March 19, 2020

Coronavirus and the Church: An Interview With Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Coronavirus and the Church

An Interview with Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

Question 1: What is the coronavirus (covid-19)?

Answer: It is a virus which, like most viruses, consists of RNA's, and uses the structure, the nucleus and the DNA of cells to function.

It is known that the genetic information from the DNA, which is in the nucleus of the cell, is transferred to the RNA, which is in the cytoplasm, and is then transcribed into proteins. This copying, transcription and translation is the central doctrine of biology.

However, the reverse flow of information from RNA to DNA disrupts that central doctrine of biology. To make sense of it, I will use the image of the hijacker, who does not have his own airplane, he does not know how to fly, but he uses the aircraft's instruments and the pilot for his own purpose.

Question 2: Why is there so much fear of the coronavirus?

Answer: There are many viruses, such as AIDS, hepatitis, influenza, ebola, SARS, etc., for which science has found its way to face. When in the early 90s the problem erupted with the AIDS virus, humanity panicked, and in Greece there was established the National Response Committee for AIDS, which became the Center for Special Disease Control, and in both of these I was the representative of the Church of Greece and I have been following since then the issues dealing with related infections. I even wrote a book titled AIDS, A Way of Life.

The coronavirus startled the scientific community, which will soon be faced scientifically. Until then we need to be careful and pray.

Question 3: How do you justify the panic induced by the coronavirus?

Answer: Indeed, apart from the coronavirus, there is also a virus of panic, about which humanitarian and social scientists and psychologists speak.

Panic is explained by what I said earlier, but at the same time it is interpreted by the fear of death. The person who loves life wants to live as long as possible and fears death. This is the so-called panic of death. This is not the case now with coronavirus, but death has always been approaching us in a variety of ways.

The fear of death is linked to every illness, which leads a person towards death's horizon. Heidegger has emphasized that man operates in two ways, first in the so-called everyday way, linked to power, authority, health and social activity, and secondly in the so-called existential way, which is linked with the arrival of disease and the approach to death.

When someone is admitted to the hospital, because of a disease, immediately there are existential questions, such as the question of the meaning of life and the meaning of death. The various thoughts that literally torment them, such as who is responsible for the situation in which they arrived at, and, consequently, they are occupied with the so-called "borderline moments of their life", which existential philosophy and existential psychology speak about. That is why we should not only treat the sick physically, but holistically.

Question 4: What is death?

Answer: Death is not just what happens at the end of biological life, but it is the corruptibility and mortality that are inherent in our biological organism as a whole.

Molecular biology has shown that of the 25,000 genes in the human cell, from the first moment of the fertilization of the cell, there are also genes of ageing (death), which are in the so-called mitochondrial DNA, which is located in the cytoplasm, and the genes of disease.

Therefore, from the very first moment of human conception, before the stem cells differentiate, before the tissues and organs are created, before the organism of the embryo is formed, the genes are already present. This means that death is a biological and psychological "burden" we carry from the very first moment of our conception to the gradual crises of death in our lives.

Question 5: How should we deal with the coronavirus problem?

Answer: The answer has to be addressed on many levels. Science is doing its part, and I believe we will have hopeful developments in this area. The State, with its institutions, is trying to restrict its dispersal, because the virus does not distinguish between a human being and a citizen. It is also of interest to the Health Department and how they will deal with it as a "matter of war", because it is truly an internal enemy. And the person-citizen must confront it on a personal level, that is, beyond the decisions of the responsible bodies, they must be held accountable before the so-called panic of death.

Of course, at this critical time, we must respect and honor the doctors and nursing staff who work with responsibility, knowledge and bravery.

Question 6: How do we deal with the sick and society at large suffering with existential questions?

Answer: I have already emphasized that the State with its institutions is making the necessary decisions to safeguard the population. But that is not enough, because man is not a machine, not even a living machine, but he is a being where the meaning of life and the meaning of existence occupy him. Many times he wonders why he should protect himself from a disease if life is meaningless for him. Drug addicts often express themselves this way, when we advise them to be careful, but they respond: "I don't want to be careful, because for me life has no meaning."

Therefore, one cannot deal with such situations only by measures that are directed at the human body, as if man were a biological machine, but he needs both psychological and spiritual support. We already knew this as we were going through the economic crisis, many politicians and economists were saying that the economy also needs psychology to come to grips. And I ask: If the economy wants psychology, then doesn't disease want existential psychology to deal with it?

Viktor Frankl has emphasized that human beings are occupied by the "tragic triad", that is, pain, guilt and death. Therefore, all forms of science must deal with the particular problem that arises so that that man is not considered just a biological machine.

Question 7: How do you view the Church's response to the problem that has arisen?

