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It’s time for a COVID catch-up. What are some of the issues, challenges and opportunities from the pandemic? And what does a 16th-century reformer have to say about what we’re going through today?

Permission not to go to church: One of the obligations for Roman Catholics is to go to mass in person. But what if you are elderly, vulnerable or otherwise afraid of getting ill during the pandemic? Both archdioceses in Winnipeg — St. Boniface and Winnipeg — have granted special dispensations during the pandemic to release the faithful from that obligation.

Archbishop Gagnon of the Archdiocese of Winnipeg has issued the dispensation twice, coinciding with the suspension of public liturgies and continued restrictions in the province. For the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, the dispensation was granted in March and is still in effect.

What this means, according to Daniel Bahaud, who directs communications for St. Boniface, is that those who don’t attend mass "can be at peace" with their conscience, knowing they aren’t sinning by not coming to church.

"I imagine the dispensation will continue to be granted for as long as we can’t gather as a full assembly," said Christian Martinez, communications director for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg,

Week of gratitude: If you have friends on social media who are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you may have noticed expressions of gratitude this past week.

That’s because their president, Russell M. Nelson, asked members of that church around the world to counter all the discouragement and negativity of this time of pandemic by providing the "healing power of gratitude" as a spiritual antidote.

"Turn social media into your own personal gratitude journal," he said. "Post every day about what you are grateful for, who you are grateful for, and why you are grateful. At the end of seven days, see if you feel happier and more at peace." Sounds like good advice any time of year.

A plea to churches: In a statement titled "A Plea to Our Churches," two American evangelical health-care organizations — the Christian medical and dental associations — have called on evangelicals in that country to stop meeting in person and move their services online as a way to show love for neighbours.

Although many states still permit faith groups to hold in-person services, "choosing to put off gathering together as a church is a statement of love," the statement reads. "Voluntarily choosing not to gather allows us to make a statement that is not overshadowed by a government restriction."

In the past the two organizations, which represent 20,000 people, have asked evangelicals in the United States to take seriously health guidelines related to the pandemic, including wearing masks and social distancing.

Unfortunately, they write, they are "saddened to learn not only that many churches have ignored our guidelines but that congregants have become infected… as a result of those decisions."

Growing interest in Buddhism: According to Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil of Religion News Service, teachers from a variety of Buddhist traditions say they’re seeing a surge of interest in Buddhist practices, driven by the stress many have encountered in the pandemic.

Sean Feit Oakes, a dharma leader at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center in California, noted Buddhist teachings have particular relevance in this moment.

"Buddhism recognizes the reality of suffering," he said. "It doesn’t try to push it away. It says this is the nature of being here — there is suffering. That’s profoundly comforting."

While she can’t say if there is an increased interest in Buddhism in Winnipeg, Tanis Moore, sensei of the Manitoba Buddhist Temple, said, "I do think that there is a huge increase in interest in meditation, and much of meditation has a Buddhist history."

The temple is closed, but there have been some phone calls from Winnipeggers asking for information, she said, adding she’s also seen increased activity on the temple’s Facebook page.

Churches and Christmas: With Christmas just under a month away, many may wonder how church services will be affected this year. The Church of England is urging the British government to lift the ban on public worship services after the present lockdown ends on Dec. 2.

In making the call, the church says it can safely run COVID-secure services, and that religious gatherings play a key in bringing "comfort and hope" to people in the midst of the pandemic.

A Church of England spokesman said: "The huge challenges of the coronavirus pandemic are a fresh reminder of how much we need public worship, not least for its role in supporting social cohesion and mental health and providing a sign of hope."

Good advice from the past: Almost 500 years after its writing, a letter penned by Martin Luther during a 1527 pandemic is going viral.

Titled Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague, it was written during an outbreak of bubonic plague in Wittenberg, where he lived. In it Luther responds to a question of whether a Christian ought to leave a city in the midst of a plague outbreak for someplace safer.

He started by saying he would "ask God mercifully" to protect him. Then, he said, "I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence."

He doesn’t mention masks, but I think we can surmise if they were being promoted as an option he probably would have worn them, too.

John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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