COVID Notes of the Year (13)

By: José Antonio Michelena and Yarelis Rico Hernández

Ilustración: Ángel Alonso

We traveled through the ninth month of the year dealing with Covid-19. We would have wanted to live all this time in a capsule, in a hyperbaric chamber, in hibernation, and go outside only when it all happened. But so many things have happened in the global village in these seven months… And what is life without the experience of everyday life, of what happens and happens to us.

No matter how isolated we were, we couldn’t be without hearing the beating of the world, the multiple stories, from the origin and spread of the new coronavirus and the follow-up to the health crisis, to the social effects of an African-American suffocation by a cop in Minneapolis. Isn’t that quite one story?

On the island we have not been oblivious to the events outside, but also inside things have happened. And for everything there are criteria and positions that cause dissequents and shocks when intolerance emerges, the voices that scream louder because they want to be the only ones heard, the ones who believe themselves to be bearers of the truth.

Word New wanted to share the expressions of a group of diverse voices to offer to its readers as a sample of the personal and collective experiences that have been lived in this peculiar and amazing leap year, this twenty-twenty turned quarent(en)a.

We have asked these people to tell us about their experiences in these months, how their days have passed, how they have faced the challenges and what reading they make of what happened, what their ideas are about it.

Don’t be afraid

By seminarian Juan Carlos Pañellas

Serenity has been in all this unusual time, a constant in my emotional and spiritual experience. Thank God, serenity has accompanied me and allowed me to live with hope, peace and confidence this traumatic event for the world and prevented me from feeling fear.

En la misa que conmemoró los 500 años de La Habana
At the Mass that memorized Havana’s 500 years

Some time ago, as I read the daily Gospel, I came across the words of Jesus, “don’t be afraid,” and experienced the inner certainty that they were addressed to the Church that pilgrims in Cuba. They are certainly words that God directs into the world. These have been said at crucial moments in the history of salvation. With this I stay fundamentally after all this situation: with the serenity to live life because Jesus is by my side and does not want me to fear.

This same serenity has permeated many of the experiences I have had in these months; What’s more, I think serenity has allowed him to have those experiences.

In my family, the fundamental thing has been to be able to provide them with something very typical of “my seminarian being and future pastor”: to bring them communion. I think it’s the first gesture or action I have with them. It was something new that I’ve naturalized at this time.

En la capilla del Seminario San Carlos y San Ambrosio.
In the chapel of the Seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio.

Other significant aspects have been the support of my parents to finish my studies remotely and their respect for my vocational decisions; I mean, I haven’t been questioned about going out to mass and bringing communion to others. They understand that this is what I have to do.

In relation to the Seminary, doing the studies remotely was an experience although intense, beautiful and motivating teamwork with two seminarian friends. We take advantage of the time and put together efforts to get the subjects out. Every day we wrote and almost the same way we called ourselves to clarify doubts, see where we were going, give us advice, review each other’s work to perfect them, point out content for exams, etc. If the trainers had seen us, they’d be very satisfied. It was a real student experience, but above all of fraternal friendship. The apparent limitations were an opportunity to strengthen ties, to build trust, greater solidarity and more commitment to the study. In fact, at times there was a kind of competitiveness between us so as not to be final in our duties; but it was a healthy competition that encouraged us to move on without leaving others behind. Having them so close made me feel accompanied.

In the vocational dimension of my life it is in which I have felt the most the effects of this time. It is in it that I have had the most positive experiences and where I have suffered most some realities that make me think a lot about my priestly future. Just a few I share here.

During these months I had the opportunity to bring communions to several people every Sunday from Easter to today. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this and I’m very happy. Before I did this, I took the subject to prayer several times, because I was worried that other people would get infected if I got sick. I also wanted to make sure he did it for God and not out of self-love. I finally felt that Jesus encouraged me to do so and that He would tell me not to worry, that no one would get sick.

Juan Carlos, a la izquierda, junto al padre Reinier, sacerdote carmelita.
Juan Carlos, on the left, with Father Reinier, Carmelite priest.

That’s how it’s been fulfilled. This was my inner experience of Jesus; that’s why I’m not worried or afraid that people will eat in their mouths under these circumstances. In fact, it has built me to see people so old, up to 94 years old, as well as doctors and laboratorists, to communite in this way. Jesus touched the sick to heal them, and neither did his disciples; How now is a person who humbly comes close to communion going to get sick? This is the recurring thought I have had, also in response to the Lord when at some point I have again wondered whether I should divide communion.

