The Coronavirus and Religious Life

Back in ‘old god’s time’ in the nineteen nineties, I wrote a book about Religious Life, predicting that convents and monasteries as we knew them then were coming towards the end of their particular era. In other words, that the form of religious life that we have seen prosper in Ireland in the past two centuries appeared to me to be in serious decline, and maybe even facing extinction. 

Events since then have confirmed my assessment, indeed to a degree and with a rapidity that I would not have thought possible back then. But now a new and unexpected occurrence has entered into the equation, the Coronavirus. The effects of that on our whole society have been dramatic, but it has created real problem for convents and monasteries. The reality with these institutions is that now they are to all intents and purposes care homes. The average age of the people living in them must be over eighty, with only a very occasional person under seventy.

The response of those in charge of the convents and monasteries, when the virus struck, was to go into strict lockdown. This was correct, and anyway it was also following official advice for all people over seventy, or considered vulnerable. In spite of this some of the religious institutions were infected by the virus, and a number of their members died. We in the Redemptorists have done well, or been lucky, in that up to now none of us in this country have caught the virus.

But now a further dilemma is presenting itself. As a country we have managed to contain, and to a fair degree suppress, the virus. The country is gradually being opened up again, and people are beginning to move around. Businesses are opening their doors, and sport is slowly warming up. This is all good, and gives a sense of hope to people. But the virus is still here, and as we see from the numbers of cases each day, it is still infecting people.

In this scenario, what do the people in charge of monasteries and convents do? Do they also begin to open the doors, and allow people in. So far the response seems to be, no.  It is too much of a risk. As long as the virus is in the country the lockdown has to continue, seems to be the policy. It is easy to understand this response. The risks remain.

But how long will it take before the whole of society is free of the virus? Or will that day ever come? Will we instead have to learn to live with it, and probably have more effective treatments? We don’t know. 

It saddens me to think that the final years of these once thriving institutions may have to be spent in lonely, isolated lockdown, keeping distant even from each other, and with any sort of real human exchange more difficult and fearful.