“Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after will seem inadequate.” — Michael Leavitt, Former Secretary of Health and Human Services
“There is no place for selfishness and no place for fear! Do not be afraid, then, when love makes demands. Do no be afraid when love requires sacrifice.” — Saint John Paul II
Although I had intended to retreat from the Internet during this time of corona, I have been asked and now feel compelled to address the subject from a Catholic perspective. I am not a moral, theological or medical authority by any means, but I have reflected and prayed about these issues and humbly present the following for your consideration.
On the evening of Sunday, March 15th, the Diocese of Buffalo announced that there would be “no regularly scheduled public Masses in the Diocese of Buffalo until further notice due to an abundance of caution and growing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus.” On the Friday previous, Bishop Scharfenberger announced that “all Catholic faithful are dispensed from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass and Holy Days of Obligation.” That dispensation will remain in effect until public Masses can once again take place within our diocese. In the meantime, priests will offer private Masses every day for scheduled intentions.
The Diocese of Buffalo is just one of many dioceses that have made the difficult decision to cancel all public Masses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus: Anchorage and Atlanta, Baltimore and Boston, Denver and Detroit, Chicago and Cincinnati, Hartford and Houston, Los Angeles and Louisville, Milwaukee and Mobile, Oklahoma and Omaha, Philadelphia and Portland, and all the saints… Anthony, Francis, Louis and Paul. The list is growing by the day.
Over the past few days, I have heard reactions from Catholics which genuinely surprised and even shocked me. People have criticized Bishop Scharfenberger (and other bishops) for “caving to secular authorities” and not “standing their ground.” For “not trusting enough in God” and allowing Satan to “rejoice.” A few people have even gone so far as to suggest that some Catholics will fall away from the faith and that the bishops are facilitating and permitting this “outrage.” Others have said that the bishop and Church leaders are “denying us Jesus.”
Good heavens. I am certainly not one to shy away from criticizing bishops, but I do not agree with these sentiments at all.
Catholicism has long celebrated the relationship between faith and reason. We believe that there is not conflict but compatibility between the two. Science – a particular form of reasoning – can exist in harmony with faith. As the Catechism reminds us, science “can never conflict with faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God” (159).
In the case of the coronavirus, we are relying on medical science to keep us informed and protected. The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that the coronavirus is a pandemic: “an outbreak occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that the coronavirus is spreading primarily through person-to-person contact. Importantly, they have also determined that the virus is spreading “easily” because of community spread, which is the spread of a contagious disease within a community. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and one of our country’s leading experts on infectious disease, recently said: “Whenever you have an outbreak [where] you can start seeing community spread, [this] means by definition that you don’t know what the index case is. When you have enough of that, then it becomes a situation where you’re not going to be able to effectively and efficiently contain it.” He has urged all US citizens to practice social distancing to prevent a “potentially catastrophic rise in infections.”
Bishop Scharfenberger and other US (and international) bishops are not “caving to Caesar” or “letting Satan win.” They are heeding the counsel of medical scientists. They are making a reason-based decision about our religious practices for the time being. I can only imagine that this was a very difficult decision for Bishop Scharfenberger and his episcopal counterparts.
Ceasing public Masses is a dramatic step, but it is not without precedent. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, St. Louis was one of the ten largest American cities. Dr. Max Starkloff was St. Louis’ Health Commissioner at the time and he took swift, aggressive action to combat the spread of the disease. For starters, he forbid public gatherings of more than twenty people, which sounds familiar to our 2020 ears. His decision to close all churches (along with every other public gathering place) was initially resisted by the Archbishop, but eventually the prelate relented and suspended the weekly obligation for Catholics. These efforts from Dr. Starkloff are now known as social distancing. Thanks to his bold actions, St. Louis had one of the lowest death rates among large cities in America. In contrast, Philadelphia’s Health Commissioner, who disregarded the advice of infectious disease experts, ended up with bodies stacked up outside of overflowing morgues and a death rate nearly twice as high as St. Louis’.
Although the coronavirus has been likened to a plague, it is important to note that actual plague is “a vector-borne infectious disease caused by bacteria.” The most infamous form of plague – bubonic – is the type of plague responsible for the 14th century’s Black Death, which killed at least 100 million people in Europe and Asia. The people of that time desperately tried to contain the disease that was ravaging their communities, cities and countries. In fact, it is from the people of this time that we get the word “quarantine.” In an effort to stem the plague’s tide, ships arriving from infected ports were required to drop anchor away from shore and wait 40 days before they were allowed to disembark. This practice became known as “quarantine” from the Italian words for 40 days: quaranta giorni.
