Chronic fatigue and Catholicism

Priest in full liturgical vestments in prayer

I haven’t been to Mass for 2 months. There, I said it. When illness strikes, surviving day by day can be a struggle. It can be a heavy cold, and sneezing your way through the Amazon forest (am I still contagious and a danger to others, or just a source of distraction worse than when fixing my veil every 10 minutes?), or it can be fatigue so strong you can’t even keep standing long enough to make your breakfast, but the question will be buzzing in your head: am I really ill enough not to go, or will I be in a state of mortal sin because I didn’t go? There is a deafening silence about chronic illnesses and being a practising Catholic. The examples used on the few discussion forums are always colds and the flu (you may want to make the effort, but think of others who could suffer from it), or the two people doing chemotherapy and taking two opposing views of it because of their conscience. The advice of asking a priest doesn’t sit well with me: what if the priest in question is someone like my mother, who only took a day off sick when hospitalised for cancer? He would judge the situation from a work ethic view that is as perfectionist as mine, not really helping my conscience come to term with something over which I’m beating myself. I want an answer from the most neutral authority in the Church, her teachings.

It’s not a matter of wanting a priest to tell me what I want to hear, but the example shows how two people with the same illness take two different views, so even if the priest knew first hand what the fatigue that comes from your body fighting an inflammation 24/7 is like, he can’t know what it feels to be me. Moral manuals don’t seem to agree with each other over the advice for something that the Church herself leaves very vague, but all the people stressing the importance of going to Mass even if you don’t feel like it (on a moral level, talking about people with a lukewarm faith) always make me feel guilty for not going, whether or not the obligation is there or waved by just cause. The only reasonable point, one that I have so far struggled with putting into practice but I am striving to do so, is to try and minimise the things that would leave me with no energy by the end of the week. Sadly, at present my to-do list is so big I am struggling to keep up with minimal time off, and all the prayers about lifting the burdens have gone unanswered so far. Still, a lot of the advice rings to me of legalism. I had to dig very deep to find what Pope John Paul II said on the subject, among a lot of people pontificating that if it’s “merely painful and exhausting then you just should pray more for the strength to carry that cross and just go to Mass”.

“The faithful who, because of sickness, disability or some other serious cause, are prevented from taking part, should as best they can unite themselves with the celebration of Sunday Mass from afar, preferably by means of the readings and prayers for that day from the Missal, as well as through their desire for the Eucharist.” (Dies Domini)

It’s not merely painful and exhausting. Even Jesus had to get help to physically carry the Cross. I cannot reconcile a God Who was incarnate and knew the depths of the frailty of humanity with a God Who would judge people for not attending a service on a specific day if the thirst for His presence is there. During Advent, I had a prayer journal, a Bible study and the regular devotionals from Blessed is She that I do all year. After Christmas I have started a Bible in a year reading plan, and I watch sermons from an online church, listen to religious podcasts and I’ve even just had an additional 5 days Bible reading plan on top of the Blessed is She devotionals. Yesterday, as fatigue meant I cancelled my plans for the day, I didn’t get down to do the things I had to do for my studies which were planned for today, but I took the sudden free day to spend it with God. On days I feel better, I wish the local churches had a better offer of Adoration or Daily Mass, as I tend not to get anything done if I take 2 hours out of my day in the hours I’m the most productive so I can’t afford to take the time off when I am well enough to walk half an hour to the Church as well as when I’m not well enough to leave the bed. I have been trying to join a mid-week prayer group for months now, and even to start one myself a few times, with no success. Still, no matter what, I have to second guess if I’m doing alright because the weakened immune system means I’m catching every virus doing the rounds as soon as I start getting over the previous one, and having to get to the Church and back (which takes at least half an hour each way and a lot of walking), to sit-stand-kneel 1 hour if not more in a crowded place which is not only painful and exhausting, but also a chance to catch yet another virus, just doesn’t have any appeal.

