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The Christian battle with COVID-19

Steve Bonini

Staff Writer

Usually, the “Our Father” prayer can be heard coming from the Heinemann Ecumenical Center on Ash Wednesday as those receiving ashes mark the first day of Lent.


On this year’s Ash Wednesday, Kristelle Angelli, the FSU Catholic Minister, stood inside the historic building and distributed ashes to the faithful with a Q-tip, but there was no celebration of the Eucharist to coincide.


“Normally, we have Mass on campus,” Angelli said. “We have a priest come and we have Mass, and we’ll have I would say anywhere from 50-to-80 people that come.


“This year, we didn’t have a Mass on campus because we didn’t want to gather that many people in one room – it wouldn’t have worked,” she added.


This is one of the many challenges Christians are facing in the era of COVID-19.


To adhere with COVID-19 guidelines, Angelli said approximately seven people at a time entered the center and kept a social distance.


“I had a paper bag, and I threw the Q-tip® – after I used it on one person – into the bag,” she said. “Each person got a fresh Q-tip®, so nothing touched anybody. And I was able to keep a decent distance, just extending the length of my arm.”


Angelli said in her personal experience at Catholic Masses at St. William’s Church in Tewksbury, some of the rituals have been changed to accommodate with COVID-19 guidelines, such as receiving Holy Communion.


“Normally, Catholics have the option of receiving communion on the tongue, or on the hand,” she said. “And so, now you can only receive on the hand, you can’t receive on the tongue.”


Angelli said at her church the “congregation” does not receive the wine which represents the Blood of Jesus Christ.


She said only the priest drinks from the chalice – a change from a typical Mass where each individual would have the option of drinking the wine from the same cup.


Angelli said the number of people attending Mass is “fairly close to what it used to be,” but they are also offering a virtual experience for those still hesitant to go in person.


She said they’ll record the Mass and put it on Facebook Live.


Angelli said those who attend in-person Masses wear masks and she has not seen any pushback on the notion.


She added people step away from the priest, lift up their mask when receiving Communion for a “split second,” take the Host, and place the mask back on their face.


Angelli said for sanitation purposes churches have been using a “machine” which sprays the pews with a sanitizer, and she said as a result, the “hard wood” of the pews is discoloring.


She said some of the pews are taped off indicating parishioners cannot sit in those areas.


Pews where parishioners can sit are marked with red tape ensuring everybody is socially distanced, she added.


There is also an online sign-up process at her church for those who want to attend Mass, this way the church doesn’t reach maximum capacity, which is approximately 122 people, according to Angelli.


In regard to people’s faith during this COVID-19 pandemic, Angelli said she’s seen people both grow their faith and question it.


“People are definitely just more anxious,” she said.


“I guess it depends on how it hits you as an individual. For some – their faith – they just feel stronger in their faith because it’s giving them perspective and helping them to get through things.”


She added others often ask, “‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ‘Why would God let something like this happen to us?’”


Angelli said she is still “praying” about whether or not she will take the COVID-19 vaccine.


She said many Catholics she’s spoken with have reservations about the vaccine because both Moderna and Pfizer tested their vaccines on stem cell fetal tissue.


“People are objecting ethically,” she added.


According to the Nebraska Medicine website, the companies Moderna and Pfizer performed

confirmation tests on fetus cell lines descended from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s.


Angelli said some bishops have taken it and some bishops disagree with taking it.


Pope Francis has given his blessing to the vaccine and has approved official text stating, “All vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive,” according to Vatican News.


Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have been vaccinated according to Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office.


Angelli said she is continuing to meet with students via a weekly Bible study group over Zoom, but they are not meeting in person for any events.


With Easter not too far away, she said nothing on campus will occur for Catholic students, but they will be reciting the Stations of the Cross over Zoom on Good Friday, April 2.


She also said a priest has recently started working with her and they do intend to start holding Masses on campus. The details are still being discussed.


David Baldwin, the associate dean of students for student development and overseer of campus ministry, said campus ministry stopped Masses a couple years ago because of low attendance.


“It wasn’t worth it,” said Baldwin.


He said Angelli has now been building a “base” of students who are likely to attend Mass on campus and said if there is a “nice core of people who are going to go,” then he’d be open to bringing it back.


“If you’re only getting like two people to come to Mass is it worth it for the priest to come all the way out here?” he asked. “It’s not like he lives here in Framingham.”


Baldwin said in regard to his religious beliefs, he considers himself to be “religious-lite” and said he is a Baptist who does not attend service every Sunday, but he does believe in a higher power.


He sympathizes with students and people who may be struggling with religious outreach at this moment in time, adding it’s difficult for people of faith because they cannot connect with others in their house of worship as they normally would.


He said in regard to the pandemic, this is not the first time suffering has occurred on Earth and he believes suffering is a “part of life.


“Does it shake some people’s faith?” he asked. “Sure – some will come back, and some will not.


“What happens in the religious realm when there’s suffering?” he asked. “There are candlelight vigils where people come together as a uniBed group and mourn the loss of thousands or hundreds of thousands. ... And you don’t have that opportunity to do that right now.


“I think that’s a factor in folks losing faith,” he added.


Thomas Chesnut, FSU Evangelical Minister, discussed his experience with religious students and said he is currently meeting with a number of students virtually to help them grow their faith.


“I am still meeting with students with various denominational backgrounds – most of whom I knew and was connected with prior to this school year,” he said.


“I meet weekly via Zoom with a small group of students to study the Bible together and pray for one another,” he added. “I also meet with a handful of students in one-on-one video chat meetings on a weekly basis to discuss life, our faith, read the Bible, and pray with one another.”


Chesnut said he believes these students are “benefiting” from being in this community together as it allows them to connect with other “believers” on campus.


He is also an on-staff member at the First Baptist Church in Sudbury, a church approximately 10 minutes away from FSU, and said a challenge for his church has been connection as a community.


Chesnut said their sanctuary is currently meeting in person at approximately 25% of the building’s capacity, with approximately 80-to-90 people in attendance. He added attendance is decided by an online registration process.


“Once our spots fill up, we do have an overflow room because we have a fellowship hall,” he said. “It’s a very small number, it’s like 10 people can be in there, so a family or two if they’re spread apart.”


Chesnut said everybody at their services wears a mask and the only people who are not are those who are preaching.


He said when it comes to singing, they wait until the very end of the service because singing requires a lot of air flow. “Even when we have a band on stage – the musicians who aren’t singing are still wearing masks,” said Chesnut.


In terms of Communion, Chesnut said his church just started distributing it again, as they could not do so previously in the online setting and decided not to do it in the outdoor meetings.


“What we actually do is we have individually packaged cups where the wafer and the cup are there together, and you just peel back the top – there’s a wafer – you peel back the next layer, and then you can drink the cup,” he said.


Chesnut said everybody he knows is “willing” to take the COVID-19 vaccine, adding he has not seen any religious pushback on the idea.


“I very much believe that God uses the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine to help cease this thing that is taking place,” he said.

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