In March, when the global pandemic pushed India into a complete lockdown with the closure of malls, offices, and religious places, a 54-year-old catholic priest in Junagadh district of Gujarat, wondered how to cater to his parishioners. An avid cyclist, Fr Vinod Kanatt decided to pedal from one parishioner’s home to another to offer holy communion, prayers, and sometimes just a patient ear.
“I visited all these families over the last few months,” said Kanatt, parish priest of St Ann’s Church in Junagadh that falls under the Rajkot diocese. “Initially, I thought that the lockdown would remain for a short period,” said Kanatt. “As days passed, we realized that the restrictions would continue for a longer time. Since the parishioners could not visit the church, I thought it would be a good idea to visit them instead.”
Kanatt started his lockdown visits from April 12, which was Easter Sunday. He visited a few families and offered Easter blessings. “I ensure that I take all precautions like wearing a mask, using sanitizer and maintaining distance,” he said.
Kanatt has spent nearly 11 years in the Junagadh parish. He was first appointed there in 2008 and he served his first term for six years. In 2014, he was transferred to Porbandar parish and re-appointed to Junagadh in 2016. “It was in Porbandar that I started cycling and continued with the habit,” said Kanatt who believes that this mode of transport helps him connect with people better. “I cycle wherever it is possible. If I have to visit far off places, I always use public transport. It helps when the people consider me as one of them,” he said.
The locals of Junagadh often refer to him as the “cycling priest.” Even before the pandemic, Kanatt used to visit the homes of sick and elderly persons who would find it difficult to visit the church. He has also stepped up to raise finances and supply food to the parishioners in need.
“People have to deal with more hardships due to the pandemic,” said Kanatt. By visiting them, I simply offer them some comfort to sail through such difficult times,” he said.
The catholic families in Junagadh say that Kanatt has always encouraged them to have faith and keep doing good work. “He has given me immense strength to fight my battles, not just during the lockdown but for many years,” said 70-year-old Junagadh resident Angela D’Souza who has battled cancer twice. “Because of my health conditions, I rarely go out. I would visit church only on important days. But Fr Kanatt makes it a point to visit me to offer his prayers and blessings.”
The retired teacher said that Kanatt visited her multiple times during the lockdown and often emphasized on eating healthy food to build immunity. “My son and daughter-in-law are regular church-goers. Fr Kanatt’s home visits helped them too”.
Another parishioner, 67-year-old retired railway employee Victor D’Costa said that Kanatt visited his home once and gave the holy communion, prayed, and blessed his wife Fausta (64) and him.
“The pandemic suddenly brought our church visits to a halt,” said D’Costa. “My wife and I were relieved when Fr Kanatt paid us a visit.”
Kanatt tries to cover six to seven families in a day. He had to reschedule some visits as there was a spurt of Covid-19 cases in the district. Two community members were also infected with the virus, and have recovered now.
“He is extremely active,” said D’Costa. “It’s a rare sight to see a casually dressed priest cycling around to visit his flock”.
The pandemic has posed strange challenges to the world. Many religious institutions have held online prayers. Holy masses are also being relayed to the people with the help of the internet on their phones and computer screens. The World Health Organization states that religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and faith communities can play a major role in saving lives and reducing illness related to Covid-19. “They are a primary source of support, comfort, guidance, and direct health care and social service, for the communities they serve,” WHO states adding that they can provide pastoral and spiritual support during public health emergencies and other health challenges and can advocate for the needs of vulnerable populations.
The WHO’s guidance document on ‘practical considerations and recommendations for religious leaders and faith-based communities in the context of Covid-19 states that they can play a significant role in “strengthening mental and spiritual health, wellbeing and resilience, through individual contact (while observing appropriate physical distancing) and through social and other communications media.”
Kanatt is working to achieve all this in the tiny Junagadh community in his own simple way.
(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Gaurab Dasgupta.)
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