Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has just approved a fresh major aid package to help priests, religious, and also catechists and their families in more than 140 Indian dioceses, who are struggling to cope with the crisis and its consequences.

The charity’s new COVID relief package, which includes almost 200 separate projects, will provide vital Church personnel with the essential means to continue their pastoral ministry in the present critical situation caused by the pandemic. The aid measures will also help the poorest and most needy parishes to support those who are sick with COVID or suffering from its consequences. Some of the projects will include staff and the families of those working in institutions run by religious congregations and dioceses – especially schools and pastoral centres – which have been forced to close by the pandemic, thereby leaving many people without any source of income.

When India was hit by the first wave of COVID, between June and September 2020, the Catholic communities were generally able to cope with the crisis by drawing on their slender reserves and savings, but this second massive wave of infections has caught the dioceses with empty coffers”, stated Regina Lynch, director of projects at ACN. The local congregations especially, which lack any kind of support network outside the country, have been left so short of funds that they do not even have enough to buy food.

Bishop Bhagyaiah Chinnabathini of the diocese of Guntur, one of the most severely affected areas in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in the southeast of the country, describes the critical situation faced by his diocese: “The churches, schools and all our centres of training and animation are closed… We have 171 priests working in the diocese and 590 catechists helping us in active ministry.” All of them have been profoundly affected by the pandemic. Tragically, he has also lost five of his priests and many of his catechists to COVID-19. “Many others are sick”, he adds, and “we are unable to meet the medical bills of our priests.”

The churches are closed”, and so “the priests are celebrating Holy Masses privately”, the bishop explains, and of course people are in no condition to be able to offer Mass Intentions in such a critical situation. And so “we need Holy Mass intentions for our priests”.

This disastrous situation is affecting the Church throughout India and in every federal state, from Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast to Kerala in the southeast of the country. And so ACN International has launched an extensive nationwide aid programme, which includes the supply of PPE – facemasks, disinfectant gel, gloves and face shields – for the priests, catechists and religious, who are still regularly in face-to-face contact with people affected by the pandemic, as part of their work, mission and vocation. As they always have, catechists play a vital role in India, in many places providing an indispensable link between the central parishes and the outlying villages and settlements, which often number 30 or more in a single parish. Thus they are the vital connection between the priest and people. They know the local faithful, organise the prayer life of the community and help prepare people for reception of the sacraments when the priest is eventually able to visit. But in the current situation, their role has become still more important, given that in many places it is now quite impossible for the priest to visit, on account of government restrictions.

We have 195 religious communities situated in the diocese of Guntur. Around 816 nuns are working in different ministries, such as education, pastoral work and healthcare. These religious sisters are also suffering very much. Many have been infected by the coronavirus and been hospitalised. Many have recovered, and some have died”, Bishop Bhagyaiah Chinnabathini explains.

The aid package will also make it possible to obtain air filtration appliances and oxygen masks for emergency use. The programme will also include help for the medical treatment and care of priests and religious suffering from COVID, as well as emergency support for the most needy families in the poorest parishes of the dioceses.

Guntur is just one of the more than 140 Indian dioceses that will be receiving support from the foundation. The COVID relief package drawn up by ACN International will include a total of 136 emergency aid projects and measures to combat COVID and over 56 projects for Mass stipends.

In this terrible situation, which worries us very much, it is a blessing that ACN has come forward to help us with this emergency aid programme”, says Bishop Chinnabathini, who is most grateful for our help.