The number of faithful to communion was increasing. How can I tell them no if they were like sheep without a shepherd? It has been beautiful to feel people’s gratitude and desire to receive the Lord. Some prepared small altars, others gave me something, others prayed for me. Even more valuable has been to see how in more than one case some were willing to stop communicating as long as someone else could do it.

Many faithful have been very eager for communion and Mass; some walked nearly seven miles to attend on Sunday. That is why I am gaining in conviction that nothing should prevent me from celebrating Mass with the faithful. In addition, I have confirmed that at times of greatest difficulty is when I should be closer to people.

In the first few months I had to travel through areas of the archdiocese where there is not a chapel for miles around. What a pain! How to reach these people in a systematic way? In fact I thought of those who also in Cuba and in the world live in mountains or intricate areas and do not have priests. There’s so much to do and there are so few of us! Even I had to suffer not to have mass. It is very hard for a vocation not to have it daily. This made me realize that I will have to be attentive to any vocations in and around my parish territory to worry about your spiritual assistance. There are several seminarians who had priests and several convents near our homes could not have mass for months. This has been a cause for pain for me and feeling unattended.

One very good thing was to have the closeness of the archbishop. Thanks to him I was able to live easter and successive Sundays. So I could share with him informally. It was exemplary to see how the pandemic has not prevented him from living charity and performing his work as a pastor. Remarkable has been for me his attitude of guiding the celebration of the Eucharist from the first day of phase one. He didn’t waste time, he knows what’s important.

Impotence also surfaced during this period of isolation. At times I experienced it with a lot of intensity and tension. I had to leave unfinished the formation of the adolescents I attended in pastoral care. Besides, I wanted to help in church and do something for the good of souls and I couldn’t because those with authority wouldn’t let me. Very present I had the title of a book: It hurts the Church.

This situation was due to issues related to panic and collective hysteria. As a psychologist I understand, as a man of faith it hurts me, as a future priest I disapprove: That some priests have refused to confess (I lived it), that they have not taken communions, nor celebrated Mass to religious and seminarians, and that parishes and convents were tranchy as if no one existed around.

This has made me reflect, feel the human frailty and see the contradiction of the ecclesial discourses to be amending: Emphasize Pope Francis’ invitation to be “a Church on the way out” and yet to have the temples closed at this difficult time and to have people unattended; or constantly invite spiritual communion in this time when in customary practice it has been eliminated by inviting those who do not commune to go to the priest who remains with his arms folded at the time of communion to bless them.

What spiritual communion do you talk about if the faithful are no longer taught anything about it? How do you ask to live something suddenly in a crisis when in normality you have not prepared the parishioner for it?

Seeing this made me reaffirm that as a priest I must prioritize spiritual attention, the formation of the faithful, and strive not to create and eradicate customs that confuse and distort faith.

Also the question of obedience to the bishop has been resonating in me all this time, and what I have seen has generated compassion for his person. He commanding to keep the temples open and most of them closed. Communion is not lived in this way, and so a diocese cannot bear fruit.

This has made me question and self-analyze to identify contradictions in me, my lacks of faith, and subtle thoughts that seek justification and are not of the Spirit.

However, they have also been an example of what I must always be and do, cause for hope and good for me: the priests of the cemetery who have gone to pray for the deceased every day; the seminarian who voluntarily goes every Monday to take responsibility; priests who throughout this time have continued to celebrate daily Mass for the faithful (always respecting health standards); a priest who as soon as he arrived from the province invited me to daily Mass in a community of religious, who, in turn, allowed me to go to pray in his chapel an hour earlier if I wanted to (a gesture I thank very much).

Seeing what has been experienced, I think multiple opportunities for dialogue are opened up to grow. Dialogue in families. Dialogue at the Seminar on The Effective and the Failed. Dialogue as a Church to help each other walk, to prepare us for future adversity, to increase faith, to heal the breakages that have been given. Dialogue at the country level involving the various social actors to recognize and learn from mistakes and successes. God continues to confirm to me the need to promote and live dialogue.

This has been a time to feel with Jesus, to share his emotions and works in this world. This is a grace from God. I think what God lived allowed because it was what I needed to experience to mature. I’ve asked him to live what he’s learned from now on, but especially when he’s a priest.

Juan Carlos Pañellas Álvarez
Juan Carlos Pañellas Álvarez

Juan Carlos Pañellas Alvarez (Havana, 1988). It belongs to the community of El Carmen. Degree in Psychology from the University of Havana. He is currently in the 2nd. year of Theology at the Seminary San Carlos and San Ambrosio.

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