The Black Death also brings us a beautiful story of perhaps the earliest social distancing of them all: the brave little village of Eyam, England. As this article explains, “During the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-6, the inhabitants of Eyam quarantined themselves, in a famous act of self-sacrifice, to prevent the spread of the plague. By the end of the outbreak, more than a quarter of the village’s population of almost 1,000 were dead. The plague, however, was contained.” (One of my favorite books is A Parcel of Patterns about the heroic people of Eyam, who received the plague in a parcel of flea-infested fabrics.)
Medical science couldn’t assist them at the time. Medieval doctors tried to help people avoid the disease, but since its origin was unknown, they were at a great disadvantage. Once infected, a person might be treated with bloodletting or given a potion, but there was little anyone could do to actually cure the sick. So the people of Eyam made a collective sacrifice – they would distance themselves in order to protect the surrounding area, which remained plague-free. Many of Eyam’s villagers died so that their neighbors might live.
Today we are being asked to make a collective sacrifice in order to protect others. However, social distancing in 2020 demands nowhere near the sacrifices of 1665. Our lives will be disrupted but are much less likely to be lost especially if we practice social distancing conscientiously and consistently.
Here in Buffalo, most public gathering places are closed: schools, libraries, restaurants, movie theaters, etc. And yes, churches.
We are being asked to sacrifice the Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Eucharist is the source and summit of our lives as Catholics. It is the celebration and commemoration of and our communion in the paschal mystery of Christ. The cessation of public Masses is a tremendous blow to our spiritual lives especially during the season of Lent when many people try to attend daily Mass as often as possible.
The people of Eyam sacrificed their physical lives for others, but we are only being asked to sacrifice part of our spiritual lives for a time. Yes, it is the greatest part of our spiritual life, but that just makes the sacrifice even more meaningful.
This is an act of charity on our part as well as of obedience to both spiritual and civil authorities. Community spread is a real threat to vulnerable people in our community. Just yesterday Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center issued a press release regarding two of their patients who contracted the coronavirus “through community spread.” My heart breaks for these people, who are now battling not only cancer but also COVID-19! We must do all we can to prevent any further spread throughout our community. It is especially important to note that many regular Mass goers (especially daily attendees) are in the demographic that is considered most vulnerable to this virus: older and elderly folks. Also, let’s remember that the majority of our priests (locally and nationally) are in that vulnerable category as well.
Two years ago, the Diocese of Buffalo faced a “crisis” of its own making. It failed horribly in its response.
Today, the Diocese of Buffalo is facing a crisis of an entirely different nature. Their response has been more than adequate and even admirable. Of particular note is the fact that they are prioritizing people over money, which was not the case two years ago.
No Masses means no collection baskets and no offertory. Some folks may donate electronically, but a significant source of regular income will disappear across the diocese.
If the Diocese of Buffalo is prioritizing people over money, there must be a pretty major reason… a global pandemic, perhaps?
For someone who has spent the last two years in a state of near-constant criticism and cynicism toward her diocese, it’s refreshing to have this opportunity to commend rather than critique. The Diocese of Buffalo – like its counterparts throughout the country – is doing its best to navigate this turbulent time. For decades, our Diocese and the Church as a whole allowed and enabled the spread of abuse like a cancer, or indeed, a virus. I dearly wish that they had reacted to the virus of abuse the way they are responding to the coronavirus! But perhaps they are slowly learning and this global pandemic can reinforce the important lesson of people over profit.*
Dear friends, this is a time for unity and charity. While we mourn the loss of the Mass, let us unite ourselves with so many Catholics around the world for whom Mass every Sunday – let alone daily! – is a distant dream. Let us remember the many Catholics throughout history who have had to live without the Eucharist.
Let us recall that many survivors of clerical sexual abuse are unable to practice their faith or receive the sacraments because of PTSD and abuse-related trauma. Going into a church can be extremely triggering as would be any type of interaction with a priest. Some Catholic survivors have requested and received dispensations from Mass attendance because such attendance would jeopardize their health and healing. Stephanie McIntyre, nationally recognized survivor and advocate, recently posted these powerful words: “Are you a Catholic who is outraged about Masses being cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions? Welcome to the world of clergy abuse victims and their families. Most of us lost the luxury of being able to go to Mass or any church a long time ago.” Let us offer up our sacrifice on their behalf and may it remind us that that Mass is a “luxury” for many, many people.
