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Ritual Innovations and Repertoires of Belonging in Czech and Slovak Christian Communities during the COVID-19 Pandemic

In: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society
Authors:
Barbora Spalová Faculty of social sciences, Charles University Prague Prague Czech Republic

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https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6930-709X
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Adam Gajdoš Faculty of social sciences, Charles University Prague Prague Czech Republic

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https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6497-4160
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Abstract

The unprecedented halt of social gatherings imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic that began in the spring of 2020 highlighted the centrality of ritual participation in the Christian sense of belonging. Offering members of religious communities opportunities and instruments for sustaining their religiosity became a challenge. This time of crisis, adaptation and improvisation thus also shook what it meant to belong to a community of believers.

Based on pre-pandemic in-person observations, interviews and online ethnography in four Christian communities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, our paper maps how different approaches to ritual practices during the pandemic affected the available repertoires of belonging to Christianity. Upon discussing the relevance of Hervieu-Léger’s vital types of religiosity (the universalist and independent pilgrim and the particularist and interconnected convert) throughout the pandemic, we conclude that the traditional approach to the church as a place of dwelling, as Wuthnow labelled it, was strengthened most.

1 Introduction

The first pandemic lockdown began on Thursday, 12 March 2020 in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The following Sunday, many Christian communities started streaming their services online. Among the rush of employers and schools to digitalise, it was clear that, for Christian communities, ensuring the continuity of ritual and some kind of participation in it was a key preoccupation, if not the most crucial among them.

To see this fantastic mobilisation and creativity was a perfect lesson for us social anthropologists. Although the classics of our discipline emphasised the fundamental role of ritual in the existence of a religious community, ethnographic studies of the contemporary dynamics of Christian rituals in traditional churches (Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant in this case) are scarce. It took a pandemic for us to acknowledge again that the church community is ritually organised.1 Observing tension between competing needs for both continuity and innovation, we could appreciate the performance of ritual anew:

Logically [this performance] entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contract, the construction of the integrated conventional orders we shall call Logoi, the investment of whatever it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity; the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred and sanctification of conventional order, the generation of theories of the occult, the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy, and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic.2

Our intention in this paper is much more humble than Rappaport’s holistic approach. Analysing pandemic liturgical bricolage in four different Christian communities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, we focus on the relationship of ritual innovations with the changes in repertoires of belonging to these communities. Looking at the translations, adaptations and creative developments accompanying liturgies gone digital, we ask whether ritual innovations in the pandemic succeeded in reinterpreting how Christians understand and practise their belonging to a religious community.

2 Theoretical Reflections: Ritual and Repertoires of Belonging

In recent decades, church life in European societies is no longer the centre of public life. As Hervieu-Léger (2003) argued in her study of the exculturation of French Catholicism, society at large no longer shares a common religious experience and background. Participation in church life has become a matter of the “vicarious” few. The majority of society is content trusting that someone is still maintaining religious institutions on their behalf, in a state ready-to-be-used-when-needed.3 The approach to participation in organised religion as well as personal spiritual practice has, furthermore, been affected by a shift “from obligation to consumption.”4 With the decline in the churches’ ability to discipline their communities and the simultaneous broadening of choices on the religious market, individuals navigate the spiritual landscape with increasing independence. Association with religious communities (whether specific or imagined) has thus become looser and diversified – and the COVID-19 pandemic likely accelerated these developments.5

Belonging to places, social categories or groups is decisively shaped and manifested by “practices of a wide range of human and more-than-human agents, including animals, places, emotions, things and flows.”6 Thus, if belonging to a religious community grows out of a set of practices – including rituals, educational and socialising activities or individual expressions of religiosity – different sets of practices produce distinct repertoires of belonging. Studies concerned with the way the COVID-19-related interruption of everyday practices impacted belonging have so far primarily focused on the changing intensity of a sense of belonging in variously defined groups7 or have identified strategies practised to affirm the personal sense of belonging jeopardised by pandemic isolation.8 Adaptations and innovations to religious rituals aimed at supporting a sense of belonging have, in the meantime, remained underexplored.9

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, repertoires of belonging to religious communities were influenced by a deepening emphasis on individual choice and independence. When Robert Wuthnow (1998) described the change that had occurred in American religious life since the 1960s, he juxtaposed two ideal types of association with religion and its institutions by contrasting the verbs “dwelling” and “seeking.” The traditional spirituality of dwelling, as Wuthnow asserted, is focused on cultivating a relationship with one’s own religious community and its physical place, which provides a lasting spiritual home. Practically, as well as in terms of self-understanding, the spirituality of dwelling relies on the support and initiative of religious institutions, with their rules, pre-defined roles, common liturgies and symbolic boundaries. In a counterpoint, the spirituality of seeking, emerging on America’s religious landscape in the 1960s can be characterised by an emphasis on the individual and their engagement in a constant negotiation of partial insights about the truth and the sacred, drawn from diverse sources. Rather than with a place, the spirituality of seeking makes contact with the sacred in an individual experience of the moment – regardless of the moment’s formal religious backdrop.

The dynamic relationship between modalities of belonging to a Christian religious community and the religious practices of the “seeking” has been analysed by Grace Davie and Danièle Hervieu-Léger. Observing what could be called vital centres of contemporary Christianity in Europe, they both identified two contrasting ways of being an active Christian in societies of non-churchgoers. Iconic of the first type, according to Hervieu-Léger (1999), is the figure of the pilgrim, or pèlerin, whose religiosity and regime of belonging is characterised by autonomy. The pilgrim’s religiosity is based on dialogue with others – believers or not – and practised more or less independently of groups or institutional authorities. Instead of coordination and conformity, authenticity of experience,10 accessibility and creative tinkering are key values in this regime.11 As an example of liturgy expressing this type of religiosity, Hervieu-Léger mentions the worship of the Taizé Community, whose simple and accessible format stresses openness to different meaning-making processes and degrees of engagement. With a clear tendency towards the standardisation of religious memory,12 pilgrim religiosity is close to Davie’s “believing without belonging”13 while also resonating with Fuller’s “spiritual but not religious.”14

