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Germany’s churches reimagined: Practicing faith in a pandemic

  • May 31, 2020

Father Tarcisius Paukovitsch beams as if his church in the city of Worms were bursting at the seams with worshippers, though of the 200 available seats only 24 are now allowed to be filled, and fewer than 20 actually are.

The Catholic priest warmly greets his parishioners for the weekday Mass, as if nothing has changed. Later, however, the community will have to exchange the sign of peace (usually accompanied by a handshake) through smiles and eye contact alone. Throughout the Mass, the organ remains silent, though Paukovitsch belts out one “Hallelujah” despite a ban on singing, as communal singing is believed by scientists to bring together two risk factors for the spread of the coronavirus, namely people gathering indoors and the exchange of respiratory droplets.

Read more: Religious celebrations at the time of Coronavirus

The sign of peace and singing are not the only things that have changed. The 24 seats allowed by physical distancing rules are clearly delineated with tape. Paukovitsch wears a face mask as he celebrates the Mass, and diligently disinfects his hands each time he hands out the Holy Eucharist. Other churches, like the famous Cologne Cathedral, have taken things a step further by putting plexiglass between the altar and the pews. In the Church of Saint Joseph in Berlin, priests give out the holy bread with gloved hands.

‘Personally painful’

Religious services were allowed to restart across Germany at the beginning of May, following nearly two full months of forced closures as the country sought to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Tarcisius Paukovitsch

Father Tarcisius Paukovitsch is happy to be able to greet parishioners in his church again

“That was painful, personally painful,” Paukovitsch told DW. Not only was the celebration of Mass suspended, but also group Bible study, youth outreach and visits to care homes. For the 38-year-old, all of these things are part of the sermon. He has only been fully ordained as a priest for a year, having spent nine years as a member of the Dominican Order of Preachers.

Perhaps this is why, as he details the work he and his fellow Dominicans did during the crisis, he comes across as enthusiastic rather than proud. The group organized an emergency telephone help line for the elderly, podcasts for parishioners and daily messages online.

“For the children we wrote letters, put together arts and crafts kits and workbooks,” he said. The church bells rang for everyone as a sign of “community bound together by faith.” It is clear how happy he is to be able to observe Mass with other worshippers again, and how strange it is for him, the way they have to go about it now.

Read more: Catholic chiefs reject coronavirus ‘conspiracy theories’

It was painful, too, for so many religious communities across Germany to cancel some of the holiest celebrations of the year. Catholics and Protestants had to observe Easter under lockdown, as did the Jewish community for Passover. Muslims held iftar — the daily breaking of the Ramadan fast — mostly at home, without the typically large communal gatherings. For many, streaming religious services just weren’t enough, or were too strange to feel comforting — such as watching Pope Francis deliver an Easter sermon in an empty St. Peter’s Basilica, usually packed to the rafters with tourists and worshippers alike.

  • Depiction of St Corona (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg)

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Corona

    People hoping for help from the heavens above in difficult times — in particular when they had money problems — would pray to Saint Corona. Treasure hunters and gamblers are said to invoke her name. She is said to have lived in the 2nd century A.D. and was killed for comforting a martyr, becoming one herself, tied between two palm trees bent to the ground that were released to tear her apart.

  • Paiting of Rita of Cascia, a woman sitting on clouds

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    Rita of Cascia

    Here’s a patron saint for “impossible cases,” including abused wives, parents, lonely hearts and widows: Rita of Cascia. The 15th-century Italian woman ⁠— who later joined an Augustinian convent ⁠— pledged to forgive her abusive husband’s killers and convinced her sons to do so, too. She was called the “peacemaker of Cascia.”

  • Painting of Saint Martha, a woman with a withe headdress stands, reading a book

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    Martha of Bethany

    By the end of the 1st century A.D., Christians had begun to honor other Christians who had died, praying for their help. Described in the gospels of Luke and John — and a witness to Jesus’ resurrection of her brother Lazarus — Martha is the patron saint of housewives and domestic workers. Why? She is said to have shown Jesus hospitality at her home in Bethany near Jerusalem.

  • paiting of St Ambrose, a man with a red coat and fur trimmings seen from the shoulders upwards

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Ambrose

    Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the 4th century, is the patron saint of beekeepers. Legend has it that when he was a baby, a swarm of bees settled on his face and fed him honey while he lay in his cradle — regarded as a sign that he would one day be a great orator. He is often depicted with symbols of wisdom: bees or a beehive.

  • a bronze statue of St Cristopher on a concrete pedestal, in a park Alexander Fischer

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Christopher

    A martyr killed in the 3rd century, Christopher’s most famous legend has it that he carried a child across a river — and the child later revealed himself as Christ. He is the patron saint of travelers: cab, bus and truck drivers often enough evoke his protection with visor clips, decals and small adhesive figurines.

