we didn’t get the places of worship opened in time, it is more because we, who are believers in God, were divided on what the power of God could do on this matter. Of course, we know that God can do greater things than we can ever expect. On the other hand, we know that God will not do for us what He has given us the ability to do. All of these panned out in this matter.
I would like you to describe the relationship between government and the Church, and how well government has incorporated the power of God in effective and efficient governance?
If you look at the fact that those in government are themselves people who believe in God, who are either Muslims or Christians, then naturally, the place of God in the act of governance is also recognised. If you look at the fact that government officials and government offices try to relate with Christian bodies such as Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, and listen to their thoughts and ideas, and we really look at the fact that they also relate with Muslims, sometimes, together, and that Christians and Muslims relate with government, then, you get a feeling that government believes that God is powerful and His ability to direct and help is recognized. If you look at the fact that in Lagos State, for example, there is the annual thanksgiving that is held at the beginning of each year, you get a feeling that government recognizes the place of God in the act of governance. Of course, whether the values and the principles and the commandments of God influence the activities of individuals in government or not, is another story that is open for discussion.
Do you think the government has handled the problem of the pandemic responsibly?
I believe that the Lagos State Government has done creditably well. Right from the moment this pandemic broke out, from the State, there were proactive steps taken to ensure that the spread was contained. I could hear and see both the Governor and Commissioner of Health coming out to speak and brief people on what was going on and the efforts that were being made.
You could see efforts being made to ensure that more centres for testing were opened and more isolation centres for those who have been infected. In my estimation, the Lagos State Government did very well when you compare with what has happened in some other states.
For almost five months, everyday Mass was prohibited, and several Catholics who don’t have access to virtual Mass were practically cut off from the church. What do you think is the implication of this on the faith of these Catholics?
One thing that we have encouraged and which we have seen happening is that associations of lay faithful were challenged to ensure that they kept strict contact with their members, and as long as the associations kept contact with their members, we believe that even those who were not able to assess the Mass online or on television were not cut off completely from the church. At some point during the lockdown, I decided to have a zoom meeting with the leaders of the different lay associations to evaluate how they have been coping and what they have been doing and the steps they have been taking.
I was pretty delighted about the fact that all the associations have been taking proactive steps in terms of making contacts through their Whatsapp group, even having spiritual engagement with one another via online by zoom. There was one that was even having what they call their seminar on some matters during that period on zoom. So, I believe that people were not completely cut off, and if there were anyone who didn’t buy into all these efforts that were being made, we pray that somehow, God will minister to them individually and personally and that they would not have been left completely without support.
What is the current situation of the Church since reopening, and how has the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos fared?
Well, since reopening, obviously the number is restricted, and so, all the parishes have been following the due process that was outlined by the government, and also in our internal arrangement, including the washing of hands, the registering of people and physical distancing. There have been very elaborate preparations made in all the parishes. What we have done is to ask that the Deans in each of our Deaneries would constitute an adhoc committee to monitor how these were being done in the parishes, and the reports that I have heard is pretty good. It’s very good in terms of compliance with the directives. Of course, as you said, many are not able to come to the Mass yet, but with the number of Masses that have been increased, we hope that those who have been a little reticent about participating physically at Mass will begin to attend, except, of course, for the children who should stay at home. For the elderly ones, from age 65, we have been encouraging them to begin to come and participate also because provision has been made either for a Mass which will be set apart for them, depending on the number of people concerned or else, places set aside for them in any of the regular Masses. So, I think the Archdiocese is faring well in the circumstance.
Taking cognizance of the number of days it takes for the symptoms of this coronavirus to manifest and the number of cases we have been having daily since the reopening of the worship centres, you will observe the number of cases has dropped significantly. What do you think happened?
In the first instance, my belief is that we are reaching the peak of the pandemic gradually. Peak in terms of the fact that the number of people who have been newly infected is reducing because the number of people who were infected and are cured is increasing, and therefore, with all things being equal, it should begin to reduce, as they say, ‘flatten the curve.’ But of course, we have been praying about this as well. We have been praying about it, and we know it’s not simply a matter of data and human effort, but also the act of God by which He is assisting us. Right from the beginning, we have had this prayer for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, and that prayer is not for nothing. We have been asking people to pray the prayer to the Archangel Michael, and that prayer is not for nothing. So, the hand of God is certainly at work in the flattening of the curve, of course, along with the efforts that are been made.