The second contrasting type of active, seeking religiosity is represented by the convert, converti,15 and is founded on strong adherence to a community and exclusive access to the truth. Belonging to the group is an act of self-realisation. However, faith is validated externally by the community or its authorities. One model liturgy expressing this regime of belonging is charismatic worship, where univocal singing focuses on repeating the words of truth. A central place in the worship liturgy is reserved for the sermon, which is focused on conveying a comprehensive and unified interpretation. Another contrasting example would be the Tridentine Mass and its precisely choreographed order of gestures and Latin replicas, high number of accessories and strict hierarchy of roles.16 With its exclusivist perspective, the convert religiosity “atomises” religious memory.17

Building on Wuthnow, Davie and Hervieu-Leger, this paper aims to explore the way different approaches to participation in religious rituals resonated with three ideal-typical spiritualities during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. We take the spirituality of dwelling as a kind of baseline, one that offers a low threshold and fosters familiarity among people as well as places and traditions. While pilgrim spirituality aligns well with Wuthnow’s paradigm of seeking, convert spirituality traces a loop from seeking back to a decisive assertion of dwelling, both in terms of interconnectedness and boundaries. All three mentioned types of spiritualities obviously have an important “experiential element”,18 which is hardly achievable in a lockdown. If the ancient saying Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi still holds in times of pandemic isolation, we then ask: How does the changed experience of ritual practices impact belonging? Observing the pandemic ritual practices of religious communities, what can we learn about their self-understanding and priorities in regard to offering people a place of belonging?

3 Methodology

This paper is based on a mixture of material acquired in the course of a three- year (2019–2021) research project concerned with the impact that changing financial models have on selected churches in the Czech and Slovak Republics. In the anthropological strand of the project, several local communities were studied across both states using interviews, on-site ethnography, text analysis and, due to the sudden pandemic interruption, online ethnography (including video conferences, video streams, social network content and email correspondence).

Four communities representing four different situations and approaches are examined in this paper: two are Roman Catholic (one located in Cheb, Czech Republic, the other in Prievidza, Slovakia), and two are mainline Protestant (a Czech unionised congregation in Brno and a Slovak Lutheran parish in Liptovský Mikuláš). These communities were deliberately selected and thus can hardly offer a representative overview of the situation in either country. Nevertheless, they serve as a solid base for discussing the fault lines and tendencies in modelling regimes of belonging, which different traditions and social contexts produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the scope of data informing our present analysis differs across the presented cases, interviews with priests/pastors and laypeople, observation of online services (and other meetings) and an overview of the communities’ public communication form the core of the corpus in all of them. For the project, we conducted more than 189 formal interviews, sixteen of which are used here. Of the many possible topics that should be studied about religion in and after the pandemic,19 we focus on religion as a set of established and emerging practices. Here, we narrow the scope further to ritual practices – mainly technologically-mediated community rituals and privatised forms of religious rituals. We are aware of the different state-church relationships in the Czech Republic and Slovakia20 and the formal and informal social support that was provided by religious groups to their communities during the pandemic. Nonetheless, we’ve chosen to leave these aside.

In the following pages, we present four stories highlighting the communities’ response to the ritual emergency created by pandemic restrictions. Based on our long-standing fieldwork, we describe the pre-pandemic types of belonging present in parishes/congregations, and we analyse what happened with the rituals vis-à-vis maintaining these forms of belonging during the lockdowns. Having witnessed the ritual innovations and shifts enables us to report what happened with the repertoires of belonging as well. We will argue that the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst, stimulating trends in church belonging that were already present in the fields beforehand.

4 Stories

4.1 Brno: Virtual Dwelling in a Dispersed Community

Our first story unfolds in Brno, a mid-sized city located in the more religiously active southeastern part of the Czech Republic. The “second congregation” of the mainline Protestant Church of Czech Brethren (CCB)21 occupies the inner courtyard of a block of residential buildings. While the numbers of Sunday service attendees hold steady (averaging around 150 before the pandemic), participation at meetings during the week is modest as members living in the “urban diaspora” maintain multiple other social engagements. Besides a central interest in safeguarding the continuity of community life revolving around a large tradition of preaching and social gatherings, a decisive pèlerin undercurrent is also evident in its openness to ecumenism, low emphasis on dogmatic boundaries and a record of cultural events open to the public.

Considering the central importance of the Sunday service to the coherence of the community, it is understandable that, with the first lockdown, the decision was made to “switch” to a livestream video of the service. The nonexistence of both “central” guidance from national church leadership and the lack of experience with online content production created considerable room for both formal and technical improvisation. In a community with a sober Calvinist liturgical style and a strong tradition of using a lay tone of voice, the primary pragmatic concern reported by the two pastors was making the livestreamed service meaningful, familiar, but also accessible. Although the service kept its regular time and spatial settings, the pastors felt the need to adapt the “genre”: they included fewer and mainly instrumental songs, attempted further simplifications of the liturgy and experimented with props supporting the sermon. Another reported concern was the uncertainty regarding the composition of the audience (reaching over a thousand viewers at one point), which led the pastors to believe a more casual manner of speaking was in order.

Another principal concern was the technical quality of the streamed service. Despite previous experience with the preparation of religious services transmitted by national television, regular production of homemade livestreams required an entirely new set of skills. A small team around the pastors engaged in experiments with different constellations of hardware and roles. Viewing angles, zooming in/out and cutting as well as internet connection bandwidth and cable length became relevant parts of worship preparation and experience. Transmission quality was seen as important to the experience of community “insiders” as well as to the congregation’s public presentation. One pastor’s wish to invest in the accessibility of the service brought about brief cooperation with a professional broadcast crew (later dropped due to the high costs). In this initial phase, the default camera angle offered a view of the pastor, the altar table and preaching props, partially due to the limits of the recording devices and partially to offer a close view for prepubescent children who had been involuntarily integrated into adult worship. Inadvertently, while being “out of touch”, this “tunnel vision” also seemed to simulate physical closeness and even a sort of intimacy between those in the church and those at home.

