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Forming virtual communities in viral times

In an odd way, the pandemic is—or at least can be—a community-forming event.

A shadow is cast as a young person prays with a rosary in Grosseto, Italy, March 25, 2020. Joined by Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant church leaders and faithful from around the world that day, Pope Francis led the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, imploring God's mercy on humanity amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Jennifer Lorenzini, Reuters)

So much has been said and written about the novel coronavirus that if words could stem a pandemic, we would all long since have been dancing in the streets, holding hands, and only pausing now and then to exchange hugs. Unfortunately, keeping six feet apart is the order of the day, while hugging—especially hugging—is strictly verboten.

Which suggests a question: What expressions of affection and good fellowship really are in order at the moment? Herewith, at the risk of adding to the word glut, a few thoughts.

1. Telephoning, emailing, and texting come immediately to mind. It strikes me that enforced isolation may be a novel experience for quite a few people right now, causing them distress they have no previous experience in handling. True, some individuals have a fairly high level of toleration for being cooped up by themselves, but others are likely find it a nerve-racking experience at best and a source of deep depression at worst.

Thus a simple ‘How ya doing?’ delivered by phone, email, or text may do some friend or relative of yours a world of good by serving as a reminder that somebody out there really cares and there is hope at the end of this particular tunnel, however dark and long it turns out to be.

2. Prayer, always a good idea, makes more sense than ever in our present, disquieting circumstances. I see that Pope Francis has offered a plenary indulgence for those who pray for Covid-19 victims and those who care for them. This is, a welcome inducement to pray. But with or without inducements, prayer seems like an excellent thing to do right now.

You can pray with others at a distance via TV (plenty of Masses and devotions are being telecast), social media, and various websites, or you can pray alone—except that prayer in itself is a reminder that, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we are never ever really alone when we pray. And that is the consoling thought many of us badly need in the present trying circumstances.

3. Instead of simply waiting for a churchless Holy Week and Easter to arrive—and falling into a deep funk when and if they do—plan now for how you will celebrate those sacred feasts if in fact the churches still are closed by then.

Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have one of the liturgical booklets containing the texts of the Holy Week and Easter rites. In which case I suggest you familiarize yourself in advance with the texts with an eye to using them by yourself when the time comes. Or see if one of those friends whom you’re telephoning, emailing, or texting (see. above) would like to join you at long distance in doing the same at a mutually agreed-on time. Certainly people can join other people in worshiping God without necessarily being in the same place with them.

Many are suffering through this pandemic as an unwelcome experience of isolation and loneliness. The negative feelings are understandable, but perhaps not altogether bad, since they allow us to taste the isolation and loneliness of Jesus on the cross. In an odd way, too, the pandemic is—or at least can be—a community-forming event. We are in this together, and as time passes and quarantining spreads and tightens, we are learning our need for one another in ways we may not have expected. The pandemic will pass, but the bonds formed now may last.

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About Russell Shaw 282 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. Brilliant analysis by Russell Shaw, one of the most impressive authors of our times, whose diagnosis of the problems of our day glisten like a military sword. Thank you, Russ!
    John Lombardi, Maryland

  2. Our parish Bible Study of Wisdom…. had two more Sessions to go when the shutdown happened. So… Deb, who is good with computers, offered to set up a video chat room for us. She used “Google Hangouts” and sent each of us a link.
    After we each watched the Ascension Press lecture online, we “met” at the usual time on Thursday evening to discuss the Session. Seeing and hearing each other was a great boost! Sharing about Wisdom was “real”! And we finished the course. … Now on to the next one. 😉

  3. Everything has a beginning. Communities of genuine concern tend to have a long, enriching, and unending life.

  4. “In an odd way, too, the pandemic is—or at least can be—a community-forming event.”

    In urban mass population centers, as anywhere else, it’s going to take more than “Hi” and “How are you doing?” Community is not formed overnight nor through superficial interaction, and meaningful interaction takes more than simple personal contact. There must be “judging” and the development of trust.

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