Dr. Franca Attoh, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Lagos, applauds the way the Church has deployed technology to bridge the gap created by the pandemic and marvels at the new possibilities inherent in the process: “For instance, Catholics never knew pilgrimages could be successfully attended virtually, like that of Lourdes. Rather than pay heavily for flights, accommodation and other expenses, we simply paid less for registration and hooked unto Lourdes online during the pilgrimages. Some faithful even follow the Pope on his public audiences, angelus, rosary, and other devotions virtually.” She also shares her thoughts on the closure and reopening of the Churches and aftermath. Excerpts.
Please share your experiences on the pandemic. What do you think were the major effects of the pandemic on the Church?
We all know the challenges associated with the pandemic. For Catholics, I do not think we missed much, except those not in a position to have the facility in terms of device and data, to attend the virtual Masses. What the pandemic did was that it brought technology to the people; things we thought were not possible. For instance, Catholics never knew pilgrimages could be successfully attended virtually, like that of Lourdes. So, rather than pay heavily for flights, accommodation and other expenses, we simply paid less for registration and hooked unto Lourdes online during the pilgrimages. Some faithful even follow the Pope on his public audiences, Angelus, Rosary, and other devotions virtually. The beauty of the Church is that she is Catholic and wherever you tune in, the Holy Masses are the same. As a matter of fact, I did more during this period than in the pre covid-19 era in the sense that duties at the office would not have allowed me meet up with some activities in Church; but this period, because it is virtual, even when you are working, you tune in and participate in the various spiritual activities. I do not think I missed any retreat during this pandemic but, in the past, there were occasions I was not be able to meet up and eventually missed out. Even students at the College of Medicine of the University of Lagos were having their fellowship online. Although, there is a caveat here; those who are in a position to afford the internet facilities, the pandemic did not pose any problem to them. But, it was a problem to the ordinary person who could not afford such costs which includes data, even if such person had a device. So, as a catholic, I do not think I missed much. The only thing I missed was, receiving the Eucharist sacramentally. However, the spiritual communion sufficed under the circumstance.
There are claims that the prolonged closure of religious places was unjustifiable. What is your take?
I do not think so. If you recall Jesus’ response to the question of whose authority should be obeyed in the Gospel according to Saint Luke 20: 25, where he requested for a coin and, when the coin was brought, he asked “whose inscription is on the coin?” They replied Caesar’s; and Jesus guided them saying, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; and to God what is God’s. Circular authorities have been put there by God. Therefore if we are actually Christians, ‘ipse Christus’ (Christ Himself), then it means that we must also obey circular authorities. The truth was that the State did not close the Churches to punish the Church. They closed the church because, they felt that particular circumstance was the only way they will be able to contain the spread of the virus. Even abroad, which includes Rome, all religious places were closed at a time. Though people were saying that if Churches were not closed, they will be praying for an end to the pandemic, but the building is not the Church. Our Lord, Jesus Christ told us in the scripture that, where two or more are gathered in His name, there He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20).
You remember the particular situation where a Priest resorted to exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, moving round with the monstrance in the streets of Rome. So, our own situation was not as bad as people are projecting it. The fact that we could not gather in the Church did not Encounter ‘The building is not the Church’ Dr. Franca Attoh, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Lagos, applauds the way the Church has deployed technology to bridge the gap created by the pandemic and marvels at the new possibilities inherent in the process: “For instance, Catholics never knew pilgrimages could be successfully attended virtually, like that of Lourdes. Rather than pay heavily for flights, accommodation and other expenses, we simply paid less for registration and hooked unto Lourdes online during the pilgrimages. Some faithful even follow the Pope on his public audiences, angelus, rosary, and other devotions virtually.” stop our worship as activities continued virtually; small Christian community meetings, prayers, Masses, novenas, rosary, fellowship, divine mercy, pilgrimages, and reflections. So, I do not think there is any issue as far as spiritual activities are concerned.
Despite the deep belief in the power of God and efficacy of prayer, government suspended religious gatherings for almost five months. From the experiences of this pandemic, where do you think government situated God and the Church, in tackling the pandemic?
God has the power heal and He also gave the scientists the power to heal. It is not in all situations God heals miraculously. There are times God uses human instruments to heal. Those human instruments could be scientists. For instance, enhancing peoples’ intelligence to enable them get the vaccine or a cure for an ailment. What people are trying to do in Nigeria is trying to micromanage God. God is awesome and all-knowing. The fact that somebody is not physically present in a Church or a building does not mean they cannot pray to God and draw down mercies from heaven. In fact, what I learnt this period, I do not think I could have learnt in two years, if I were still engaged in the pre-COVID-19 situation. The quantum of resources we have on youtube, Masses going on simultaneously in different parts of the world. At the moment, I work remotely.
