Three members of the Niagara University community shared their thoughts and experiences around the ethical questions raised by the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on religious life during “Religion and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Panel Discussion.” The virtual event on Nov. 12 was co-sponsored by the Ostapenko Center for Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare and the Center for the Study and Practice of Religion at Niagara.

Dr. Daniel Pinti, professor of English and Episcopal priest; the Rev. Aiden Rooney, C.M., vice president for mission integration; and Howard Morgan, associate director of alumni engagement and stewardship and deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., addressed questions including the role one’s faith plays in responding to those in need in the midst of the pandemic; the complexities involved in deciding whether or not to close or open places of worship; and how religious leaders can continue to tend to the spiritual and physical needs of their parishioners.

Dr. Pinti spoke about the in-person and Zoom services at his parish, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Eggertsville, N.Y., which suspended in-person worship in March and began worshipping in the building again in July. He noted that his parishioners were able to stay connected to one another and the parish during the closure.

“These changes … have to be understood in a Scriptural and theological context so that we don’t dichotomize the mundane and the spiritual,” he said. “We had to see what we were doing as grounded in Jesus Christ; otherwise, we might easily lose touch with one another by losing touch with the foundation of our faith and the foundationally communal nature of our faith.”

Father Rooney noted that, in a time of crisis, “we begin to understand that there are duties that come to the fore,” which he called “moral oughts.” These moral oughts are sometimes in conflict with one another, he said, so we need to consider what our faith tradition asks of us in the face of crisis.

“Confronting a crisis like this makes us first and foremost say, where do we focus our gaze; secondly, what do we see when we look deeply and who do we see; and do we see their totality as human persons,” he said. “All of those are questions that are prompted by the fact that we come out of a faith perspective as we look and deal with societal problems.”

Morgan shared his experience as a pastoral counselor for South Buffalo Mercy Hospital’s associates. He spent 12-20 hours per week helping nurses, doctors, housekeeping and security staff, and others manage what they were feeling and experiencing during the first few months of the coronavirus crisis. 

“They had questions about why would God let this happen,” he said.

His role evolved from working with hospital staff to helping patients, as well. He counseled individuals who came to the hospital looking for assistance they were no longer able to access through social services, and anointed the sick with holy water when a priest was not available. He also advocated for family members to be able to see their dying loved ones.

“What I brought to my ministry was hope, prayer, some counseling, listening, comfort, understanding, and compassion,” he said.

All three panelists acknowledged that the upcoming holiday season will present challenges in offering a spiritual experience for parishioners to celebrate, especially with the number of COVID-19 cases rising regionally and the potential to close places of worship again.

“What we’re learning is that if Eucharist for us is the kind of center of our worship life, livestreamed Eucharist isn’t want we’re talking about,” said Father Rooney. “It’s a holding pattern, it’s a way of staying connected. And so, what we’ve discovered is that we have to develop real prayer experiences online that feed people’s spirituality. We’ll still livestream services, but we’ll be building more regular opportunities for people to interact in prayer online.”

The ability to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized during the holidays was also discussed, but panelists were hopeful that people would still find ways to serve others.

“I do think we are learning a lot about the creativity of people in these extreme times, and how people can be so creatively responsive to needs,” said Dr. Pinti. “That’s been heartening and inspiring. All of us, and I hope in particular, lay people, are seeing just how much they can really do.”

Dr. James Delaney, professor of philosophy and endowed director of the Ostapenko Center for Ethics in Medicine and Healthcare, and Dr. Craig Rivera, professor of criminology and criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Religion, moderated the panel.