Figure 1
Figure 1

In the initial phase of the pandemic, Brno pastor Saša stepped close to the camera to address the children, holding up props and pictures to illustrate the story. She decided to wear less formal clothes instead of the traditional frock for the video streams as, in her view, its principal purpose – to visually set the pastor apart – vanished in the empty church.

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hNChSyK42o (last accessed 30.11.2020), screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš
Figure 2
Figure 2

Community activities of the Brno protestants in autumn 2020 included an online pancake video call for families with children, many of whom had not met their friends for months.

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Screenshot from an online video-meeting for children after live-streamed Sunday service 7.11.2020, screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

Although the possibility of joining an invisible audience of a familiar (albeit altered) “show” could be seen as an attempt to bring the spiritual home to the living room, one of the pastors related her feeling that livestreamed services with an open chat window could hardly compensate for a physical meeting or slow down the “breakdown” of the congregation’s community. And community was not the only thing at stake. The lockdown exposed the extent to which the spirituality of members, traditionally kept low-key and private, was dependent on a communal service led by professionals and experienced as a collective. As one pastor observed, the ability of different generations to carry on differed:

The oldest generation, who is already used to isolation, fared best: they seized the daily readings guide, hymnbook and marched on. The ones who were exposed to an entirely new situation were the families. Because the families are not used to practising any sort of spirituality at home. Thus, who is going to lead? How is it going to go? Are we watching the service together? Now, the youngsters didn’t feel comfortable – ‘I don’t want to sit squeezed next to my parents and look at a service. I’d rather play it in the background while tidying up my room.’22

As the families lost access to their spiritual place of dwelling, with its infrastructure of roles, liturgical cues and separate meetings for different generations, the pastor sees their dependence on the community as having been laid bare. Family as a unit of membership in the church seems to come apart, and individuals need to coordinate their preferences, expectations and feelings of obligation. When the spirituality of dwelling becomes difficult to practise, there is still a long way to becoming a pilgrim.

During the second wave of the pandemic in 2021, emphasis on the use of media in liturgy and community life shifted. Technical experiments surrounding the services gave way to a stable amateur audio-video crew with outputs of varying quality. Liturgical and staging experiments aimed at catering to diverse needs were minimised, and a service of usual length and format transmitted by a stationary camera positioned in the gallery became the standard. This shift addressed the wish of multiple elderly members connecting from homes to receive a view of the familiar space of the prayer hall, including the very limited number of attendants. While pleasing the senior members, these same changes reportedly diminished the motivation of young families to tune into their church’s livestream as it no longer could engage small children. During the same period of time, a loose series of homemade videos with songs and readings for children was produced by lay members engaged in catechetical work and was published on YouTube. This activity seemed to reflect the need to both help families practise spirituality in their homes and to strengthen a sense of community by creating and consuming “homemade” content produced for each other. Relative to the initial phase, which was primarily focused on relevant content that different audiences could process on their own (pèlerin), the priority of spiritual “homemaking” (dweller) seems to have increased.

In the adapted performance of the Eucharist, both fractures to community and spirituality came to the fore. With the first lockdown, the traditional use of one chalice by all partakers (citing it as a central element of 15th-century Czech reformation) was pragmatically abandoned in exchange for shot-sized glasses. Due to attendance limitations, the Lord’s Supper was only available to the few physically present – usually up to thirty people – who had to sign up for attendance in advance of the service. Preparation of the 2020 Christmas services exposed the key spiritual role of the sacrament for several elders, who demanded that the Communion among the chamber-sized selection of the community be transmitted for others to watch. One of the pastors strongly opposed this idea:

The sacraments cannot be transmitted. […] There really were suggestions of that kind – that we should consecrate those elements, which would be placed by the TV [camera], and in front of those TV sets, there would be those piously placed glasses of wine and pieces of bread. This is, for me, total nonsense. It’s just off. […] I’d rather give up the presence of the ordained person, let people celebrate according to the script in the songbook.23

The key to interpreting the pastor’s reluctance is twofold. From the theological point of view, using a one-way medium to perform a long-distance consecration of individual “doses” of the Lord’s Supper does not go together well with a vision of the Eucharist as a celebration and an experience of unity in Christ. More importantly still, the rejection of the suggested alternative may be motivated by the need to keep in check the consumerist element in the way the laity approached online liturgies.

The idea of an improvised celebration of the Eucharist at home by families is thus presented as a more authentic and theologically viable alternative. Yet, while a few did reportedly follow this suggestion, it was not implemented broadly. Instead, four shorter services were held one after another so that the number of “seats” for physical partakers in the Communion would satisfy the demand. This dispute highlighted the limit to pèlerin spirituality in the Brno congregation: while some value individual authenticity over the traditional division of roles, others prefer to invest their imagination in a virtual extension of traditional forms to recreate their place of spiritual dwelling.24 In the former situation, the pélerin subject moves from obligation to experimentation in seeking confirmation through mutual confirmation in an intimate setting. The latter offers the opportunity to balance subjugation to authority and consumerism. Both positions question the religious authority which is a constant feature of digital religion even before the COVID-19 pandemic.25

4.2 Prievidza: Strengths and Weaknesses of Digital Belonging

Prievidza can be considered a typical West Slovakian city as regards religious adherence. In the 2021 census, the population was 43% Catholic and 42% non-affiliated.26 However, we chose Prievidza as a field for a different reason: the presence of the Piarist congregation27 and their charismatic work with children and youngsters allowed us to observe different modalities of religious belonging in the local parish. On the one hand, there were sacramental consumers whose spiritual life depends on regular church-going, confession and communication. On the other hand, there are young people, often students or graduates of Piarists school, organised in a converti-like community called Piar.28 The online user, a third type of belonging, emerged even before the pandemic. For this type of audience, a company called Piar Pro produces and distributes online content and takes care of Piar’s “trademark.”

