On the Coronavirus and public Masses
It is axiomatic for journalism, talk radio shows, daytime TV, and countless other outlets for news and commentary that to be successful you must ride the big stories. The reason is obvious: Because that’s what those who consume your media are doing—yes, even when it becomes overwhelmingly boring. Therefore, our news coverage has been full of the Coronavirus, and my twice-weekly Insights messages have also highlighted that annoying subject.
Phil Lawler weighed in last Thursday with the thought that it might be both smarter and spiritually more salutary to make more Masses available, not fewer, allowing people to space themselves more safely throughout the local church (see Just don’t take away the Mass). Moreover, many of us see outdoor Masses as an excellent solution as the weather warms.
Fr. Jerry Pokorsky posted his thoughts yesterday in Pondering the Pandemic. After a balanced discussion of the issue, he closed on the reality that the Church should not simply follow the directives of political leaders. I don’t think he meant that public Masses can never be curtailed for any reason. Rather, this must always be under the control of the Church, which has supreme authority in the spiritual realm. The Church is not to be held subordinate to the State in spiritual matters.
Suspension of public Masses
Now me, I don’t like the suspension of public Masses. But that does not mean, if I were a bishop, I would not make the decision to suspend them for a limited time under these circumstances, especially since the best source of information we have on disease in our world is the relevant government agency. We have no way of knowing the limits of God’s permission for the spread of any disease among those who are gathered in a Catholic church for Mass, or whether He will prevent contagion and illness through reception of the Eucharist. This has not been revealed to us, and so each bishop, like the Pope, must pray for sufficient light to follow a prudent course. Moreover, the conclusions of good pastors can differ without proving anyone unfaithful or unholy.
Speaking more personally, those of us who cannot now go to Mass would be wrong to conclude that this interferes with our growth in holiness. That would be true only if we were at fault for not attending Mass, first, according to the normal requirements of the Church, and second, according to what we understand God is calling us to do. Those who attend Mass daily will naturally feel deprived—but they must beware of bemoaning this loss as if Mass were a mere consolation, while remaining open to the myriad ways in which God grants them abundant grace. The firebrands among us do well to remember that one potent source of grace is joyful obedience to legitimate ecclesiastical authority.
Nor can the loss of the Mass ever be an excuse not to devote oneself to prayer in other ways. Moreover, surely we must rejoice that our priests are still offering Mass; the only change here is that those of us who are not ordained priests cannot participate in this offering in the fullest possible way. Our priests also continue to attend to the pastoral needs of the sick and dying.
Still, we are wise to recognize potential spiritual dangers in the decision to suspend public Masses. Phil Lawler recognized one danger, in effect, as the adoption of the simplest solution without any effort to think outside the box, as if the loss of ready access to the Mass were no significant loss at all. Fr. Pokorsky recognized another as an ecclesiastical willingness to please the State which, under many historical circumstances, has passed far beyond Christian collaboration into an impermissible ceding of spiritual authority to temporal powers.
But a bigger issue, highlighted by both writers, is the issue of whether we any longer really trust in God.
What does it mean to have Faith?
I propose what follows as an opportunity for personal reflection. The Christian’s life is inextricably bound up in the life of Christ—or at least it is if Christianity is more than nominal. As St. Paul put it:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
Although the context of this statement is a discussion of the Jewish Law, it applies in some way to all law, even that of a merely political sort, and even to all our attitudes, so that by transference we might well reflect more deeply on the next verse: “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal 2:21). I will not push this too far; I raise it simply as a point for reflection. It runs along the same lines as “whoever seeks to save his life will lose it” (Mt 16:25; Lk 17:33).
Now the application is this: We have an exceedingly secular mindset today. We are all influenced by it—some by being too accommodating to worldly ways of thinking; some by being so suspicious of worldly ways of thinking as to conclude that opposition to the human norm is the right Christian course in every instance (which erroneously pits Christianity against nature, as if grace supplants rather than perfects it). Allow me to express my own particular viewpoint—hoping, in so doing, that I will not fall into either trap.
I am at that age in which, statistically speaking, the danger of the Coronavirus rises exponentially. Yet each time I reflect on this question of the suspension of public Masses (or of choosing to stay away from any public Masses that may be available), my thoughts are drawn immediately to another elderly man—Eleazar, whose story is recounted in 2 Maccabees 6. The cases are not comparable in their details, but the spiritual lesson is in some sense applicable. Eleazar was urged to pretend to eat meat sacrificed to idols in order to avoid the penalty of death. He replied:
“Such a pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” he said, “lest many of the young should suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year has gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense, for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they should be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty.” [2 Mac 6:24-26]
And next I always think of David, who having sinned by counting the strength of his people instead of relying on the Lord, was offered three possible punishments: Three years of famine; three months of flight before his enemies; or three days of pestilence (2 Sam 24). David’s choice is memorable:
“I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.” So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel…. [2 Sam 24:14-15]
Is it now, at my age, that I should shrink from putting myself in God’s hands? Is there anything I am so certain He wants me to accomplish here on earth that I should legitimately take the precaution of reducing my exposure to His Real Presence? Is it only now that I should begin to regard my life on earth—or my attachment to this life—as so precious that I fear to place myself sacramentally closer to God? No, if there were Mass available—which there is not, for the moment, as of today, in Arlington—I would continue to go.
But, at the same time, I know of another case in which a devout Catholic mother, with children at home, with two aging parents nearby, and with a brother in hospice care very near death, wants her parents to be cautious, wants to protect her family as best she can, and wants them all to remain virus-free so they can continue to visit her brother in his final days.
Finally, I repeatedly recall that, compared with most people in history, I and the vast majority of my readers have far greater access to the Eucharist and other sacraments than would have been considered normal—or in some cases even desirable, lest familiarity breed contempt—in many of the different times and places and cultures throughout history. It is differences like this which prompted St. Augustine to write that some, out of devotion, might choose to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion more frequently, while others, out of devotion, might choose to receive Him less.
In all, then, I see no absolute points of reference in this discussion. To decide for myself is one thing; to decide for others is quite another. What is important is for every decision to be made with confidence in Our Lord and love for God and neighbor—which, by definition, means without those poisonous secular attitudes which fail to understand what it means to live in Christ. Therefore, I count myself fortunate at this time, as at many others, not to be a bishop. And I will not second-guess the one who has been given authority by Jesus Christ to govern the sacraments in the place I call my home away from home.
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