  • a painting of Joseph of Cupertino, a man in a monk's robe flying away from other monks

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    Joseph of Cupertino

    Astronauts and pilots have their own patron saint as well: Joseph of Cupertino, a 17th-century Italian Franciscan priest prone to ecstatic visions and — legend has it — levitations. Flying was widely believed to be based on witchcraft, so the Inquisition took an interest in Joseph, who was later exonerated.

  • A painting of St. Thomas More, a man in a dark robe and wearing a black hat, looking sombre

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Thomas More

    Sir Thomas More was a 16th-century English philosopher and statesman. He was also counselor to King Henry VIII, but opposed the King’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church and was thus convicted of treason and beheaded. In the year 2000, Pope John Paul declared him the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.”

  • Painting of St.Cecilia , a woman's head, with a red turban on her hair, eyes turned upwards von Robert, Léopold

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Cecilia

    Born in the 2nd or 3rd century, Cecilia is thought to have been the daughter of a wealthy Roman family forced to marry the pagan Valerian. The martyr ⁠— condemned to suffocate, almost decapitated ⁠— is regarded as the patroness of music and singers because she heard heavenly music in her heart when she was married.

  • Painting of Franz of Assisi. Man in a hoodd monk's robe looks straight ahead Kloster Sacro Speco in Subiaco

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    Francis of Assisi

    The Italian, born in the late 12th century to a prosperous merchant family, instead embraced a life of poverty. Legend has it had a great love and a knack for communicating with animals. He is the founder of the Franciscan order and the patron saint of ecologists, animals and veterinarians.

  • Painting of St.Augustine, a man in a library, hands propped on a desk, looking out of a window Detail

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Augustine

    Along with Gambrinus, Florian, Bonifacius, Arnulf and Nicholas of Myra, Augustine of Hippo is only one of many patron saints of beer brewers. Augustine lived in the 4th century, and after initially living a wild and loose life, became a bishop. To this very day, many breweries and beers — people’s standard drink centuries ago — are named after a saint.

  • Statue of St Florian, wearing uniform of a Roman soldier and carryiung a bucket of water

    St. Corona: Petitioning the patron saint

    St. Florian

    The patron saint of firefighters and chimney sweeps was a Roman officer in 3rd-century Austria, responsible for organizing firefighting brigades. Legend has it he was to be burned at the stake for refusing to pray to the Roman Gods but was drowned instead, a millstone around his neck, after threatening to climb to heaven on the flames.

    Author: Dagmar Breitenbach

For many others, it remains unclear how to proceed. In the southeastern city of Regensburg, the Catholic church celebrated Mass five minutes after midnight on the first day it was allowed. In the central city of Magdeburg, the bishop has not allowed any services for weeks, citing both the health risk and the sanctity of the traditions of Mass. Many Protestant congregations in Berlin, for example, are still providing only streaming services and have not reopened their doors to the public.

What is clear is that everything is different now. Some bishops have encouraged a return to normal routine; others are wary. Pastors and priests are making efforts to balance two communal requirements — spiritual needs as well as reducing any public health risks.

Outbreak cluster traced back to church

The risk to public health is even more of a concern after it was reported last week that at least 40 coronavirus infections originated at single service at the Gospel Christian Baptist Church in Frankfurton May 10. Despite claims from the church that all hygiene and physical distancing rules had been followed, 180 people took part in the service without wearing the mandatory face masks.

This outbreak followed a similar pattern that has played out across the globe. South Korea’s first major wave of infections was traced to one service at a protestant mega-church, the United Arab Emirates saw its relatively low infection rate skyrocket after relaxing restrictions for Ramadan, close-knit communities of Orthodox Jews in New York City have been devastated by COVID-19 and France’s initial outbreak is largely believed to have originated at a church gathering in the city of Mulhouse, where about 2,000 gathered together from several countries.

Although much is still unknown about how the novel coronavirus spreads, many factors that compound the risk have already been clearly identified by scientists. Nearly all of those factors come together at gatherings of multiple people in an indoor space.

New ideas, new ways

But Paukovitsch is optimistic that new ways can be found to reach the faithful while still protecting them from the risk of infection. “Where are the people? Where do they live? How can we celebrate with the faith community where they are?” he asked. To that end, he has considered giving his sermons from a hill at a local vineyard, or at a large open park or a drive-in movie theater.

“We have to have new ideas, find new ways,” said Paukovitsch. Nothing too radical, of course, but when one is motivated “a lot can be accomplished and reimagined.”

You can find more Germany related stories here.

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