Christians welcome reflection on hard questions as Christmas nears

As a young man of faith, Patrick Donohoe thrives on the shared energy of a church service.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic induced a particular sense of disconnection from his Christian community, where his only companions on a Sunday morning were a webcam and his pyjamas.

Anglican pastor Patrick Donohoe has welcomed the need to ponder tough questions during the pandemic.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Yet as Christmas nears at the end of a second year of lockdowns and isolation, the 30-year-old Anglican pastor believes that loneliness has also been the “cool thing about COVID”.

“It’s made people ponder the bigger questions of life, and realise we’re not in control of everything,” says Mr Donohoe.

“It’s been a fun time to have deep conversations. You can’t avoid the hard conversations that Australians love to avoid.”

This Christmas represents a chance to reflect on how the suffering inflicted by the pandemic has shored up many Christians’ faith, he says.

“Suffering is something Christians talk about every Sunday and all throughout the week, it’s something we acutely think about. This is like game day, this is why we have faith,” continues Mr Donohoe, whose church in Glen Waverley held its Christmas service last Sunday.

“That’s not to say people don’t struggle. It’s right to struggle. But I think it has made us all ask the question of who do we follow and what do we believe in?”

As Eastern Health’s director of respiratory medicine based at Box Hill hospital, Francis Thien’s working year hasn’t been quiet. He spent his 61st birthday working in a COVID ward.

Like Mr Donohoe, Professor Thien says the challenges of 2021 have deepened his faith and his connection with God.

“In this sort of crisis, where you see so many sick people, it challenges you to do two things. One is to access the presence of God within yourself,” says Professor Thien, who describes himself as a Catholic with a broad spiritual perspective.

Francis Thien has endured the most difficult period of his career during the pandemic, which he says has strengthened his faith.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“The other is to practise compassion, and seeing that out of suffering arises compassion. The camaraderie among healthcare workers against a common challenge has been incredibly heartening to see.”

The cancellation of in-person church services during the several months of lockdown this year allowed Professor Thien to join online prayer groups with colleagues in Canada and the US.

“It’s highlighted new options that I can keep tapping into beyond this Christmas,” he says.

The 2016 census found that Christianity remains the most common religion in Australia, with 52 per cent identifying as Christian. Adherence to a religious faith is falling, with nearly a third of Australians saying they had “no religion”.

In Victoria, the proportion of Catholics dropped from 26.7 per cent in 2011 to 23.2 per cent in 2016 but it was the state’s most popular active faith with almost 1.4 million adherents.

Anglicans remained in third place with those who follow that creed falling from 12.3 per cent of the state’s population in 2011 to 9 per cent in 2016, or about 530,000 Victorians.

Christian services will take place across the state on Christmas Day with both unvaccinated and vaccinated churchgoers allowed to attend after the Andrews government eased rules earlier this month.

They will have to wear masks while inside church, however, in line with tightened restrictions from 11.59pm on Thursday.

Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli, who will deliver the Christmas mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday, says the message of this festive season must be of light and hope.

Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli on Easter Sunday this year.Credit:Luis Ascui

“Certainly our time through the pandemic has been a dark passage for everyone. So much of our lives have lost a sense of hope,” he says.

“But I have always thought COVID has not only been a thing of change but also one of revelation. It has revealed to us where our circumstances are. Even where there is great difficulty, strains and stresses, we have this gift of hope into our world that is of Jesus Christ.”

Archbishop Comensoli nominates two key themes for 2022: prioritising family relationships and working towards a human economy.

“Not an economy that is just going to look to pay off debt in some way or another, but one where our parliamentarians and economists look to our human flourishing,” he says.

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier will speak at St Paul’s Cathedral on Christmas.Credit:Luis Ascui

Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier will explore a similar theme at his Christmas services on Saturday, of experiencing unexpected goodness in the festive period.

“For many people not much has been that great about their life the last two years. But Christmas always reminds us that however bad the situation is, there’s good news we can celebrate, embrace for ourselves and share more widely,” he says.

“I sense a real desire for the public to think ‘well, things have been bad, but there are still things to enjoy’.”

The next federal election, due by May next year, opens up questions about Australia’s purpose and what sort of society it wants to be, Archbishop Freier says.

“When the pressure was on, we as a society and political leaders took rapid action to help the vulnerable by providing housing and doubling welfare support,” he says.

“There are choices we could make, and we should always be keeping the vulnerable and those who are struggling in the centre of our decisions.”

For Cathrine Muston, who works in prison chaplaincy and leads a program that helps former prisoners integrate into society in Gippsland, this Christmas marks a chance to acknowledge grief more directly than other years.

“During COVID we hear stories of people who have had to say goodbye to loved ones over Zoom,” says Ms Muston, who works with Anglicare Victoria.

“In prisons there have been no face-to-face visits since March 2020, meaning there are children who haven’t seen their mum or dad for all that time.”

Cathrine Muston, who works in prison chaplaincy in Gippsland.

“I personally haven’t been touched by such grief but that doesn’t mean we can’t all feel the pain of others, listen to their stories and feel that empathy.

“Being part of a church community helps people connect to something. In all the mess that we’re in, we know we’re not alone.”

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