So, I have not gone out today. I go to the office only when we have physical meetings; and as you know, the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASSU, is still on strike. So many pop-ups come in as notification of Masses. Somebody said earlier today that, “now that the pandemic is over.” I find that very annoying because, the pandemic is not over yet. What we are doing is that we are living dangerously as it is. Anybody who says God does not want people to attend Mass virtually should recall that when Jesus Christ was on earth, these technologies were not available. Jesus Christ himself was a revolutionary. The things Christ preached during his three years of ministry were not orthodox. In fact, one of the reasons He was crucified was because of his revolutionary nature. He was preaching things that the powers that be at that time did not want to hear. They felt that those things should not be said. What happens to social change? Most people may not realize that a major catalytic change has occurred in the world. A real revolutionary change has taken place.
Sooner or later, people will realize that this change has come here to stay. For instance, I have realized that I need to think twice before paying money to visit anywhere in the world for pilgrimage, because I can buy ten thousand naira data and follow the whole period of such pilgrimage online. Not only does it pay you, but also money that would have gone for flight tickets and other expenses can be put to other uses or made available for those who have need of such resources. So, we must begin to think outside the box and look at this issue from all ramifications. The two meetings I have attended today were virtual and had in attendance participants from the United States, Mexico, India, Owerri, Markurdi and Lagos. So, what can be more beautiful than this? It saves everybody the risk flying all the time. Therefore, you can stay in your space and participate globally.
Describe the current relationship between government and the church; as well as incorporation of the power of God in effective and efficient governance?
The Church is there to take care of the spiritual aspect of the citizenry. Nigeria is prescribed in our constitution as a secular state; but then the Church provides direction because she stands on a higher moral ground. Hence, the Church should be the mirror through which politicians and people in government can look at themselves and see whether they are actually on the right track or not. I do not subscribe to the perspective that Churches were closed to punish the body of Christ. No, I do not and the Catholic Church, which I have been a part of since I was born does not subscribe to that view also. All they were doing was to look at the rate of infection and the curve. As soon as the curve was beginning to flatten, they started opening up the places of worship. If you go to most Catholic parishes today, you will notice they are obeying the guidelines of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) as far as COVID-19 is concerned because, the truth is that CIVID-19 is here. It has not gone; and I will tell people, in the next one or two years, COVID-19 will still be with the world until we get effective vaccine that can keep it in check. This is not the first time a pandemic is happening in the world.
That of 1918; there was one in 1922; so when people are talking, they should go back to history. Can you imagine that in 1918, Churches, Mosques, markets and Schools were also closed? Now, if Churches were open and people were mingling, do we have the facilities and capacity to track infections? Maybe after a Mass it is discovered that one or two persons have tested positive, do we have the capacity to track and ensure that everybody who was in that particular Mass is tracked and quarantined? So these are the issues that those of you in the fourth estate of the realm need to bring to the knowledge of those who cannot really understand these issues. They are not as mundane as people made them to be. In the Catholic Church, we pray for Nigeria in distress. We pray for our leaders. So, it is in the interest of those in government that those places of worship remain open. Remember some of them are Catholics. So, people should not bring up motives where motives do not exist.
What is your experience since the re-opening of Churches considering the fact that before COVID-19, you simply prepared your family for Mass but now, there are needful protocol you must observe to qualify you for physical presence at Mass as outlined by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC?
It depends on how big a Parish is. In some Parishes, they are having three Masses concurrently. So the logistics is a bit easier than where the Parish is small. In some other Parishes they may lack enough personnel to put in place all these protocol. In big Parishes, they hold Mass concurrently and it reduces the complexity in terms of number of personnel needed per Mass schedule; and at same time such Parish streams live for those who are not in position to attend physically. Like in my community, the University of Lagos, we have a portal where people register if they are to attend Mass physically and when the number of worshipers required at each Mass is complete, the portal is shut. So, it takes ample time for people to fully key in; but mind you, Masses are still being streamed online. Let people not say, ‘if they do not go to Mass, physically, I have not attended Mass.’ That is the beauty of the Catholic Church. In fact, this COVID-19 pandemic has re-enforced my faith in Catholicism because, truth is that you do not need to be there physically either during the full or partial lockdown. For some people say this is the new normal. In fact, COVID-19 has made the Gospel of Jesus Christ to be spread further because, if a Mass is being streamed while physically on, the implication is that more people will get to hear the Gospel.
So, it is like using one stone to kill two birds. If you tune to EWTN channel for instance, you will find out that Masses are on always; Rosary, Divine Mercy prayers, Angelus and Reflections are being broadcast. Some other Parishes have also followed suite to ensure they provide all these opportunities to their Parishioners. So people can no longer say, o, I could not go to Mass because I was at work. The implication is that if I am at work or on transit, I can tune in to any of these once I have internet (data) and attend Mass virtually. The only snag is that you are not able to receive the body of Christ sacramentally or physically; which is what people were missing. But we are also supposed to be tabernacles as Children of God. In any case, you can also go online and download a very beautiful tabernacle so that each time you want to pray, you display it in front of you.
Taking into cognizance the number of days it takes for symptoms of COVID-19 infection to manifest and the daily number of new cases since the re-opening of worship centers, you will observe that the number of new cases has dropped. Share your thoughts on what you think is responsible for the drop in confirmed cases. Does it have to do with the strict adherence by the worship centers or is God at work?
