In Conversation: Faith during the Pandemic

The Viral Papers talked to Fr Chase Pepper CSC, assistant chaplain at Fisher House, Catholic Chaplaincy to the University of Cambridge, about the year that has just been, its effects on the community he helps to guide, and plans for the future.

VP: What has it been like to be part of the community at Fisher House during the pandemic, and how has your role as chaplain changed as a result?

Fr Chase: Coming in and out of lockdowns in a place like Fisher House in Cambridge, I have lost track of the face of the community. I feel sad saying this and although I am invested in the community, it feels hard to find those words of investment because when that first lockdown started, people just disappeared.

It’s something that normally happens at the end of year in Cambridge: MPhils go home, PhD students stay, undergrads are in and out. An academic year in Cambridge already has an awkwardness built into it because people stop showing up and the face of the community changes.

“It’s been an exercise in learning how to love the stranger in your midst”

But with the lockdowns, that was only compounded because the community dried up. A new year started, people returned but some were present virtually, some in person. Showing up at the community now, it’s like looking into the face of a stranger. Not in a negative way – just in the sense that it is a new community, different to the one I said goodbye to. Now I have to ask myself – how do I best exercise ministry, leadership, and pastoral sensitivity in this sort of situation?

It’s been an exercise in learning how to love the stranger in your midst and it leads to quite a dissonance sometimes.

VP: Bearing that in mind, has there been something that you have done with the community which has re-established a sense of connection?

Fr Chase: I suppose something which has helped me feel more concretely rooted in the community this year has been the daily morning Mass, which I have led each day in term time.

I found that a community has cohered around it. It hasn’t closed in on itself or become exclusive – instead, there have been about 8 – 12 people who have made it part of their daily habit and rhythm. People come on more sporadic bases too, but there are faces I have come to associate with that Mass, and a faith community which has come together. It has helped make the times that we’ve been in and the times we’ve been out of lockdown feel like people are still able to stay present and connected to one another – I have been able to feel a sense of solidity through it.

VP: Like so many things during this pandemic, the celebration of Mass was live-streamed when the government introduced a ban on people attending church services – what has that been like as a priest? Did you feel any connection to people on the other side of the camera, watching from their homes, when you were celebrating Mass alone in the chapel?

Fr Chase: It was a difficult and awkward adjustment at first. But once it had been made, it became something that was very natural and something that I didn’t think about or question.

On some level, celebrating Mass through the live-stream has actually been freeing. The camera allowed for a conceit of pure attention. Normally when you’re in front of a group of people, you can read attention and energy and body language. But in front of the camera, that all evaporated, and I didn’t have to worry about whether people were checked in or not, or expend the energy speaking in a way that would give people reasons to keep paying attention and want to be involved. I could just assume that the camera was doing that job for me, as long as I was present to what was happening in front of me and I knew what I had to do. The live-stream and virtual reality would take care of itself.

Adjusting to the hybrid reality, where some people are in person and some are virtual, has been harder because my impulse has been to pay attention to those there in the Chapel with me. I haven’t found a way to navigate that situation in a way that keeps everyone involved but it is something I have become a little bit more consciously aware of.

VP: Has there been anything in your faith that has helped you navigate the difficulties and troubles of this year?

Fr Chase: The motto of my religious order, the Congregation of Holy Cross, has been an anchoring point for me this year – ave crux, spes unica (‘Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope’). I have been coming back around to it because I have realised that if I understood more experientially what it meant when I signed up, I’m not sure I would have actually had the courage to do so.

I have come to understand that the Cross is an experience of hopelessness, like when you are confronted with insecurity and loss and death and grief and suffering, that is mounting against you and your loved ones. To profess faith in the Cross isn’t easy: it’s a way of saying that even in the face of what looks like God not being with us, there’s still something meaningful here, there has to be.

I have been confronted with the deeper experience of that motto and learning how to live it – not always on a level of how I am feeling or being able to confirm it on an experiential basis but instead, learning how to be a hopeful person and how to help other people find hope in their situations.

“There’s still something meaningful here, there has to be”

This has been the most consistent thing I have been able to contribute in the pandemic. Even when things are feeling as bad and as low as they can be, I have tried to help people find and struggle with that question of ‘Okay, we’re still here. We’re still in this together. We believe on some level that God hasn’t abandoned us, even if it can feel to the contrary sometimes. But nevertheless, there’s more to be explored. How are we going to do that together?’

Asking those questions and helping people discover new ways of hoping when things are difficult has been my ministry of preaching during the pandemic, and it has come through reflecting on that motto.

VP: How do you think COVID and the changes you have undergone, such as your reflections on the motto, will influence your thinking and your leadership of your community once the pandemic is over?

Fr Chase: The experience of the past year isn’t something we’re simply just going to get over as life returns to normal – we’re going to have to process it communally.

I think the way the prophets related with their communities in the Old Testament becomes very relevant here. There’s a way of reading the prophets as talking to people in traumatising situations who need to find help, healing, and wholeness from their experiences – they are helping their communities make transitions rather than telling them to straighten up, otherwise God will punish them.

So, I suppose what will change is realising that this is going to be a journey our generations will tell stories about for years to come, and that we need to learn how to tell those stories, and how to take ownership of them in a way in which we can latch on to the nuggets of meaning, wisdom, and hope. That is what will help us become people who bring good out of this for ourselves and other generations.

It will be ongoing ministry rather than something that will come to an end one day.

VP: Finally, are there any practical ways you can envisage carrying this out and helping people process what has happened?

Fr Chase: This will be one of those things that we address when we come to it. But one example I can provide is a ministry idea that Fr Mark [editor’s note: Fr Mark was chaplain at Fisher House from 2013 – 2021] and I were playing with before he died.

“We need to learn how to tell those stories and how to take ownership of them”

We thought together about inviting the medical students who had graduated in the past few years back to the Fisher House when the pandemic is over, in order to honour and pray for them in a special way.

Fr Mark always prayed for those who had been called into, and in some cases prematurely, their medical careers because of the coronavirus. Being able to acknowledge the parts of the community that the pandemic has affected in very particular ways, the doctors, nurses, and all those involved in hospital work, and to allow them to be seen, applauded, thanked, brought together, and acknowledged in the way they deserve to be is of huge importance.

With thanks and gratitude to Fr Chase Pepper for his time and comments. You can find out more about Fisher House through their website by clicking here.