Survey shows stronger personal religious faith during pandemic

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PROVIDENCE — Linda Tellier is not sure if living through a pandemic this past year has strengthened her Catholic faith. What she does know for sure is that her faith has strengthened her.
“It has been an insane year for sure. It has had its share of global and personal challenges. But my faith has helped me to have strength and peace in the face of it all,” said Tellier, a parishioner at St. Agatha Church in Woonsocket.
Tellier said she has navigated the turmoil amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which coincided with a turbulent election year, from a perspective that she described being rooted in living out the faith in “ordinary times.”
“I know a lot of people refer to religion as a crutch. Maybe so at times, not that that is a bad thing,” Tellier said. “But I see my Catholicism as a strong foundation I can draw upon when times get tough. I am not so swayed and tossed about in the midst of turmoil and emotion. I don’t operate from a place of fear.”
Tellier’s faith-informed perspective reflects the findings of a recent Pew Research Center survey that found that Americans are more likely than people in other developed countries to say that the novel coronavirus outbreak has bolstered their faith.
According to the Pew survey, which was released in late January, nearly three-in-ten Americans reported having a stronger personal religious faith because of the pandemic. The same share also said they believed the religious faith of Americans overall had been strengthened.
Far smaller percentages of the populations in other surveyed countries said the pandemic had impacted religious faith. Those countries included Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Holly Taylor Coolman, a theology professor at Providence College who comments on sociological issues through a theological lens, said she believes a lot of Americans during the pandemic are struggling with finding and feeling like they are part of a community.
“We cannot overestimate the importance of belonging to a community,” said Coolman, who added that she and her family are blessed to be members of a parish where they feel connected, even if they have not always been able to be present physically at church.
“Even in the difficulty of not being together physically, we have a sense that somebody is looking for us,” Coolman said. “Catholics have in their tradition, an especially strong ecclesial sense that all of this has to do with our connections to one another and living with one another.
“Somebody is missing us, and I think that really matters,” Coolman said.
For Bill Patenaude, a parishioner at St. Joseph Church in West Warwick, the pandemic has forced him to rely on his Catholic faith in a new way. Caring for his ill elderly mother at home and unable to attend Mass, Patenaude has learned to depend on the prayers of the Catholic community.
“I don’t know how I would have gotten through the past year without my faith,” said Patenaude, an engineer with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management who is a published author and has written about ecology from a Catholic perspective.
But amid the disruptions of COVID-19, Patenaude said he has stopped writing, going to the gym and other activities that were part of his routine before the pandemic. To care for his mother, who has Parkinson’s Disease, Patenaude rarely leaves the house so as to not risk bringing the virus home.
“Even though the traditional means for the reception of sacramental grace weren’t there, taking care of my mom has really helped me to understand the Christian message of sacrificing so that others may live,” Patenaude said.
Ryan Tremblay, a Catholic musician who is a parishioner at St. Lucy Church in Middletown, and his family were all hit with the virus back in November. Tremblay said they all recovered. He described feeling better after nearly 48 hours of bed rest just before Thanksgiving.
“I feel like overall, the pandemic has allowed me the time to reflect and really consider what God has in store for me, both in the present moment and in the future,” said Tremblay, 33, who added that COVID-19 forced him to take a timeout and look at the “big picture.”
“I feel like it’s something where we’ve really been able to just pause and reflect, and tighten up the ship,” Tremblay said. “Both family-wise and ministry-wise for me, it’s helped me to have a larger vision as opposed to being caught up in the seasonal type stuff.”
Coolman, of Providence College, said the challenges of living through a pandemic present opportunities to set aside some of the normal distractions of life and face “some of the hard things squarely.”
Said Coolman, “We as Catholics are never called to seek suffering for its own sake. But we do have a way to think of approaches to suffering that are life-giving, and that matters. We believe in this ultimate transcendent reality that is Love with a capital L. That sounds like theological-speak, but when daily life is really hard, it helps and it matters for people who have a conviction that the ultimate reality is Love.”
Tellier, of Woonsocket, and her family have not attended Mass in person since the coronavirus swept through the country last March. The Divine Mercy chaplet has been her family’s special devotion throughout the pandemic. She is thankful for the priests who pushed through their personal comfort zones to bring Christ to the faithful through live-streaming technology.
“My faith has helped me to have strength and peace in the face of it all,” Tellier said. “While I do miss being in the presence of the Eucharist, I do feel a whole different, somehow deeper, connection to the Church all over the world.”