Answer: I think the Church has reacted and reacts with great composure and that is related to what has been a very long two thousand years of experience, while the State has had about two hundred years of experience.

Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Church of Greece, the Church of Crete, as well as other Churches, reacted with responsibility and seriousness, because they have in mind man as the image and likeness of God, who has biological needs, but above all, psychological and spiritual needs, and the means by which they address all these issues.

Question 8: What is the Church's timeless experience of which you speak?

Answer: As you know, over the centuries many ailments have emerged, but the science was not as developed as it is today. Thus, the Church has always taken the necessary measures to deal with physical ailments, but also to satisfy the spiritual and eternal needs of everyone.

Take, for example, the illness of leprosy. It was a terrible illness, which for many centuries had no cure and it was contagious so that they would remove the sick from society and put them in "social quarantine".

The Fathers of the Church were particularly interested not only in the treatment of disease, but also in the treatment of the patient who dealt with it; this is what they were most interested in. Let me remind you of Basil the Great, who in his Vasileiada had a place for the lepers, when leprosy was considered contagious, and he himself would embrace the lepers, to show them love.

I believe that beyond the Coronavirus and any virus is man with his existential and spiritual problems and his eternal questions, which is why I am bothered by the virus of social racism and the virus of panic.

Carl Jasper has emphasized that in general, humans, and especially the sick, need "existential communication".

Question 9: Lately there has been a great deal of talk about the question of restricting ecclesiastical services, and especially of administering Holy Communion. What is your opinion?

Answer: First of all, I would like to say that the Church functioned and functions in a coordinated way. We have "ecclesiastical leadership" which is the Permanent Holy Synod, chaired by His Beatitude the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Hieronymos, which I think he is tackling the issue with responsibility and seriousness. They are who we should primarily listen to as bishops and clergy, and not be urged to differentiate ourselves from this, because the Church is not a badly organized body, but it has institutions that take a stand on emerging issues.

I said earlier that the Church has had a great deal of experience over two thousand years in dealing with such issues. Thus, it recommended that we listen to the specialists and institutions of the State dealing with this matter, it decided to suspend its pastoral activity, it advised on the restriction of the elderly and the sick to their homes, but in various other ways it leaves the window open for human beings to communicate with God.

Just as we need to ventilate our home, that is, to open the windows to refresh it with air and to bring in the sun, so also the Church is a window in our lives, that refreshes its infected air, it helps us to see further and allow another sun into our lives, which will kill the spiritual germs and the spiritual viruses.

In regards to Holy Communion, the Church once again has a great deal of timeless experience. Just as in scientific disciplines, the great value of the bibliography is emphasized, so does the Church have its own "bibliography", which says that with Holy Communion Christ is given, Who is eternal life and heals our spiritual sicknesses, and sometimes our physical sicknesses. The Church cannot be forced to deny its identity.

Question 10: How do you see the view of some who recommend not to come to Church and to Holy Communion for fear of transmitting the coronavirus?

Answer: The Church always recommends those who want to commune to do so under the conditions, as expressed in the exhortation, "with the fear of God, faith and love." Nothing is unconditionally done in the Church. Personally, I have seen that in recent years many have been living without the proper conditions, which is repentance, confession, fasting, and it has troubled me. I therefore urge Christians not to commune without the necessary ecclesiastical conditions.

However, as I said earlier, the priests commune people, the sick, without thinking that they are transmitting diseases to their fellowmen, and that they themselves will be infected with diseases. Noteworthy examples are the churches in hospitals, in which churches come those who are sick and those who are healthy and all the members of the Church commune from the same Body and Blood of Christ, despite the various viruses and germs that are going around.

We have also observed, that which until now everyone praised, how priests pastorally worked and communed in the sanatoriums and hospitals of infectious diseases and other places, such as in Spinalonga. I don't understand what has changed since then.

Question 11: There are some who argue that the phobia surrounding Holy Communion has nothing to do with the faith or disbelief of a Christian. What do you say about that?

Answer: All the issues in our lives and the way we deal with them have to do with faith and they show how much one truly believes in God. Love is inextricably linked to faith, that is to say, there is no love without faith or faith without love. But the Church is dealing with all matters pastorally, in terms of rigorousness and economia, and, of course, repentance is an element of the Orthodox ethos.

Question 12: What is your final view on the issue that has arisen?

Answer: I think composure, sobriety and seriousness are needed, and everything will find its way. The virus of panic and the so-called "paranoid" are worse than the coronavirus. The Holy Synod will make the appropriate decisions as the subject evolves, but beyond the necessary precautions, we need faith in God's Providence.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos. Ekklesiadtiki Paremvasis, Issue 283, February 2020.