Finding God online during the lockdown

Just after Christmas, there was great excitement in the Parish of St John XXIII, the English-speaking community here in Geneva with more than 72 nationalities among its congregation. We are a truly International community with the World Health Organisation headquarters and the UN’s Palais des Nations literally just down the road from our church. Ignatian spirituality first arrived in our parish through the Growth in Prayer and Reflective Living course in 2019 and this group now wanted to share their experience with a wider community in Geneva. With the support of our parish priest, Fr Paul Friel and the Ignatian Spirituality Centre Glasgow, we started sharing information about the forthcoming Lenten retreat.

We invited people to either join a group, do the retreat as a family or on their own. More than 500 copies of the Lenten retreat books were delivered from Glasgow and distributed over two weekends and 10 Masses. 19 Facilitators were trained up and all groups, families or individuals began on Ash Wednesday 26 February with their retreat. There were 14 facilitated groups meeting each week with retreatants regularly attending face-to-face either in the church or in some of the homes and sharing the experiences they had drawn from the week's prayer materials.

Then the world changed. 

One-week Italy was in the news and things were happening fast.  Then there was a letter from our local Bishop that Mass was cancelled. Mass cancelled?  The cancellations even extended to the historic first Catholic Mass in nearly five hundred years that was to have take place in the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre de Genève – once the seat of the Catholic bishops of Geneva until the building was taken over by John Calvin’s Reformed Protestant Church in 1535.

Then even more drastic measures came into force. The first COVID-19 related death in Switzerland was recorded on 5 March.  On 16 March, schools and most shops were closed nationwide across Switzerland and on 20 March all gatherings of more than 5 people were banned–three days before the UK followed suit.

Switzerland was officially in lockdown. People were stuck in their homes – or worse, urgently wanting to get home to loved ones. We were plunged into a totally new experience that we never could have imagined. Sadly, despite the lockdown, the coronavirus infected many people and the situation deteriorated rapidly, and many people died (Two months after the Swiss lockdown, 1,879 people have died here – too many, but far lower than in neighbouring countries). 

No meetings. No Mass. Everything was closed.  Our cosmopolitan community was dispersed across the globe either on work assignments or visiting family. People felt acutely isolated but had a deep desire to connect and to keep going. What could we do now?  

The participants in the facilitated Lenten Retreat groups had already started to form bonds and wanted to carry on with this spiritual journey together through this most extraordinary Lent. We frantically investigated various options and quickly explored the various online tools for the facilitators and groups to use to transform our community into a virtual one: we learned about HouseParty and BlueJeans, WebEx and Zoom and anything we thought the group might feel comfortable with. The facilitators signed up to one of the platforms and sent invitations for the initial online meetings. We started to “Try out” how this very particular spiritual sharing could happen in the virtual world.  

It worked! Most of the groups went ahead with the online meetings, sharing and getting used to the new norm. The few groups which had been reluctant to take their spirituality online soon changed their minds when they saw how rich the experience continued to be and soon everyone was on board.

Our scattered community was now connecting from across the globe, Singapore, France, Germany, the UK, Canada and Ghana to name a few of the countries where people were stranded. [], The online meetings countered the isolation of Geneva lockdown, and brought in retreatants still stranded abroad and unable to travel back to Switzerland. Depending on time zones, participants were staying up late into the night or getting up in the early hours of the morning to attend their groups.

If anything, the weekly sharing became even deeper gaining in importance for participants’ spiritual well-being. As one friend said: “These meetings have been a life saver both spiritually and psychologically for me. I would not miss the sharing and meeting with my new soulmates for anything in the world. I would get up in the middle of the night if required.” The prayer materials helped people to feel grounded and encouraged them to share their feelings, fears and hopes, while the facilitators quickly adapted to the ‘new normal’ letting the groups share their experiences during this very difficult time. 

Easter approached and it became clear that there would be no services for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum to attend. The retreatants started asking: “What next?” As the bonds had become stronger and the sharing deeper, nobody wanted the weekly meetings to come to an end. One of the retreatants summed it up beautifully: “I have taken my first bite into a slab of rich chocolate and I want more!” With St Ignatius guiding us closer to a deeper relationship with Jesus, everyone had started to feel that Jesus was with us in this and that we would be able to get through this together.

As a result, the Pentecost retreat was borne. Another 40 days for the retreatants to meet together and continue their joint journey. With the assistance of the ISC Glasgow team, we created material for each day of the week, in a similar format to that of the Lenten retreat. The deep and meaningful contents was placed on the ISC Geneva website to provide access for the community. Today, the facilitated groups continue to meet virtually – with new retreatants joining the existing groups. 

Feeling ever more comfortable leveraging technology for our spiritual needs, we started a virtual Sunday Mass after Easter, using WebEx together with live streaming on YouTube. Our St John XXIII virtual community has now expanded to even include past members of our congregation, with people calling in from Africa, Asia, the Americas and other parts of Europe for the Mass. The ‘voice’ of the parish is fully represented with readers and musicians taking part in the Sunday Masses. 

And now, as we draw nearer to the end of our Pentecost retreat, many retreatants and facilitators are asking: “What’s next?”