With the Christmas season and celebrations in view, Catholics around the world are re-adjusting their spiritual lives to the changing times and prevailing circumstances in attending masses and other liturgical functions of the Advent Season.
“I think one of the things that will make the Christmas of this year stand out is that it is celebrated differently in different places,” said Fr Martin Anusi, the communications director at the Catholic diocese of Awka in Southeast Nigeria. “The US for example has left the issue of the lockdown to be at the discretion of the state. Each state will decide whether it will be a total lockdown and whether to make it obligatory to wear masks.”
Anusi said the way church activities are attended and organized started changing during the earlier periods of the lockdown in the country.
“So here in Nigeria, it was not as it was in Easter. During Easter it was a total lockdown that not even Mass was celebrated. But now, at least the churches have gone back to the normal celebration of the Eucharist. The only difference is that every diocese or parish tries as much to maintain the protocol for safety. So I think Christmas activities in the church will take the same turn.”
At Anusi’s diocese, there is a WhatsApp group for all the priests. Information about Mass, diocesan events and Covid-19 protocols are disseminated to priests. Anusi says the online group helps in instructing priests to ensure that safety measures are followed in their respective dioceses and during any liturgical function and not just when celebrating masses.
“So every church leader in Nigeria is playing their role in reminding people of the need to follow safety protocols about the pandemic because people’s health and safety matter a lot. And I think the spiritual dimension of Christmas will take the same tone. And because of the reality of this pandemic, many people are beginning to discover that well, we still need God to intervene. Even though we know the vaccine will come from the world of science, we know that God in his wisdom will inspire the scientists working on the vaccine to come out with something that is useful and helpful.”
There has been a drop in Nigeria’s coronavirus cases in recently. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control [NCDC], there are 67,960 cases of Covid-19 in the country with 1,177 deaths as of December 2. The daily cases have also dropped significantly compared to the earlier days of the outbreak.
But there are growing concerns that the return of those abroad, especially in countries with high Covid-19 cases, for the holidays might complicate the situation. The Presidential Task Force [PTF] on the Covid-19 pandemic in the country recently advised Nigerians abroad who might be planning on coming home for the Christmas festivities to shelf the plans for now as part of plans to combat the virus.
“The only thing is that people are concerned and worried about the situation when people are coming in from all over the world especially in Europe, North America, and elsewhere,” Anusi said. “Some people might be afraid that they will be coming in with the infection but I don’t think that will be very significant. I think people are already in the mood of Christmas as usual. It will be a celebration as usual but with awareness that we still have some problems at hand.”
According to Anusi, the current economic realities in the country might be the main challenge facing people in celebrating the Christmas season. Nigeria recently entered into its worst recession in more than 30 years.
“The challenges of the moment, especially the economic fall out of the Covid-19 pandemic, is still biting hard on people especially with salaries owed. People have no money and this will result in a hike in robbery and banditry. But in all, every Christmas comes with challenges and this one has its own challenges,” he said.
However, Anusi is optimistic. “But at the end of the day, I think it will be a happy Christmas because people will still find a way of celebrating it in spite of the pandemic. I think everybody is aware of what is happening around the world because Covid-19 is a global phenomenon. So I think that is what helps to create the awareness for people. If it was something that happened in developing countries, it wouldn’t have generated many issues and attention; but being a global health crisis, all people’s consciousness is raised by the pandemic.”
Fr. Donatus Ajibo is the director of St. Mary’s hospital which is run by the local diocese. At the premises of the hospital, Fr Ajibo celebrates Mass every Sunday for sick patients, their caregivers and some residents of the community.
Ajibo says that Covid-19 protocols are not usually adhered to by parishes and parishioners in the diocese during Mass or any liturgical function.
“Well, if there would be any change during the Christmas liturgical activities, it would be slight,” he says.
During Christ the King in the diocese on November 22, parishes were instructed by the bishop to organize their own procession within their church premises. In the past, before Covid-19, parishes from all over the diocese held processions and marched to the cathedral where they met with other parishes from different zones.
“We didn’t celebrate it the way it would have been celebrated because normally parishes make a procession to a central area and meet other parishes, but it changed this time around,” he said. “And for liturgical celebration, it has always been the same.”
In Lagos, Southwest Nigeria, the situation is different. Parishes in the diocese are maintaining strict Covid-19 protocols.
Ajibo who recently celebrated Mass at one of the parishes, says that even though attendance has reduced, parishioners were maintaining social distance rules as they sat on their seats. Offertory comes after communion as a way of ensuring that parishioners do not use the hands they used in touching money to receive the Holy Communion.
“You must be on your mask before you enter the church,” he adds. “But this is different in our diocese where people are not observing Covid- 19 protocols,” he said, adding that the tradition of the Sign of Peace during Mass has been suspended in the diocese and will remain the same during Christmas liturgical celebrations.
Anusi noted that in moments of crisis, people have the tendency to pray more and be closer to God for safety and protection.
“That is one of the things I think will be good to come out of this Christmas,” he noted. “And because of the pandemic, people have discovered now that it is not just about me and my money and clothes and family, but that my family has to be safe, that I and my friends have to be safe too. So everybody knows now that we need God to help us and to remind ourselves of the need to do what we ought to do in order to make the world a better place. I think that’s what Christmas will mean for us this period.”
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