When Fr Peio Sanchez founded his “field hospital” in an old monastery building in Barcelona, Spain, in 2017, he hoped it would offer some refuge to the Mediterranean city’s 3,300 homeless inhabitants.
Today, during the Covid-19 pandemic, people line up in all weather for food, clothing, masks and medicines. Santa Anna parish publishes a daily tally of meals and hygiene equipment handed out to needy recipients, as well as a blog with advice for surviving the crisis. The aim, says the parish website, is to be “the voice of those with no voice.”
The parish, in Barcelona’s business district, is one of many engaged in similar efforts across Spain, which already faced tough social and economic problems before the coronavirus, with 14 per cent unemployment and growth falling after 12 years of austerity.
“Like all our parishes, Santa Anna’s has adapted its pastoral service to current needs,” Oscar Marti, spokesman for the Barcelona Archdiocese, told Catholic News Service.
“The commitment and solidarity shown by its priests and volunteers are helping us confront a challenge which, without living fraternity and the word of God, could dehumanise our society.”
At Santa Anna, Fr Sanchez’s work is backed by more than 20 local firms and organisations and ranges from handing out face masks and advising victims of domestic violence to facilities for mobile phone charging and a counselling area in its chapel.
In a mid-April report, the archdiocese’s Caritas organisation, which runs 175 soup kitchens and food distribution points, said requests for help with basic needs had tripled during the pandemic, with 27 per cent of Barcelona’s children now “in a situation of social exclusion.”
In a 25th April twitter message, the parish also warned of a “tsunami of poverty” from Covid-19, with some local food banks already running out of supplies.
“Despite these difficulties, we’re using all available technologies to be close to those most alone – with charitable action and pastoral care, but also listening, comforting and encouraging,” Marti said.
“This pandemic has shown us we’re all vulnerable. But the word of God is like water – it always finds a place to continue on its way. This crisis has allowed us to discover new tools and channels of evangelisation.”
In a 21st April pastoral message, Catalonia’s regional Tarragona bishops’ conference said the crisis had had “significant repercussions” for families and vulnerable people in their 10 dioceses, profoundly affecting church life.
Writing on 26th April in the La Vanguardia daily, Cardinal Juan Jose Omella of Barcelona invoked the Holy Spirit for politicians and social leaders, urging them to “reach agreements promoting the common good” and urging citizens to “help make constructive and effective dialogue possible.”
“Interlocutors must be able to listen and speak respectfully and constructively: They must be men and women of great patience with an eye on the most fragile,” said the cardinal, who took office in March as president of the Spanish bishops’ conference.
“Pray the walls will be overcome, that egos, private interests and ideologies will be left aside – that the virus of division, the devils which always lurk, do not succeed in disrupting this good work.”
Spain has been one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, with 220,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases by 27th April and more than 23,500 dead, including at least 70 Catholic priests.
Tensions have flared over police interventions at churches, which were left open under a 14th March lockdown decree, subject to strict social distancing.
Although Spain’s bishops suspended public Masses, some have voiced impatience with heavy-handed law enforcers.
“There is a great desire now to return to the house of God in our parishes, with many believers needing the consolation of being able to approach a church, kneel at a tabernacle and pray before an image of Mary,” Archbishop Jesus Sanz Montes of Oviedo said in a 26th April pastoral letter.
“We are abiding and will abide by the legitimate guidelines given to us, but we will not allow anyone to tortuously violate our human and constitutional rights, using this pandemic as an excuse. Our churches are not catacombs for censorship.”
But politicians of all parties have also praised the work of Catholic parishes and religious communities during the crisis.
In an 19th April letter, the bishops’ conference called on all clergy to donate part of their salaries to the anti-coronavirus campaign. It has launched a website, iglesiasolidaria.es, for donations, with a map of “solidarity initiatives” underway across Spain’s 70 dioceses.
In a mid-April message, Madrid Mayor Jose Luis Martinez-Almeida thanked Catholic priests for their “silent and heroic work” in the city, where almost 8,000 had died by 27th April.
Picture: A man carries a free meal outside the Church of Santa Anna in Barcelona, Spain, on 21st April 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Nacho Doce, Reuters).