It’s not that I don’t understand the importance of the Mass, because I do. It’s just that the mental fog, physical fatigue and pain just make it difficult to focus on it. I’m counting the minutes until I can go home, lay on something comfortable in the dark and soothe the headache made worse by children old enough to participate being busy playing with each other and the colouring books, the heating on at full power, the lack of air due to being in a crowded place with the heating on. The only church when I can attend Mass when ill without much difficulty is the Oratory, which is dark, cold and silent, but that means a journey double the time and distance, and an expensive one while at that. People say that you still get graces from attending Mass so you should still go even if you don’t feel like it, but any mention of those graces specifies that you derive them from devout attendance. When I’m finding a hard time keeping a spirit of charity towards the family of 6 that squeezed into the same pew after coming in late, so that I have to squeeze my already painful body to make space for them, while the 7yo in the pew in front of me keeps dropping crayons where I am and I have to bend over backwards to pick them up as quickly as possible to keep the quiet, I wouldn’t call that devout attendance.

Far from being out of a lack of devotion, which is what people would conclude when they look up to examples of people who fight against all odds to get to Mass every Sunday, I think Jesus deserves better than such half-assed presence. The way I leave my phone in the bag if I am dining with my OH, to give him my full attention, so I should even more be fully present to the God Who is fully present to me. And, lately, I feel I do that better when I don’t force myself to do things only because of the fear of repercussion. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their religiosity not being a walk in the Spirit. My biggest fear is that, on Judgement day, I will be counted among those who called upon the Lord only to be told He never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). Before fatigue stroke, I would see the obligation to attend Mass like a parent taking you to see your grandparents when you’d rather stay home and watch cartoons, but once you are there you remember why you love them and are grateful they took you. Now it only looks like being dragged to your grandparents and sleeping on the sofa, not enjoying their presence because you’re physically there but not truly there.
I’m writing this expecting judgement to fall on me, but I believe it’s important that we start having a conversation about chronic illnesses that go beyond guilting people for not being like those saints who keep going even when dying of cancer. I think that’s a dangerous mindset to have, not because it “threatens” me personally, but because it focuses so much on what a person does that we forget that His “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And maybe, just maybe, God is asking for our surrender instead of carrying on so that we can tick a box. Given just how many questions are asked on discussion forums about this, we might be pushing people away from the Church with our poor understanding of what the Church actually means about the Sunday obligation. 

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  1. As a Protestant with a chronic illness, I feel you on this. Not that I’m as devoted to Sunday church as I should be, but when I was more religious (hehe) about attending, there were times when my Crohn’s Disease kept me away. I think God understands if someone rushing to the loo every 15 minutes to explode one end or the other doesn’t feel like going to church.

    1. Yeah, that becomes also a concern for others as that’s distracting, and people aren’t always as loving and understanding as they should…

  2. I totally resonate with what you’re saying! Right now, I’m sitting in bed, missing the five or so masses that I could be getting to today. My church community in this area is so rich, and so accommodating with times in the day. There’s even an evening mass that I sometimes try to get to. But lately, my health has just been getting worse and worse, and I’m struggling to leave the house to go to the doctor, let alone mass. When I’m not even able to leave my room to spend time with my family, I have to remind myself that it’s not lack of interest in mass – it’s lack of ability to go. I love Jesus so much, he is the center of my life, and he gives me the strength to keep going in spite of my chronic illness, but that doesn’t free me from the guilt I feel at looking like a bad Catholic. As people, we put so much emphasis on appearances. But I think it’s important to remember all the saints who did not live their lives according to appearance. St. Joan of Arc for instance. It’s difficult to think of comparing ourselves to her, since we are so weak and she was so strong, but she defied normal expectations of what a good Catholic girl would do. Saint Elizabeth Anne Seton began a religious order after her husband died when she still had little children, and Mother Theresa walked alone through the streets of impoverished India – all these people cared more for their personal calling than for what the world would think of them. And that’s important to remember! Every person’s call looks different.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad to see I’m not alone with this struggle with guilt, although it always makes me sad when I see other people go through a struggle I know well how painful it can be. I pray you get some respite from your illness so you can spend some quality time with your family and Jesus. Hang in there sister, I know the Lord is carrying our cross even when we feel alone in this xx

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