I’m not the only person struggling through this pandemic. I’m also not the only person feeling anxious. But as a devout Maronite Catholic, I can’t help but notice that people of faith aren’t getting the spiritual support they need to get through this. And no, I’m not talking about packing churches with large congregations.
It isn’t uncommon to hear Australians in the 12 locked-down local government areas across Sydney, and more recently in regional NSW, complaining they are treated like caged animals. Yet it turns out animals are treated better than people of faith.
Multicultural communities like my Lebanese community are more likely to be religious. While the latest available Census data, from 2016, found 60.4 per cent of Australians professed to a religion, in Canterbury-Bankstown, Cumberland, Fairfield, Blacktown, Liverpool and Campbelltown it was greater than 74 per cent.
The lockdown’s impact on mental health has been devastating. Lifeline Australia recently reported it had 3345 – the highest daily volume in its 58-year history.
Australia’s mental health sector has been agile in responding, but its already stretched support services aren’t the answer for everyone. For me, and many like me, Jesus is.
A list of workers authorised to leave locked-down local government areas includes animal care and welfare workers, to ensure animals are trained, exercised, provided with companionship and, in cases of emergency, even groomed. However, ministers of religion attempting to care for the welfare of their flock may not leave these LGAs to offer spiritual companionship, counselling or even the sacrament of reconciliation.
And until three weeks ago, faith leaders living within a locked-down LGA were not permitted to leave it to broadcast religious services even from empty churches.
And even to provide pastoral care within their LGA, priests need to interpret it as “providing care to vulnerable persons” for it meet the reasonable-excuse test. Why should they have to rely on this loophole?
Religious practice offers mental and psychological health benefits that even great clinicians cannot. A study in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Psychiatry journal found that, between 1996 and 2010, women who attended a religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide. Other research tells us religious activity improves recovery from mental illness and the well-being of people without mental illness.
Despite the “red zone” LGAs being arguably the most religious in the country, we are being denied a key source of support by a government that considers religious ministry to be “non-essential”.
My community contacts tell me this “non-essential” view of religious ministry has even seen hospitals turn away priests from intensive care units, as chaplains attempt to convince hospitals to take a broad view of “reasonable excuse” to allow them access to patients. Faith leaders should not have to rely on creative interpretations to allow them to provide essential services.
We understand the risks of public gatherings. We aren’t asking to fill the pews in our churches. We simply want similar consideration as that afforded to other health care and welfare services.
In England, where average daily case numbers are 90 times worse than in NSW, access to places of worship and faith leaders is subject only to a risk assessment between ministers of religion and the person requesting care. Why can’t we have the same here?
Allow reconciliation in small and controlled numbers. Treat baptisms like funerals with a cap of 10 people.
As someone who lives and breathes her faith, the experience of being inside a place of worship is phenomenally different from looking at images streaming live on a screen. For me, Jesus is present inside a church. Being inside a church puts me in touch with transcendence that no digital experience can replicate. Being able to confess my sins to a priest provides healing of a different kind than is received from a doctor.
Religious believers aren’t asking for special treatment, just equal treatment. If authorised health care workers can leave their LGAs to provide mental health support, so too should faith leaders. And if ensuring our mental health means continuing to pressure the government on these issues, we won’t stop. You know, like a dog with a bone.
Used with the permission of Ann-Marie Boumerhe. Ann-Marie is a lawyer and director of Maronites on Mission.