Masses are canceled in dioceses across our land due to a pandemic that needs no introduction, but apparently the other causes of death in the U.S. need re-introduction: heart disease - about 655,000 deaths per year; abortion - about 638,000 per year; cancer - about 600,000; the common flu - about 59,000; pneumonia, which has a death rate of 10 percent - 50,000 per year. Any number of deaths, even one, is a tragedy--but this should help give us perspective. Due to the novelty of the coronavirus though, we feel the need to be extra cautious, even going to such great lengths as closing churches and offering general dispensations in dioceses across the country and globe.
I do believe, as baptized Christians, we are called to be prophets. When the majority of Church leaders are not saying something, it is up to the lay faithful to do so and support the leaders in the minority like Archbishop Vigano who says to open wide the doors of churches. COVID-19 has scared us out of our wits, but I see this as an opportune time to demonstrate our faith in God.
"Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:35-39).
We may consider "love of Christ" to be an abstract concept that we all can live out in our own way. While there is truth to that, the Holy Mass is the most universal, most complete way to express our love of Christ. It is where heaven kisses earth, where we go to Calvary with Christ. He walks the way of the Cross for us at every Mass. His suffering in the desert and his passion for us are all the more relevant given the fact that it is Lent. He suffered and died for us to be with him, and yet many of us are choosing to stay away from him out of concern for this virus spreading. I cannot help but wonder, might this virus be God calling the faithful to suffer with him and trust him that he will ultimately protect us? What better time to test our faith than during Lent?
"For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, 'Fear not,
I will help you.'” (Isaiah 41:13)
Granting a general dispensation and suspending Mass due to health concerns connected to COVID-19 is opening up doors to more dangers than it is preventing. Many souls will starve because of this. If we truly believe the Mass is what we say it is, this is our time to prove our faith that God will protect those who call upon him when they go to worship him. We ought to take every measure of prayer possible to prevent the spread of this virus. Mass is the most powerful prayer of all. The Catholic Faith is a physical faith for a reason; it's because the physical engagement in it is an act of faith itself--especially in times like these.
For the past two weeks I have been going up to the priest after Mass, and asking, "I always have received on the tongue. Out of respect for those who are concerned about the virus I'd like to receive now, since Mass is over and all others have already gone." After the priest was done greeting people at the back of the church today, I said that to him and I was delegated to the deacon.
I can say this is no big deal, and personally I was not offended, but this does point to a quickly spreading problem regarding how we choose to react to this virus. People think they are being considerate when they don't obey the commandment of the Lord to attend Mass on Sunday, and when they take every measure possible to prevent the spread of the virus even if it means not granting a communicant the right to receive the way he wishes to receive. Concern for health has overruled faith. I hardly ever hear Church leaders remind people that they should not receive if they are not in the state of grace, yet when word of this virus spreads we start encouraging people not to receive. Catholic public figures have openly defied Church teaching and they were still offered Communion, but if there's any danger whatsoever that a Catholic may spread COVID-19 they are expected to stay away from Communion and Mass. Where are our priorities?
I understand encouraging people to go to Mass in the midst of this virus outbreak would probably cause Catholics to be persecuted. Nonetheless, that is our calling. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10). I take no pleasure in persecution itself, except for the comfort I take in Christ's words. We quote these words when times are good, but when times get tough and it is time to be persecuted, do we live by this beatitude?
As I see sports leagues and theme parks shutting down, travel bans being put in place, and livelihoods being affected, I see this as an opportunity for the Church to stand as a beacon of faith and hope. We will be rewarded in the end if we stand up for faith, not only by God but by society as they start to look to the Church as the one institution that refused to worry, because it lived by the teachings of Christ, and the advice of saints like St. Paul, who wrote:
"The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" Philippians 4:6-7.
I understand that many other bishops are offering dispensation and suspending Mass, and authorities both civil and religious are almost unanimous in their social distancing decisions. But does no one see how Mass is different? If there should be any exception to the quarantine, Mass is it. The closing of venues and the economic hit to businesses are of little consequence. The economy will recover. People can find entertainment in different ways other than going to theme parks or sports games. But they cannot receive our Lord physically in any way except through the Eucharist. This is our time to have courage and faith that our Lord still desires to commune with us in a physical way, even amid adversity:
"Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:6 RSVCE).
