I’ve debated whether to post this, as I don’t mean to attack anyone personally and I’m quite scared of the backlash given the heightened emotions involved in the subject. It’s been on my mind for a while now, so it’s one of those situations when something inside me just won’t let go. I’ve decided to be brave and press “Publish” because the situation just breaks my heart.
Earlier this morning, I saw news from the FSSP in France about some of their priests and seminarians being affected by COVID-19 and something bothered me immensely about the responses to the specific thread I saw: zero concern for the situation. Especially because the seminarians are young and so will be fine. Has nobody ever noticed how many athletes drop dead in the early 20s due to pre-existing conditions (mostly of the heart) which they had no idea they had because athletes are some of the healthiest and fittest people in the world? It wasn’t just a plot twist in One Tree Hill, it happens in real life. My own brother has one and nobody knew until his mid-20s.
Someone went as far as saying it’s God’s punishment for Pachamama, and if you really insist on seeing God punishing us for something wouldn’t the agreement with the Chinese government be a better contender for the conspiracy theory? Regardless, I think it’s pretty insensitive to spout such nonsense when priests are ill or dying alongside the people they serve, and those in their flock yet unaffected are scared or upset at the scale of this pandemic and just how much it’s asking of mere humans like us. Just pray and move on, or if you really want to comment there are so many things that you could say, including virtue signaling that you are praying for them (which comes with an indulgence now, by the way). We need to be thankful that we have priests and seminarians in the first place.
In the cushy West, we have lost sight of what priests prostrating at ordination means: it’s a laying down of their lives for Christ and His Church. Normally, when no fast-spreading virus is in the picture, it’s mostly about service and death to self, but even then you can die in a car accident on the way to a home visit. We just don’t really think that much about our own mortality, even if the Momento Mori movement is changing that (on this subject, the Fountains of Carrots podcast had a recent episode with Fr Harrison Ayre and Speaking with Joy also added to the conversation with a discussion of one of my favorite things ever, morality plays).
Death is not the only other situation that we seem to keep at bay, even in a Church that values the most vulnerable among us. A lot of the responses to the closing of the Mass to the public show us how much we take our health for granted as a society. It’s true that the housebound are usually able to make arrangements for a minister to visit them to receive the Eucharist, although I know people who don’t seem to receive such visits for whatever reason. Some places may not have enough priests for home visits to be as regular as the Mass. Many of our fellow Catholics know already what it’s like to spend Sunday watching a live-stream of the Mass and go without the sacraments for extended periods of time.
The reality is that many people are carriers of the virus showing no symptoms. That’s how it transferred from one side of the world to another in the first place. Gathering in a church in large numbers seems to me to be a bit of a suicide mission which we may see as pious martyrdom (we’re here because we crave Our Lord) but it can also be seen as lacking charity towards others (we are taking them down with us, like a suicide bomber in a terrorist attack). The Lord said “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6) and it should really give us pause for thought. The Hebrew word translated as mercy, חֶ֥סֶד (ḥe·seḏ), also translates as kindness and piety. While priests are well, the Mass is still happening. God is going to get both mercy and sacrifice. When they get ill or die, not only people do not attend, but the Mass just isn’t celebrated. The kind thing to do is to avoid spreading the virus even further, and the pious thing is to pray even more fervently and offer whatever pain it causes us for those in most need of our prayers.
Don’t get me wrong, while I am happy to have a respite for my usual mental battle of “Am I ill enough to stay home without committing a mortal sin?” when exhausted and running a low-grade fever that is unrelated to anything contagious, I am in as much sorrow as everyone else because the end of winter means I get better and more mobile after months of being largely housebound but now I can’t get to Mass regardless of my health, and the timing of the closures threatens my favourite liturgical season on top of that. Still, in the very understandable grief, the pain of those for which this situation is business as usual seems to be drowned out. I see too few of their voices occupying the space on our social media.
Instead, the loudest voices are people questioning whether the Church truly believes in the Real Presence because why would they close down Mass otherwise? Despite the fact that it’s a documented traditional teaching that to keep churches open at this time would very likely count as putting the Lord to the test, which is something we are told not to do in the Old Testament and Jesus quoted that very passage to Satan in the desert only a couple of weeks ago. The Baltimore Catechism 1154 states, in answer to the question “What must we carefully guard against in all our devotions and religious practices?” that:
In all our devotions and religious practices we must carefully guard against expecting God to perform miracles when natural causes may bring about what we hope for. God will sometimes miraculously help us, but, as a rule, only when all natural means have failed.
We have no reason to doubt that the Church believes what she always has, as even traditionalist priests are closing the Mass to the public. It’s not a sign that Modernism has watered down our Faith or whatever. We know churches closed in other pandemics too. In this spirit, we can use this time and the technology available to us to foster community that includes, for once, those who aren’t always included by corporate worship. We can all watch the same live-streamed Mass and run prayer groups online. We can continue to pray with and for each other, offering up the daily nuisances of life at home for the intentions of those in most need. If you are able, you can join the many initiatives to help our neighbours who are not able to buy groceries or get medicines etc and turn this into a time of service for others. It can also be a time of solidarity, and the Church coming together in a time of crisis as it always has done, and most importantly we can be a witness because of our generosity in service and the peace that our prayers grant us that secular society does not have.
I understand that grief over the sacraments can also be a witness to their importance in the Christian life, but we can all move towards the last stage of grief (acceptance) and come together as God’s people. After all, in the time of Covid-19 I’ve found myself agreeing with Mr Skojec already 3 times (on 3 separate opinions), and if that’s not a sign that God is working in us making good come out of the worst circumstances I don’t know what is…!