The shift from offline to online masses in March 2020 was relatively easy because Piar Pro already had the know-how. They just needed better technical equipment because they decided to offer as professional a look as possible. They streamed on Facebook twice a week: the Friday worship for youth and the Sunday mass for kids with Father Janko.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Father Janko is acting out a scene after the mass

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSFrh-EqWLc (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Barbora Spalová

According to the church’s rector, the sacramental consumers who switched to the online format found it insufficient: “A man said to me recently: ‘I look at the mass on television every day, but now, in the end, I want to go to church.’” Therefore, the Piarist brothers agreed to open the schoolyard before Easter 2020, when the churches still remained completely closed, to enable people to confess and receive Communion there:

The attitude of people receiving Communion touched me deeply. Many of them received Christ with tears in their eyes. One can see that the sacraments are the backbone of their spiritual life.29

But he also reflected that approximately one-third of these consumers did not return to the churches when they reopened: “Maybe they realised that they didn’t miss the sacraments that much.”

Youngsters were offered the Friday worship, which was prepared to simulate the onlooker’s real presence in the service. “When the songs are more dynamic, we quickly cut the scenes and shake the camera a bit. When it is more meditative, we use the long shots”, narrated an employee of Piar Pro in April 2020.

Figure 4
Figure 4

A still from the streamed Friday worship for youth

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpMENE1Ac4U (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Barbora Spalová

However, more than just individual consumption of online content was needed for youngsters. After a few weeks of isolation, they started to meet on Zoom, which also attracted people that would not come to the offline gatherings – former members who had moved to other cities or women on maternity leave. After the first lockdown, the young people reflected on their experience:

It was manageable, but personal contact was missing. And personally, when I was alone at home, I did not feel like watching the mass on Sunday. So I put it off until it was almost midnight. That way, when we all meet in church, it’s easier.30

The priest evaluated the experiences young people faced during the lockdown as testing the strength of their faith. In doing so, they were able to discover how, in the priest’s words, vital “the crutch of community support is for them.” He contrasted the spirituality of young people from the Piar community with the spirituality of sacramental consumers, emphasising that the young people can also maintain their relationship with God without the common liturgy in the church. He would love to see the young believers become more independent and stronger in their faith. However, as can be seen in the quotation above, they highly value their “dependence” on the community and the church. The priest would like to see the pèlerin religiosity develop during the lockdown, but the young parishioners prefer to hold their dwellers’ identity.

The most remarkable change during the pandemic was the rapid growth of digital audiences attending the streams and Zoom meetings. Father Janko, in particular, became a digital star, attracting thousands of watchers across the country and abroad every Sunday. The Piarists even employed another quasi- volunteer to communicate via email with the families, thank them for their emails and prepare videos displaying the children’s photographs and drawings, which had been sent to Father Janko throughout the week. The Piarists were also satisfied with the financial generosity of the users – Piar Pro bought professional equipment and produced three DVDs during the pandemic.

In sum, the sacramental consumers did not change their mode of belonging, but their numbers visibly dropped; the youngsters, on the other hand, also remained organised by their converti spirituality in small groups of people who knew each other well. Thanks to the pandemic, both these groups experienced that it was practical to live with God in the absence of the collectively-organised liturgy or spiritual sharing with peers. However, unlike in the Czech Republic, nearly no one in Slovakia proposed guidelines or support for this more independent individual spiritual life.

Online users naturally became more numerous and more diverse during the lockdowns, and they remained more numerous after. Piarists hoped that part of the new digital audience would also move to become offline members or sympathisers after the lockdown. That, however, did not happen. Instead, some of the pre-pandemic participants of parish activities moved online with the pandemic and did not return to offline attendance. In September 2021, the Piarists even had trouble filling the first grade of their school and had to let a teacher go. The Piarists experienced a surprising possibility of disconnection of their offline and online offers.

4.3 Liptovský Mikuláš: from Ecumenicism to Domestic Stabilisation

The Lutheran parish in Liptovský Mikuláš is an established public actor in a traditional “Lutheran” region.31 Besides operating six places of worship across the suburban area and initiating cultural and ecumenical events, it also has an indelible place in the local memory that is central to Slovak nation-building.

The sudden lockdown in March 2020 brought the local churches together in a joint primary response that prioritised interdenominational openness and universal elements over those highlighting symbolic boundaries of tradition. Approached with an offer from the local television station, the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Baptist communities prepared an ecumenical service held in the main Lutheran church. In the following weeks, the production of pre-recorded ecumenical services continued at different venues and, after a repeated broadcast by the local station, they were made available online. The liturgical format combined readings and prayers, more contemporary songs accompanied by guitar (Taizé, worship or spirituals) and one or more homilies by preachers from the participating communities. The illustrative videos featuring shots of sacral architecture meant to enliven the more monotonous passages were soon accompanied by visualisations of the events’ scripts so that onlookers could follow the liturgy’s unfamiliar elements. Throughout the first wave of the pandemic, the casual manner of speaking and non-professional musical production characteristic of the recorded services suggest a collaborative atmosphere and the underlying need for solidarity, surpassing denominational categories. A service that no one could call their own was, in effect, an invitation for the audience to take on the pèlerin task of actively cooperating in the production of the service’s meaning for their personal situations.

Figure 5
Figure 5

The first ecumenical service held at the Lutheran church in Liptovský Mikuláš in March 2020. The attending pastoral leaders of the Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Baptist communities can be seen from the right, respectively.

