(Source: José María Castillo, Spanish theologian; translation: Novena)

(Image: Graffiti Jesus by Jo Jones)

It has been said, for decades, that religion is in crisis. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the religious crisis has become even more blatant and obvious.

Religious ceremonies, customs and practices (masses, baptisms, weddings, processions…), are being dropped; seminaries and convents are emptying, etc., etc. The fact is evident and does not admit of discussion. I am not even interested in turning over in my head the reasons that can explain why this religious collapse is taking place.

Is it that I don’t care or am not interested in this growing crisis of the “religious”? Not at all. I am interested. Very much. It is just that I look at this whole issue from another point of view.

Religion is not disappearing. It is moving. It is moving out of the temples. It is slipping out of the hands of the priests. It is breaking away from “the sacred”. And every day that passes, we see and feel it more and more in “the profane”.

The centre of religion is no longer “in the temple”; it is “in life”. And in the defence, protection and dignification of life.

Moreover, religiosity is in the life project and in the way of living that each one of us takes on, makes his or her own and puts into practice.

I am writing this on June 24, the day of St. John the Baptist. John’s father was a priest (Zechariah) and his mother (Elizabeth) was from the family of Aaron (Lk 1:5), the priestly family in the full sense. It would have been logical for John to have become a priest in the temple. But he did not. John went into the desert (Lk 1:80). John saw that the future was not in the temple and its religious ceremonies. John thought that the principal problem was the conversion of sinners. And this is what he preached in his sermons to the people (Lk 3:1-14).

But Jesus saw that the displacement of religion had to be more radical.

So when John heard (while he was already in Herod’s prison) about the “works” that Jesus was doing, he sent two disciples to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11:2-3; Lk 7:18).

Even John the Baptist was disconcerted by the project of the Gospel of Jesus. How are we not going to be disconcerted by it too?

Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples is the key: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk…” Mt 11:4-5 par). And the most eloquent of what Jesus says comes at the end: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me” (Mt 11:6).

When the central concern of religion is not sin, but the health of those who suffer, there are people who are scandalised. This is precisely what we have been experiencing for several weeks now.

The priests and their ceremonies are no longer applauded. We applaud the doctors and those who help them to beat back and overcome the pandemic, the suffering, the abandonment of so many sick people.

What was Jesus doing? What does the Gospel tell us?

Jesus did not speak of temples, nor of convents, nor did he organise a religion like the one we have.

If the Gospel is right, let us remember what Jesus said to a Samaritan woman: ““Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:21-24).

Those in the know discuss the exact meaning of this text. What is beyond doubt is that Jesus affirms that the worship of God is not associated with a particular place.

Whether you have a temple or not, what really matters is integrity, honesty, goodness, the struggle against suffering and the effort to humanise this world and this life.

Is this what we are living? Is this what people are applauding? Is this the new turn that (starting with Pope Francis’ way of being and living) the Church is taking?

The most logical thing is to think that religion is not sinking. It is moving. And to me it seems that is that it is leaving the temple. And it is recovering the Gospel. Not as a religious belief (which we were very clear about), but as a way of life. A way of life from which we are very far away. And which we urgently need to recover as soon as possible.

On Novena, more theologians’ readings of the consequences for the Church of COVID-19:

Irish priest theologian urges Church to learn lessons from COVID “dress rehearsal”: “In a decade Sunday Mass won’t be celebrated in every parish”

Theologian proposes Church overhaul idea of Sunday Mass “obligation”

Italian missionary says empty churches during coronavirus a “prophetic” sign of need for reform

Papal advisor suggests Sunday obligation, confession could be abolished after coronavirus

Czech priest academic: coronavirus “calls for a new theology of history and a new understanding of the Church”

Theologians propose ‘do-it-yourself’ sacraments to beat coronavirus, clericalism

Missionary warns coronavirus Mass cancellations soon to become permanent reality… thanks to lack of priests


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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.