Bangladesh-based Indian Jesuit priest John Chinnappan has been using online platforms to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of local Catholics. (Photo supplied)
On a bright sunny Monday afternoon, a Catholic priest enters a chapel with a consecrated host placed inside a golden monstrance.
The priest places the Eucharist on the altar and then starts singing a hymn and playing a tambourine to invoke the Holy Spirit.
“Come, O, Holy Spirit; Descend upon us from heaven,” the priest sings for about five minutes and he is joined by dozens of Catholics.
As the singing ends, the priest uses a PowerPoint presentation to explain to his audience the gifts and attributes of the Holy Spirit as described in the Bible.
“Holy Spirit enables us to drive away demons (Matthew 12:28). He enables us to speak as God would have us speak (Mark 13:11). He helps us in our weakness (Romans 8:26),” the priest points out and explains.
As the reflection comes to an end, the priest asks the faithful to place their right hands on their hearts and declare, “I am stronger in faith.”
The Holy Hour of Holy Trinity continues for one and a half hours and ends with life witness or sharing of some of the participants.
“I have been suffering from excruciating ear pain for the past three days, unable to eat and sleep properly. But I kept praying to God and attended Holy Hour online, and my illness has been cured miraculously,” said Shipra Gomes, an elderly Catholic woman.
The scene didn’t take place in a church but online via the Zoom app involving 50 Catholics including couples from various parts of Bangladesh.
The idea is the brainchild of Bangladesh-based Indian Jesuit priest John Chinnappan, popularly known as Father Srijon.
The priest, who studied and practices folk traditions including Baul music (mystic folk songs), is the director of Navjyoti Niketan (Home of New Light), a Jesuit-run retreat house and formation center in Gazipur district, north of Dhaka.
The Holy Hour is part of the priest’s unique efforts for “Bible-based Family Formation” in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Supported by lay Catholics, the priest runs a WhatsApp group to deliver spiritual and pastoral messages and reflections to 186 people every day. He also organizes Bible classes several days a week.
He has been leading Novena of the Holy Trinity every day starting from May 21.
Filling spiritual and pastoral thirst
Father Srijon said he has been trying to support and encourage people to be spiritually and pastorally strong in the time of the pandemic.
“For years I have been offering spiritual counseling to people in many places. During this long-stretched COVID-19 shutdown, some people got in touch with me and told me they are helpless as their spiritual and pastoral needs are unfulfilled,” Father Srijon, 52, told UCA News.
It is true the pandemic has brought people back home for longer period, but it has given birth to various personal, family and social problems. Churches are closed and church services are suspended, and there is no system in place to address an increasing number of problems, the priest noted.
“I have got in touch with some Catholics to see what we can do to fill in our yearning for God, and we have come up with the idea of online spirituality by using digital platforms like WhatsApp and Zoom,” he said.
“We hope our activities can help people put aside problems of life and live with the joy of faith in God.”
Anthony Halder, a Catholic based in the capital, has been offering technical support to the priest in conducting online liturgy and sessions.
“This is a unique idea of offering spiritual services to people using online platforms, and people are enthusiastic about it,” Halder told UCA News.
“People send positive feedback that they like spiritual messages and reflections on WhatsApp, Holy Hour and Bible classes on Zoom. They also want this to continue even after the pandemic.”
An unprecedented situation
The Covid-19 pandemic has turned life upside down for many people irrespective of faith and ethnicity in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.
The deadly virus has infected more than 35,000 people and claimed over 500 lives in the country. The nation has been in a shutdown since March 26 to contain the spread of the infectious disease.
Christians, who make up less than half a percent in a population of more than 160 million, have also been hit as churches closed doors. Many have opted to participate in online streamed Masses during Sundays over the past few weeks.
Father Mintu L. Palma, a family counselor and judicial vicar of Dhaka Archdiocese, appreciates the efforts of the Jesuit priest.
“I really appreciate what Father Srijon has been doing in his personal efforts. It could be better if we could do such things, but we are unable to,” Father Palma told UCA News.
“Our priests at parish level have been taking care of people in personal and family distress during the crisis period, mostly over the telephone. However, they have not been using any technology or digital platform.”
Father Palma has been offering counseling to people over telephone, both for local and overseas Catholics. From this week, he has resumed marriage tribunal activities, but has not allowed physical counseling yet.
The priest noted it was “premature” to say or generalize there is an increased level of distress among people due to social, economic and psychological pressure in the time of COVID-19.
Several private research studies have found high levels of fear, panic and anxiety among individuals in Bangladesh during the COVID-19 shutdown, local media reported.
Father Palma said the pandemic is a lesson for the Church for future study and actions. “We feel a study must be done at the end of COVID-19 to understand the good and bad of the situation in family life and how we can support individuals and families better,” he added.