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlxLKkdvrHk (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

During the second lockdown, declared just hours before Christmas Eve 2021, interest in collaboration among the local ecumenical partners could, however, not be revived. Besides the very short notice, neither the Roman Catholic parish (relying on the church’s abundant media output from other locations) nor the Baptist congregation (focusing more on interactive formats) considered the ecumenical service a priority. The Lutheran pastors thus decided to continue their weekly cooperation with the local broadcaster alone, this time sticking to a traditional script. Engaging in full-scale sung liturgy, traditional songs accompanied by the organ and exclusively Lutheran venues brought, in fact, an increase in viewership (with a repeated peak of up to 1,200 views). According to the main pastor, this new, more traditional approach offered the members of a fragmented, dispersed community relief through the experience of a common home:

When you hear a sermon and a service, you may get interested, or not, annoyed […] But when you see YOUR OWN church, one that you’ve been attending your whole life, YOUR OWN pastor.32

Making sense of the increase in viewership, the pastor juxtaposes the situation of a spiritual tourist (associated with the pèlerin) with a person coming home (to dwell in). Considering the dramatic pandemic development in Slovakia in early 2021 and the number of COVID-related deaths in the parish, the offer to see and hear the familiar seems to have been an offer of consolation and reassurance. However, the video recordings of services also opened doors to estranged Lutherans, who understood the genre but would otherwise not attend service physically. In the virtual audience, there were reportedly rare churchgoers, people with problematic pasts or even “atheists”, who occasionally openly communicated with the pastors. The broadcaster thus provided an accessible and safe avenue to take part in the liturgy without engaging with the spaces and relationships that form the core parish community.

While a television simulation of “business as usual” might offer common ground for many with a dweller’s perspective, it did not strike a chord with everyone. Speaking with Jan, a young lay member of the community leadership, we learnt that he only watched the whole video service two or three times. For him, it did not fulfil his need for interpersonal “sharing” and “fellowship.” In his evaluation of his viewer experience with the recorded service, singing becomes a medium of togetherness, of sharing and of mutually validating faith. It is through singing that Jan explains the deficit inherent in the one-sidedness and asynchronicity of recorded services:

Figure 6
Figure 6

Lutheran service in Liptovský Mikuláš in the traditional format

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghs96V9LFpQ (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

You won’t sing along with the television, home alone. Some do it, the elderly need it even, and I do like singing when I am at the place, but [singing to a TV] is not what I want and what, in my understanding, builds a fellowship. I will listen to the sermon, though. That is important, but […] I spent my Sundays differently and then preferred to connect to a [online peer] group and was there with them […] and that was our fellowship.33

Young members of the Liptovský Mikuláš parish, much like youth in other Lutheran communities across Slovakia, often draw inspiration from ecumenic encounters, especially those involving evangelical and charismatic spirituality. Interactive group video calls centred on informal peer exchange and prayer thus presented for them a more viable means of faith validation. While still consuming the “sermon” (the central axis of Protestant service) with the rest of the community, the key need and ambition for Jan on Sundays is neither the liturgy nor the aesthetic experience, but “being there with them.” The sermon is, indeed, important, Jan asserted, but it is more important to have someone to “digest it” with.

Epidemic measures and safety considerations also brought changes to the frequency and practices surrounding the sacraments. Liturgical changes to the Eucharist were made rather pragmatically. After the first lockdown, when individual disposable cups were offered instead of the traditional common chalice, the pastor stressed that it was not a divisive gesture but a measure by which the community wishes to protect one another. According to the main pastor, whose wife happens to be a doctor at the local hospital, this pragmatic step towards a more hygienic distribution procedure was long overdue even before COVID. The fact that neither he nor the community seems to have given the change second thoughts may partially be explained by the fact that instead of community overtones, the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper among Slovak Lutherans are decisively related to the individual absolution of sins. While at the height of the pandemic isolation, Eucharistic elements helped the most impacted maintain a connection with the church through individual pastoral visits by pastors volunteering in hospital wards, the communal experience of the Lord’s Supper operated in a limited way – not least because, even after an easing of quantitative restrictions on attendance, valid proof of vaccination or testing was officially required for entry into the church. At the same time, the heightened sense of lay mobilisation and the need to maintain “fellowship” encouraged some, like Jan and his family, to explore informal do-it-yourself Eucharistic liturgy in their home.

In line with its traditional heritage, public roles and diverse audiences, televised recordings of services became a way of making ritual available. The initial universalist, compromising ecumenical project in the first phase shows a pilgrim-type openness to difference and individuals seeking meaning. However, the subsequent slide into confessionalism did not necessarily mean more authoritative guidance, interaction and boundary-keeping. While underscoring the centrality of the priest in the ritual, it created a shared base for a broad reunion of more or less engaged dwellers. Both phases had a strong public element: The first was modestly open to individual participation in a differentiated emergent community and invited seekers of internal confirmation. The second afforded individual identification and offered confirmation through external authority. Parallel to these events, a convert-style stream of activities took shape in continuity with the pre-existing diversity of this community. Just as before, both modes of belonging kept their rather separate ways.

4.4 Cheb: Belonging with or without Religious Forms

Our fourth COVID story took place in Cheb, a small city on the western edge of Bohemia in the Pilsen diocese, where 1% of the population regularly takes part in the liturgical life of churches.34 Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic parish is relatively lively; the usual Sunday mass attracts about 250 participants. The parish combines both forms of how individuals make sense of belief as described by Hervieu-Léger and Davie. The parish members are simultaneously supported in developing their own inner life and spiritual way (pèlerin spirituality) and in sharing their lives with other parishioners in small groups of like-minded people (converti spirituality).

The priest’s first reaction to the lockdown was thus as follows:

Let´s support the people in their home prayers and family worship! It is an opportunity to break the dependence on the Eucharist performed by a celibate man, an opportunity to declericalise the church and support the autonomy of small Christian communities.35

However, the pastoral council objected that (a) not everybody lives in a Christian family or community – there are rather a lot of families where only one member (usually the mother) practises religious life – and (b) the parish needs to be connected at least on Sunday at 10 AM somehow. In that regard, on the very first Sunday of the 2020 spring lockdown, they organised a video stream of the mass broadcast on YouTube.

