TO HELP THE CHURCH IN INDIA COPE WITH COVID-19, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been supporting 27 projects to support priests and sisters in India. These consist of subsistence aid and Mass stipends to help them to continue their work during the pandemic. In early May, India counted 20.3 million infections and more than 220,000 deaths. Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi spoke to ACN about the situation.
How does your country live through a situation that sees many thousands of new infections every day?
The situation is very distressful, very uncertain for people, a moment of pain, suffering and anxiety for everyone because we do not know who would be next and how this virus would spread and infect people and how we can save ourselves from the infection. We don’t know how the next day will unfold. It is only our faith that keeps us going.
Why is this second wave so big now?
Assembly elections were taking place in five different states of our country all through April. Huge political rallies were held without any regard for COVID-19 protocols were held. This was also because some of our topmost political leaders were fully involved in the campaigns. A religious gathering called the Kumbh Mela which attracts pilgrims in the millions was also allowed to proceed and protocols were not enforced. We triggered the infections because we did not take enough precautions. We took it easy. Therefore, we are paying the price for it now.
We have learned that 14 Catholic priests have died in India April 20-23 alone. What is the situation in your diocese?
Three sisters died, one was only in her 50s; she died suddenly. We also lost members of the laity; they were very active both in the parish as well as at the diocesan level; but no priests so far, thank God. Just a few days ago we held our two-day online meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India CI Standing Committee consisting of about 40 bishops. We shared what we are going through, but we have not yet begun to collect our data of how many people have died in each diocese, because it is too painful to ask for numbers at this time.
What about the sacramental care for the faithful?
We are not able to give the anointing of the sick, it is impossible for the one who is affected by COVID-19 to receive this sacrament. Plus, unfortunately, if the person dies, then there is no question of the priest coming anywhere close to the body.
The priest must wear the full PPE (personal protective equipment) suit and recite the prayers from a distance. So, this is the very sad situation of the COVID-19 victims. It is very painful for the family as well; I have experienced it myself. No family member can come to the funeral, either. We are trying our best to see in what way we could give comfort and consolation to our people through online media. We have some videos and a team of counselors who have come forward since last year to help people to overcome their grief. But these are only some very small things that we can do. It is just a drop in the ocean.
Could you tell our benefactors about the importance of pastoral work in this time of crisis?
The importance of pastoral work in this time of crisis cannot be exaggerated. The more we do, the more is needed. I am glad that in the Archdiocese of Delhi our pastors, since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020, have tried to reach out to their people with family visits, house blessings, support in time of sickness and death, online Masses, regular meetings of the parish council and other associations. Provision was made even for Communion and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Just now, with the fresh wave of COVID-19, we are back again to the full virtual mode. All the Commissions of the Archdiocese, the Commission for Youth and Catechetics in particular, have been conducting online sessions.