Let us unite our sacrifice with those of military men and women throughout the world, who often go long periods of time without the sacraments. A US Marine named Joe Wagner recently posted this poignant reflection:
“Both times I was deployed I had to go a stretch of at least three months without seeing a priest at all and had mostly sporadic sacramental access apart from that. Even when we had a chaplain on base, there was still nothing you could call parish life, no young adult community, small groups, or those other things American Catholics are going to start missing soon. I won’t say it didn’t suck, and I don’t have any special hacks to make it easy for you. But I can give you my assurance that Mass or no Mass, God will still be with you, and that regardless of liturgical season, it will be another Easter when we do finally get to go back.”
In another space, Joe shared that “sacramental exile on deployment was a formative experience in my spiritual life that motivated me, when I got home, to leap at the sacramental and communal parts of Catholic life even more than before.”
To leap at the Sacraments! Isn’t that a beautiful image?
What if we saw this current sacramental fast as an opportunity to deepen our love for the sacraments and for our Eucharistic Lord? How wonderful it would be for us to develop a spiritual hunger for the Eucharist such as we may never have experienced!
Let us also remember that our ability to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist is a PRIVILEGE. It is a privilege that many of us – myself included – may have taken for granted because we live in a country where daily Mass is expected and assumed.
Another privilege we have is that for most of us, this period of social distancing and isolating will take place in the comfort of our homes with ample sustenance, comfort and entertainment available to us. We even have a previously unheard of technological opportunity to participate in the life of the Church through livestreamed Masses, prayer apps (click here for a great list of available ones), and social media-based faith support. Let’s take advantage of what is available to us while we await a return to our normal spiritual routines. This tweet from a lady named Trish Lewis** gives us a positive way to look at the situation: “We are fighting something invisible – the virus germs – but invisible things are also on our side: faith, hope and love… and WiFi.”
Let us keep the faith, Catholic friends. It will be different and difficult, sobering and sad. But aren’t the hardest sacrifices so often the most life-changing and meaningful? May this period of trial strengthen our faith and help us to appreciate it all the more!
Let us have hope… That our efforts at social distancing and isolating will stem the tide of this virus and flatten the curve we’re hearing so much about these days. That the most vulnerable members of our communities will be spared an infection that could seriously jeopardize their health and possibly cost them their lives.
Let us practice charity. The kind of charity that the people of Eyam courageously put into practice. May our love for our Eucharistic Lord – and our desire for Him – inspire us to love those around us by observing the protocols put in place by civil and church authorities. Let us offer up this sacrifice out of love and for the sake of those who are fighting this virus in any capacity.
And let us pray… not at Mass as we wish we could, but in our homes and in our hearts. Let us remember that God is always with us and that prayer is possible no matter where we are. Let us pray for each other, for those who are sick, for medical personnel and emergency responders, for priests saying solitary Masses and administering last rites, for essential items suppliers and drivers, for grocery store staff, for researchers, for government and church officials, for people facing financial struggles because of this pandemic, and for the homeless and hungry.
This would be a great time to explore or rediscover the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, which is the daily prayer of the Church that all priests and religious pray every day. You can find Divine Office apps here or check out this website. The Rosary is another powerful prayer we can turn to at this difficult time. It is the prayer Our Lady herself has asked us to pray! Many parishes are offering Eucharistic Adoration at specific times (call your parish to inquire and to encourage this practice if it’s not available) or at least opening the church for socially-distanced prayer. Our Lord will be waiting in the tabernacle for you!
We are not caving or falling away or lacking trust. If anything, this challenging situation is an opportunity to increase our trust in God! We can emerge from this crisis stronger and holier.
We can do it… with God’s help and grace and mercy.
Source and Summit graphic via the Diocese of Fort Worth
*A reader named Laura Hansen Schleicher made an excellent point on the money/people dichotomy: “I hope the pastors and priests feel the absence of their parishioners monetarily and physically. I hope it reminds them of the value they hold and that the church is PEOPLE. And I hope that leads them to making changes with the way they handle and prioritize (or don’t) victims. It would be a strange thing if this is what initiated that change, but I have hope. Leave it to God to work that way.” Thank you, Laura, for this wonderful insight.
** Trish Lewis lost her daughter, Natalie, under tragic circumstances that may be recalled by Buffalo residents. If anyone can show us how to rise above difficult circumstances, it’s Trish. Her Twitter can be found here: https://twitter.com/poodlewalker10 My reference to her tweet does not indicate her endorsement of this post.