Within the next few weeks, they found many innovative ways to “support home prayer by streaming the Sunday mass and maintain the parish community.”36 We connected on YouTube to a Sunday mass in the autumn of 2020. The altar in the chapel was surrounded by chairs with soft toys holding photographs of parish families. The priest spoke to the camera and was supported by two offline singers, along with several invisible people operating the computer and camera. Although far from professional, the stream was clear and comprehensible. The homily was accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation showing pictures created by parish children. The priest thanked the children, saying that the parish assistant had printed a book comprising the pictures and that volunteers had brought the little books to people in retirement homes and hospitals. In contrast to offline services, the longest part of the mass was not the homily but the intercessions: the priest asked the community to pray for general issues, such as global relief from the pandemic, but also for particular people from the parish and beyond, proving that the church community was in contact with them. Often the priest also encouraged people to engage in a particular service – to call those who are lonely, bring the parish newspaper to its readers, bake a pie for the hospital staff, and bring hope and compassion to relationships with others in the town. He reminded people to fulfil their Christian identity as servants of their neighbours. During the Eucharist, people watching online were invited to participate in this celebration by communicating with the ever-present God. This part was then cut out of the recording, which was available on YouTube and the parish website for several weeks.

In April 2021, after the second pandemic Easter, we conducted some online interviews with the Cheb parishioners about their experiences in the pandemic. All the respondents spoke positively about the solidarity and joy coming from the experience of being a servant. The pandemic had created new opportunities to serve, engaged new people and established new partnerships between organisations and individuals in the town.

On the level of personal religiosity, the experiences diverged. Some were more or less satisfied with the streamed services, pretending to be in the church:

I take it seriously, every Sunday. Even when I stayed at home, I dressed up, did my make-up and really followed the mass with all the standing, sitting and kneeling. I mean, from a longer perspective, it would not be my choice, but it served me well for the moment. I was able to pray together with other people scattered in [different] homes.37

Figure 7
Figure 7

The parishioners were invited to send photographs from their individual Good Friday Stations of the Cross prayers in nature. The priest put them in a gallery on the parish website.

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: https://eu.zonerama.com/farnostcheb/Photo/7148058/261230761, (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Barbora Spalová

Others said that this “did not work” for them:

For Easter, we did not have the stream from Cheb. We were invited to join the streams from the cathedral. And I wanted to do it, but then I sat at the screen and experienced nothing. So, I had to find my own way to enjoy Easter – alone, in nature. I had to get to the core.38

In the summer of 2022, the Cheb parish went together for a vacation. Every morning, there was the possibility to swim in a pool and then run up the mountain and sit in silence for 15 minutes. On the last day, they had a mass on the same trail. They used the water from the pool to remember their baptism, and they went to the mountain to celebrate the Eucharist. The priest reflected on this experience: “I believe that in both cases, the people can experience the same thing.”39

The story of the Cheb parish during the COVID-19 pandemic speaks to the pregnancy of the Christian identity as a servant of the neighbour, which effectively situates the parish in civic society. Moreover, both complementary spiritualities, that of individualistic pèlerin and converti, which needs collective approval, were supported. The converti could join the community-oriented online mass. At the same time, the pèlerin could go for a walk and meditate in the silence of nature and then, eventually, post a photo to the community website. The priest and the parishioners learned to pay attention to the authenticity of spiritual experiences, leading to even greater autonomy of the individual way towards the sacred, far beyond traditional religious forms.

Together with Hervieu-Léger, we can see that, in this case, the Christian memory is not the common denominator anymore. Belonging to a community of servants of the neighbour does not automatically require one to be a follower of Christ. And to be a follower of Christ does not mean needing religious forms of worship. In order to enable people to belong, it is enough to create the possibility of staying in silence on a mountain. We argue that the COVID liturgical experiments with celebrating mass in a digital “scattering” and/or alone in the wilderness made this shift beyond religious borders possible.

Figure 8
Figure 8

“Hearts, which are missing”: service to the neighbour through the message board in the Cheb church. Anyone could write the name of a beloved one who had died from COVID-19.

Citation: Interdisciplinary Journal for Religion and Transformation in Contemporary Society 2024; 10.30965/23642807-bja10088

Source: Archive of Petr Hruška, photo taken by Petr Hruška 28.5.2021

5 Discussion

The presented stories offer insight into some of the tendencies present in the way ritual practices were managed, developed and perceived in four church communities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suppose ritual practice is closely tied to the performance and reproduction of belonging to Christianity. What impact did the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions have on repertoires of belonging in these communities?

First, in isolation from the community and with ritual practice frequently limited to mediated forms, practical individual spiritualities were tested. In several of our cases, the community leadership showed an initial tendency to frame the situation of isolation as a call toward the emancipation of individuals from institutional and (or) ordained authority. Services with altered scripts or an ecumenical dimension; special youth and children’s programmes, including immersive narratives; exhortations to individual meditations in nature; or active service to others – all invite a more independent approach to the Christian identity of believers. Online situations can alter the pastors’ and priests’ perception of their roles and affect their ability to perform them in a way they see as authentic. The results of the CONTOC study40 suggest that between 25 and 30% see their role in online worship changed and between 43 and 50% would not evaluate their performance of their role as authentic.

As this may weaken the stability of dwellers and the authority crucial in the converti spirituality, the most disaffected – even inspired – might be the pilgrims. The CONTOC results suggest that digitalization of church ritual offers more autonomy in lay partakers; whether this is or is not appreciated is another thing. In line with the pilgrim repertoire of belonging, individuals were invited to cross the boundaries of the traditional experience of community-defined faith. Alternative views of how to authentically celebrate the Eucharist (Brno, Liptovský Mikuláš) or the openness of the Cheb community to either religious or non-religious understandings of the meditative holiday activity illustrate how traditional rituals can be adapted to individual needs or intuitions. Individual believers were to decide for themselves which forms, constellations and frequency made sense to them as members of an (oftentimes imagined) community of Christians. The drive of individuals, especially priests and pastors, to use the crisis as a chance to boost the autonomy of parish members, however, did not, at least in our cases, succeed in introducing lasting change.