What will be the effect of the virtual Mass on the church after lockdown? What steps are you taking to woo back those who may see virtual Mass as a new normal?
One thing that we have constantly repeated in circulars, in interactions with groups and associations is to remind them that receiving Spiritual Communion is by far less than actually physically receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. Spiritual Communion is restricted to circumstances in which it is literarily impossible for one to receive the Holy Eucharist, and then, of course, you cannot do confession virtually. So, this virtual Mass and virtual adoration can only be an emergency in order that we can have an alternative, a second best to the actual, which is real participation at Mass. So, we continue to repeat this to the people, we continue to help them understand that a war situation cannot be the same as the situation of peace. People should recognize that faith is not restricted only to what you see on television, and in any case, to gather as a community physically, interacting with one another, is the ultimate meaning of a community of God’s people. You can have a virtual community, but that is a community in quote. A real community is people physically engaging with one another.
The Church is currently operating within the context of the new normal; what are the challenges?
One of the challenges is the fact that not everybody can assess the electronic means that is available now. It’s a major challenge. In the beginning, we were able to have both Gotv and Interview DSTV available for people such that a wider audience, if they have electricity, would be able to assess Mass. Parishes were doing their own online live-streaming of Masses and other activities. There were people who were sending Whatsapp messages and sermons and all of that, but that is available to an audience as wide as possible. That’s a major challenge as regards to that. Then, of course, the fact that people not being able to gather also does not give some the opportunity to make the financial contributions that they could have made for the running of the parish, of the church. I must say that many of our people were wonderful in the way they have responded to the challenges of this time, in terms of approaching their priests and supporting them individually.
Up till now, there are people who after participating at the Sunday Mass would transfer their offerings to the account that was set up at that time for Covid-19.
People have been wonderful in that regard. Obviously, those who didn’t have that kind of opportunity of making transfers didn’t also have the opportunity of being physically present. Those were challenges. Priests too were very much challenged at the time because by their calling, they are meant to be with their people, but there was this gap that was created, and that was a major psychological problem. Not that anybody broke down psychologically or mentally, but it has its effect that you are not able to carry out your duties as you wish to do it. They have to stand before the microphone to be celebrating Mass without people, it was very strange, but then, we all recognize the problems of the time.
Is there hope for full reopening of liturgical activities in the parishes?
I think gradually that is beginning to happen, as different from the initial point when people could not even gather for catechism, for instance. Preparation for marriage has begun, opportunities for going to confession is a lot more than used to be. So, gradually, it is coming. The hope for the resumption of normal life is higher now than before, knowing fully well that the rate of infection is dropping, and as the rate is dropping, we expect that government will be responding also. Other areas of life are coming up gradually. Schools are reopening, primary, secondary and the tertiary. I believe God is taking control.
Do you think the church will be the same after the Coronavirus pandemic?
Yes, to some extent, in the sense of the fact that we expect that the faith of people would not have waned, would not have decreased. We expect that the practices of people will still be with the same measure of zeal because this period has also allowed people to reflect on their faith and their practice of the faith. So, we expect that to that extent, the Church will continue to flourish in that direction. However, it also means that we have to learn lessons from the lockdown, lessons on the role that the electronic media can play in reaching out to our people.
We expect that the role of the electronics with regards to evangelization will be better than before. I think more and more people have recognized the need to be a little more forceful in the whole effort to reach to our people. There is now the case of some who are so used to sitting in front of the television, who now found it much more comfortable than getting into the car and going to the Church.
We hope that they will recognize that what is the new normal is simply an extraordinary way of dealing with an extraordinary situation. So, when the extraordinary situation eases off, then you go back to the normal way of life. People should not get either afraid to go back to Church or get too comfortable to sit in front of their television, and not be part of the community because the community of faith with people gathered is of extreme value in developing the faith and in witnessing of the faith to others