Prime Minister praises faith leaders for COVID-19 presence and support

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Ottawa – Canadian Catholic News] – As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked faith communities for helping Canadians struggle through nine long months of COVID-induced uncertainty and isolation, he also urged a group of 250 clergy and faith leaders from a wide range of religions to do more over the home stretch while vaccinations roll out.

“Thank you for your leadership and your continued leadership as we’ve been through this time. It’s been difficult,” Trudeau told the group in a Dec. 3 Zoom call organized by the Canadian Council of Churches. “As we come into what will perhaps be the final months of this COVID crisis, hopefully, there is that final step of getting people to continue to hang on until we’re through it — encouraging people to follow best public health advice and to get vaccinated as well.”

The faith leaders came back at Trudeau with their own requests for more support and transparency from the government.

Quebec’s Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, Roman Catholic primate of Canada, emphasized the essential and universal nature of Christian service to people of all faiths, cultures and races.

Lacroix highlighted Church work with refugees and the poor. Echoing Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, he reminded Trudeau of the priority Catholics give to contributing to a better society. He asked the prime minister for support, consultation and understanding so that churches would continue to be encouraged to serve the poor and isolated during COVID and beyond.

“We who are involved in religious and spiritual care efforts are engaged at all times in the lives of individuals, from the cradle to the grave and beyond,” Hindu Federation of Canada president Pandit Roopnauth Sharma told Trudeau. “Understanding this fact, we find it very difficult to accept that we are not considered as an essential service.”

“Faith leaders’ work is indeed essential. It is one of the essential works,” said Imam Hamid Slimi of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

Anglican Archbishop for Indigenous Canadians Mark MacDonald reminded Trudeau that Indigenous and poor Canadians have been more vulnerable than most through the COVID crisis. The government needs to step up to help the people whom religious leaders have always served, he said.

“We beg, for its own good, we beg Canada to recognize the priority of the poor and the priority of our living relation to the land. If that could happen, we would see this time as the birth-pains of a transformed Canada,” MacDonald said.

Rev. Rhonda Brittain, vice-president of the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, reminded Trudeau that COVID-19 has uncovered racial inequalities in Canada, a fact Trudeau acknowledged

“This pandemic hasn’t hit everyone equally,” said Trudeau. “We know that black Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, people of colour have been more vulnerable to COVID because of the existing socio-economic inequalities… That’s where the leadership of faith organizations and churches and community organizations has been so important — in order to see everyone and to reach everyone.”

Rabbi Deborah Landsberg, co-chair of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, sought to dispel the notion that religious communities are narrowly concerned with their own internal interests. The struggle to keep a community together while the virus keeps people in isolation has been difficult, Landsberg said.

“It’s been brutal,” she said. “And we can’t do our work without you. How we help each other, when we are in the midst of struggle, before it has passed, that’s a spiritual responsibility that we bear. And we bear it together.”

Trudeau promised to consider the definition of essential services.

“The nature of essential services is one that fascinates me,” he said. “There seems to be very little more essential than the fundamental well-being of an individual within a community. I will take a careful look at what you propose on that.”

Trudeau’s one request in exchange was that the faith leaders embrace their historic role in breaking down some people’s resistance and suspicion of vaccines.

“Faith organizations have been incredibly important in vaccination programs in the past,” he said. “Whether it was smallpox or polio, or missionaries acting around the world, there’s a long tradition of stepping up to support people in better health outcomes.”