While some researchers have expressed the impression that the dwelling dimension of church life is in decline,41 in most of the presented cases, we observed decisive strengthening during the pandemic. Despite the impulses towards autonomy and the broad offer of alternative sources of consumable religious content, long-distance contact with familiar spaces and access to traditional forms of religious service with more emphasis on community relationships were actively required by the members (Cheb, Brno). In other cases, visual access to the traditional service (Liptovský Mikuláš) or the opportunity to partake in the materiality of religious ritual (the Eucharist in the church courtyard in Prievidza) were strongly appreciated. Nearly 50% of the church personnel surveyed by the CONTOC study said that traditional worship gained in importance for them during the pandemic.42 In addition, those who were most bothered by being dependent on online services were surprisingly the youngest generation under 21 years old according to French-Austrian study among Catholics.43 This finding would suggest that we encounter here a new generation of reflexive dwellers whose lockdown experience helped them to realise that they highly value their parish/congregation community and the material, embodied part of the worship. Our data do not confirm that there are significant differences between Protestants and Catholics in this regard, despite the fact that in Catholicism the reception of the Eucharist has become a central part of the liturgy,44 while in Protestants the emphasis is more on sermon. The protestant denominations represented in our research are the most traditional in Czechia and Slovakia, and so their approach to Eucharist is not so far from Catholic one as it would be for other protestant churches.

COVID-19 may also have reminded Christian communities of their public visibility, enhanced by the online content. However, initial concerns regarding appropriate forms of communication that would be understandable to “outsiders” seem to have been largely side-lined by the needs of the dwelling repertoire of belonging and only had a lasting impact in places where public openness was already a part of the community’s strategy (Cheb, Prievidza). Despite the pastors’ complaints about a general pandemic slide towards consumerism, the production of online or hybrid services opened up opportunities for collaboration and creativity. In an atmosphere of “crisis”, some of those loosely engaged – typically youth, but also adults – were encouraged to engage in new types of responsibilities and thus more intense participation in establishing the common spiritual “home.”45

In cases where groups of like-minded people already existed, the convert repertoire of belonging experienced a pandemic boost. In Cheb as well as in Liptovský Mikuláš, prayer groups continued their activity online, and in Prievidza, online youth worship even attracted a crowd of followers besides the stable members of the physical community. At the same time, the activities of intimate fellowship circles were largely able to function detached from the ritual practice of their umbrella community. While the spirituality of converts is founded upon a strong dependency on the community and (or) its authorities, it also affords independent action in relation to the contrasting backgrounds that predominantly emphasise dweller or pilgrim spiritualities. Our data do not allow further elaboration of this; however, the potentially catalytic effect of the pandemic experience on the coexistence of groups emphasising different repertoires of belonging under one organisational roof deserves further study.

The lessons drawn from the pandemic experience could – and without a doubt will – be very diverse. A non-systematic overview of the first signals we registered suggests the breadth of inspiration and hope. In Brno, the continued video streaming of religious services offers a way to participate in the traditional Sunday liturgy to those who, for whatever reason, cannot attend it personally. In Liptovský Mikuláš, we witnessed a budding hope for a more tightly-knit community with less emphasis on formal Sunday service. In Cheb, an already open community seems to have abandoned the idea of Christian exclusivism altogether and embraced authenticity-seeking as a value. In Prievidza, the lesson is read as a “memento mori” for the church:

Gone is the certainty that we can come into the church. Even during communism, people could do that if they wanted. They might have travelled to another village, to avoid provocation. And we’ve now lost this certainty. Therefore, one must have a personal relationship with God. There’s no way around it.46

Indeed, more research is needed to map the long-term impact of this impulse, which was created by COVID-19 across different religious environments. While we can reasonably expect an acceleration of pre-existing trends toward religious privatisation as a result of the pandemic, the degree and expressions of this privatisation remain to be examined and documented.

Acknowledgements

The text is one of the outputs of the project “Dynamics of the churches’ moral economies in the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the context of restitutions and separation of Church and State” financed by the Czech Grant Agency under project registration number 19-08512S.

Bio

Barbora Spalová is a social anthropologist. Her research interests cover anthropology of Christianity, especially of monasticism, old and new. She also contributed to memory studies, border studies and studies of public space. Her last book analyses the relationships between clergy and laity in Czech Catholic church (2018). She is the editor-in-chief of the journal for qualitative research Biograf.

Adam Gajdoš is a qualitative sociologist with interest in religion, memory politics and social inequalities. He has also worked as a service designer and facilitator. He is presently on paternity leave.

Figures

Fig. 1. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hNChSyK42o (last accessed 30.11.2020), screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

Fig. 2. Screenshot from an online video-meeting for children after live-streamed Sunday service 7.11.2020, screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

Fig. 3. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSFrh-EqWLc (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Barbora Spalová

Fig. 4. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpMENE1Ac4U (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Barbora Spalová

Fig. 5. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xlxLKkdvrHk (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

Fig.6. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghs96V9LFpQ (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Adam Gajdoš

Fig. 7. Source: https://eu.zonerama.com/farnostcheb/Photo/7148058/261230761, (last accessed 11.1.2024), screenshot taken by Barbora Spalová

Fig. 8. Source: Archive of Petr Hruška, photo taken by Petr Hruška 28.5.2021

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1

Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.

2

Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity, p. 27.

3

Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945.

4

Davie, From Obligation to Consumption: A Framework for Reflection in Northern Europe.

5

Alderson/Davie, Online Worship: A Learning Experience.

6

Wright, More-Than-Human, Emergent Belongings, p. 392.

7

Philpot et al., Qualitative Findings on the Impact of COVID-19 Restrictions on Australian Gay and Bisexual Men: Community Belonging and Mental Well-being; Burnett et al., Spirituality, Community Belonging, and Mental Health Outcomes of Indigenous Peoples during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

8

Wenning et al., Negotiating Agency and Belonging during the First Lockdown of the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Interview Study among Older Adults in England, UK.

