AUSTRALIA’S 623,400 or so Catholics who normally attended Sunday Mass before the COVID-19 lockdown are being studied as part of a research project exploring the psychological impact of church closures.
Philippa Martyr, a Perth Catholic undergoing a graduate diploma in Psychology at Monash University in Western Australia, is studying the effect that the nationwide dispensation of Sunday obligation and ongoing Mass restrictions has had on the fewer than 10 per cent of Catholics who go to Mass.
Ms Martyr said the research project was prompted by her own personal experience during the first-wave lockdown between March 23 and early June.
“I’m a Sunday and usually a few weekdays kind of Mass-goer, so lockdown absolutely gutted me,” she said.
“But because the way lockdown was managed in Western Australia, because I live in Perth, in the Archdiocese of Perth, so I was able to use live-stream Masses, I watched the Channel 7 telecast at Easter, and I used live-stream adoration, but I also found individual priests who would hear my confession, individually, from a respectful distance, so no germs.”
While attempting to change some of her spiritual habits, Ms Martyr noticed a discrepancy in what certain priests could and could not do sacramentally during the lockdown in her home archdiocese of Perth.
“I was also watching the blowback on Facebook and social media and reading articles about how Catholics were managing, or not managing, as the case was, and some of them were really angry, in other parts of Australia and overseas and it was such an interesting and diverse picture,” Ms Martyr said.
As a former medical historian who has worked in the history of healthcare and sociology of health and illness, Ms Martyr has found her “perfect storm”, a chance to study the psychological impact the global pandemic has had on practicing Catholics in Australia, or just over 623,000 people.
“That’s a nice group to study, that’s a nice population, it’s clearly defined, and there’s not a lot known about them in terms of psychology and spirituality, that interface between the two,” she said.
“Particularly the loss of being able to go to church because that’s so fundamental, and we know church going has mental health benefits.
“So you take that away, what’s going to happen?
“We don’t know, that’s what I’m trying to find out in this study.”
Ms Martyr is now collecting data for her honours project focusing on health psychology through an online survey.
The survey is open to all Catholic Australians – including clergy and religious – over the age of 18.
“Everybody is welcome, you just have to be a practicing Catholic, over 18 and able to read English,” Ms Martyr said.
Questions will revolve around how Catholics worshipped during the lockdown, and what could be done differently in a second or third wave.
All respondents will remain anonymous.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity to look at how Catholics, especially in terms of wellbeing, how are they doing, how are practicing Catholics doing when they’ve had the sacraments taken off them when we are a sacramental, Church-going kind of group,” Ms Martyr said.
“What kind of fallout is that going to have?”
Ms Martyr said some individual Bishops have already expressed an interest in the study’s results, which are timely given this year’s Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s social justice statement focuses on mental health.
“ I think everybody is interested in what the post-COVID Church is going to look like,” Ms Martyr said.
“I think everybody wants to know – are people coming back to Mass?
“That’s a huge question for the bishops – is this going to make a real difference?
“Have we damaged the Mass-going profile or are we bouncing back?
“That’s what I’m going to try and find out.”
What is clear to Ms Martyr is that the virtual church is only temporary.
Quoting a 2002 document from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, titled The Church and Internet, Ms Martyr said it was clear that “there’s no substitute for the real thing for Catholics”.
“We need to be with each other, personally we need that human connection, and we need to be gathering and doing hands on worship with the sacraments,” Ms Martyr said.
“We can’t do them virtually, you can’t go to confession over the internet and things like that.
“So we had to find a way where we can do sacraments and we can do hygiene, and that’s what we’re working on and I think that’s the way we’ll be going forward.”
To complete Ms Martyr’s survey, go to https://monash.az1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_43f3xmKUt1xa0S1.
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