The time to exercise our faith is now. There are ways to pray together remotely, and increase our faith in private through spiritual exercises and reading. But there is no replacing the Lord in the Eucharist. All the other quarantining methods people are exercising matter not; we can abstain from anything, but the Lord longs for us to reach out to him in love as he did for us, and to trust him.
At the center of the Mass suspension and general dispensation from Mass is a concern for the elderly. This is scandalous, a stumbling block for believers. Should we "protect" the elderly by telling them to keep away from the one thing that can save them, their very Lord and savior? Faith supersedes common sense, as does love. They are mysteries that go far beyond, far deeper than, our common sense. By suspending Mass and offering general dispensation, we are favoring our own common sense over faith and love of God.
As a compromising option, why not delegate the offering of dispensation from Mass to pastors, so they can address the issue on a more local basis? It may even be feasible for them to offer dispensation for entire senior communities, or their own entire parish if they so choose. This seems to be in line with the Church's teaching on subsidiarity: anything that can be handled by the local community should be handled by the local community.
If a virus can scare half a congregation from going to Mass, and bishops into suspending Mass, what else can? A gas shortage? Terrorist threats? Higher levels of pollution? This pandemic is a test of faith, because much worse scenarios may present themselves in the future. If we don’t take this opportunity to practice our faith in public amid adversity by going to Mass and encouraging others to do so, our faith will surely crumble in the face of worse adversity. The closing down of event venues and ubiquitous quarantines sound eerily similar to what has happened in communist countries in the past and still today, countries that also do not hesitate to close churches out of concern for the greater good. I think history and current events make evident that when the religious practice is discouraged, much worse things seep in. Religion and our faith in God are the only recourse we have to deal with crises that are bigger than us. By suspending Mass and offering a general dispensation, the Church is saying it's OK to forego full engagement in the one thing that can save us.
I believe this will all work together for good, as all things do through God's providence. Perhaps our concern for spreading germs will help us return to the way Catholics used to receive: more reverently, at the altar rail with a cloth and an altar server with a patent underneath. In the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, after Jesus says his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink, many people left because they found the saying too hard. Jesus then turned to his disciples and asked, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). Maybe this is God's way of filtering out the crowds, to see who really believes, to see who will risk everything for him because they know he alone can save them.
During times of illness, many saints embraced the trial. St. Damien devoted his life to serving lepers, St. Roch and many other saints of the Middle Ages diligently tended to the sick during the Bubonic Plague epidemic. Even when there was a serious threat of illness, the saints did not run from the danger but ran into the fire out of love. Yet when the threat of illness isn’t even nearly as imminent as it was in their cases, we not only run from the danger but encourage skipping Mass and even cancel Masses?
“The Second Vatican Council rightly proclaimed that the Eucharistic sacrifice is ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’. ‘For the most holy Eucharist contains the Church's entire spiritual wealth’” (Pope St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharista, 1).
The bishops' authority only goes so far, and they have no authority to cancel Masses for no legitimate reason. Governors certainly don't have a right to mandate that churches cancel Mass. I can guarantee you God does not want us shutting down churches for something so trivial.
Some people are saying this is an opportunity to practice spiritual Communion, a beautiful practice that is not as popular as it once was. But spiritual Communion is reserved for those who have a legitimate reason not to receive; such as if a person is not Catholic, not in the state of grace, or can’t safely go to Mass due to illness, weather, or persecution. Many persecuted Catholics took advantage of spiritual Communion in societies where they were forbidden to worship in public. By encouraging spiritual Communion the Church is creating a situation akin to those who were persecuted for their faith. Unless in one of the situations mentioned above, spiritual Communion should not be encouraged. The only feasible reason for spiritual Communion in this circumstance would be religious persecution. Are we being persecuted? I will leave that determination up to you.
When a child is sick, his mother doesn't tell him to stay away from her. She embraces him all the more. How much more must God now want to embrace his beloved children in this time of illness, so he can cure them? Out of love, we don't stay away. We draw closer. If we love the Lord we would not stay away from him.