9

For a rare commentary, see Frei-Landau, When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get – Creative. Another set of relevant data was created by Isabelle Jonveaux thanks to an online questionnaire in French and German, see Jonveaux, Les pratiques de messe en ligne pendant le confinement.

10

In this article, we use “authenticity” as an analytical term denoting the state of subjectively felt (and actively sought) alignment of spiritual practice with one’s individual understanding of its intention and meaning.

11

Nord and Luthe give an example of such element from Northern Germany. The Easter Stones project, challenging people to paint a hopeful pebble and leave it in the public for someone else to find and share on a social network, offered a way of individual expression of religious hope in times of crisis. Nord/Luthe, Hope-Storytelling in the Age of Corona, pp. 67–71.

12

Hervieu-Léger, La réligion pour mémoire; La réligion en mouvement; Catholicisme, la fin d’un monde.

13

Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945.

14

Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious.

15

Hervieu-Léger, La réligion en mouvement.

16

Marx, Ritual in the Age of Authenticity: An Ethnography of Latin Mass Catholics.

17

Hervieu-Léger, Catholicisme, la fin d’un monde; Davie, Religion in Britain. A Persistent Paradox.

18

Davie, Religion in Britain. A Persistent Paradox.

19

Baker et al., Religion in the Age of Social Distancing: How COVID-19 Presents New Directions for Research.

20

Kováč, Cirkvi a štát v čase koronavírusu: Česká republika a Slovensko.

21

The Church of Czech Brethren (Českobratrská církev evangelická) was founded in 1918 by uniting primarily Calvinist and Lutehran Czech-speaking congregations. Despite its position as the third most populous religious community in the country (after Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches), with its nearly 32500 adherents it presents a minority within a minority.

22

Pastor, Brno, April 2021.

23

Pastor, Brno, 38 years old, April 2021.

24

Stephen Garner (2020) observed that in pandemic crisis video production, theological professionals often loose exclusive power over the religious service: “… decentralization of authority structures around the worship service and the corresponding empowerment of those outside of those authoritative cohorts. This is seen particularly in the entrusting to young people, women, children, and others who have the energy, enthusiasm, and skills needed in this environment of key parts of the production, coordination, and delivery of worship services. For some in leadership, this might be the catalyst they’ve dreamed of, getting more of the church involved, but for others, it might be deeply unsettling as they become increasingly side lined or perceived as less relevant.” (Garner, The Distanced Church: Pragmatism, Creativity, and Rhythms of Life, p. 57.)

25

Compare to Campbell/Tsuria, Digital Religion.

26

The Roman Catholic church has still strong position in Slovakia. 56 % of inhabitants declared their catholic adherence in 2021. It is 6 % lesser than in 2011, but the Slovak bishops expressed their satisfaction and gratitude because they expected a bigger drop off. Nevertheless, the firmly secular Slovaks are more and more common, and they actively oppose the position of the Catholic church in relationship to the state and society, which they see as unjustifiably privileged.

27

The Piarists are a religious teaching order founded by Saint Joseph Calasanz in 1621 and arriving in Slovakia in 1642. Today, they are present in three Slovakian towns where they lead schools for children aged 3 to 18 years.

28

See https://www.piar.sk/ (Date of last Access: 07.11.2023).

29

Priest, Prievidza, around 50 years old, April 2021.

30

Parishioner, Prievidza, 20 years old, July 2020.

31

The Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession (Evanjelická cirkev augsburského vyznania na Slovensku) has historically played the role of the largest protestant church on Slovak territory. In 2021, approximately 287 000 or 5.3% of the Slovak population associated themselves with this church. In a predominantly Roman Catholic Slovakia, the Evangelical church has kept a strong presence in select regions and maintains a significant position in the national historical narrative due to the key leadership role played by Lutheran priests and intelligentsia.

32

Pastor, Liptovský Mikuláš, around 50 years old, April 2021.

33

Member of the body of elders, Jakubovany, 30 years old, July 2021.

34

In Czechia, only 13% of the population declared affiliation to some of the churches or religious organisations in the national census of 2021. People with belief but without belonging to the church comprised 9%, those neither with belief nor belonging comprised 48%, and 30% did not answer the question. In 1991, religious adherence was substantially higher – the religious (affiliated and non-affiliated) comprised 44%, the non-religious comprised 40% (Czech Statistical Office 2022). This can be related to the crediting of religious institutions with instances of anti-communist resistance following the 1989 shift to democracy. However, this crediting quickly diminished when churches began to struggle with many internal problems, and as a result, their role in society has become more unclear. For detailed data and interpretations, see Václavík/Hamplová/Nešpor, Religious Situation in Contemporary Czech Society.

35

Priest, Cheb, 55 years old, April 2020.

36

Priest, Cheb, 55 years old, April 2021.

37

Marie, member of the parish pastoral council, Cheb, around 50 years old, April 2021.

38

Zuzana, member of the parish pastoral council, Cheb, around 50 years old, April 2021.

39

Priest, Cheb, 55 years old, October 2022.

40

Schlag/Nord: Zurück im Zentrum? Gottesdienstliche Praxis in Krisen-Zeiten digitaler Kommunikation.

41

Hervieu-Léger, La réligion en mouvement; Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945.

42

Schlag, Digitalization of Ecclesiastical Practice in the Pandemic.

43

Jonveaux, Les pratiques de messe en ligne pendant le confinement. She suggests that the youngest generations use the digital devices in their quotidian life 4 hours and more on average and therefore they need a structured rupture with the digital to move into sacred time and space.

44

Wernert, Le dimanche en déroute, p. 349. Wernert speaks even about hyperthropied investement in eucharistic communication in Catholicism since the 19th century.

45

Stephen Garner expresses hope that creativity will prevail upon pragmatism in organization of online church activities. Our observation was that also the opposite can be true – a regress from innovation and experiment to basic form, imitating the “old normal.” See Garner, The Distanced Church.

46

Pastor, Prievidza, August 2021.

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