The truth of the situation is that we are not testing enough. That is my own absolute belief. We are not testing as much. Encounter That is why I said people need to be very careful. Let us not give ourselves a false impression that COVID-19 is gone. Some people will even say COVID-19 is not there. We are not testing enough. The more you test, the more cases you get. You know there are people who are asymptomatic. So if you do not test, you do not see. As situations emerge, I hope the Presidential Task Force is not dissolved very soon, thereby, leaving it for Governors. I do not know how the State will have the capacity and resources to be able to do what the Presidential Task Force is doing. We really need massive education about this. This is not the time to congregate. There is a certain blatant ignorance that I see around us and it baffles me; students demonstrating that schools should be re-opened; parents saying that school should re-open. Have you gone to those places to see the conditions under which these students were schooling prior to COVID-19 pandemic? And you want to re-open when for instance you do not have the facilities to observe the protocol.
These things do not work like that. Go to the airports that were re-opened and you will see the kinds of facilities and protocol that were put in place. It is amazing. Do we have such facilities? Do we have the capacity to do those things in all these places people are shouting that government should re-open? We need to be very careful. The reports put daily by Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, show that cases are dropping on day-to-day basis. For instance, the figures for Lagos which were previously high are now low. Is it not obvious that better days are here? You can only have figures depending on the samples you submit. If samples are not been submitted, where would the figures come from? This is simple arithmetic. Let people do undercover investigation. If you are not submitting samples due to insufficient capacity to test, how would confirmed cases emerge? We do not have the capacity as it is because, resources are dwindling.
That is the truth of the matter. What is the volume of samples coming in from various states? However, there is a way doctors calculate this. For instance, for every twenty confirmed cases, they can tell you the real figure that will be in the population. If you have twenty in Ajegunle for instance, through calculation, there is a way they multiply it and tell you the actual figure under a certain margin of error that is in that population because, these are samples. The truth of the matter is if you really want to know what a pandemic is, they should go back to history and read about a pandemic. As a Catholic, you should know the story of the three children of Fatima (Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia). Francisco died towards the end of the 1918 pandemic.
At that time people thought the pandemic was over. So, people should not at this time treat the issue of COVID-19 pandemic with levity. You know how we treat issues in this part of the world. We do not take our lives serious. So then, the truth of the matter is that this thing is here with us. We should be very serious about it. In whatever way, people should not compromise. When we know there is no opportunity for social distancing, why go out there. For me, I cannot leave my house without wearing a mask. I try as much, not to visit anybody. If I need to go to the market, I prefer to go on a day the market is not fully open to avoid crowd. If one is above fifty, sixty, you are vulnerable. I will tell you the truth; we are not testing enough. If you listen to President Donald Trump, of the United States, he will tell you, ‘the more tests you do, the more figures you are likely to get.’ So, if we are not careful, this curve we think is flattened can even begin to go up.
Will the Church be the same after covid-19 pandemic?
No, the church will never be the same; except if somebody want to remain in the cloud. The truth of the matter is, people have discovered we can meet God in different places. It does not have to be in that space called a building. I gave you instances at the beginning of this interview, of things I could not do in the past because, of my job. But now, I am beginning to see that I can do them remotely. So, the Church will never be the same. The only thing the church is to do is, to also adjust and adapt to this new normal. For instance, how to make provision to ensure the congregation can make their contributions online. It does not have to be only through Sunday collections.
That is what places like Lourdes are doing. That you can be in Nigeria, pay online and participate in the pilgrimage. So these are opportunities and that is why I called it a revolution. As far as social change is concerned, a basic social change has taken place globally. My first son who is a lawyer resigned from his job during this pandemic and in partnership with some of his colleagues, recently floated their own firm online. When I visited their website, with all my schooling, I discovered I was an illiterate. A number of things will change; even this job we are doing because, people will suddenly discover that for instance, that it is no longer profitable to pay as much as three million naira (N3, 000, 000) as rent at Ikoyi, for what you can do online and get to meet more clients from the thirty six states of Nigeria including Abuja; and you have your digital files in the cloud.
Is that not more beautiful, that you can save your documents where they are safe, instead of keeping them in a physical space where fire can destroy them in thirty minutes? So, the Church can never be the same. The smart Parish is the Parish which now takes advantage of this social change that is ongoing and adapt itself completely; to know that they now have two categories of congregation (those who will attend Mass physically and those who will confine themselves to participating at Mass remotely). In fact, I am still thinking whether it will be possible now to be having confessions online. It is one question I still need to ask some people.
I hope to find a Vatican space to enquire further. This is very key because, are we going to say a faithful who is ninety years old and cannot freely move about or attend Mass physically should not be obliged confession? I tell you, God has already visited us. He is with us. He came during this covid-19 pandemic. Whether anybody likes it or not, that is what has happened and I have taken very good advantage of this and I think the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, while encouraging the faithful to be in Church physically, should put a caveat that, those not in position to do that can also access spiritual services virtually. It will be a win-win situation for everybody.