Pandemic or pandemonium: The first priority is Christ’s life within us.
It is Holy Thursday, and we are about to reflect again on Christ’s gift of Himself at the Last Supper and on the Cross, as well as his temporary absence from His disciples immediately following His death. Ever since that sequence, which ended in the Resurrection, it has been the first priority of the Church to make Christ continuously present—to the full extent of the capability of her ministers and members—to everyone in the world.
This is what makes the restrictions during the pandemic so frustrating. And one of the most frustrating things—even in the midst of many legitimate precautions—is how our responses so often reflect our own lack of confidence in Christ.
Where is the line between prudence and the abandonment of Christ’s mission? For all of us, it is often hard to draw, and in this case a great deal depends not only on the nature and duration of the restrictions on the Church’s normal activity but also on the particular case-by-case urgency of the Church’s sacramental action. Still, I was appalled by the overall tenor of the recent directive by the Bishops of England and Wales. In the face of medical restrictions on the anointing of those in danger of death, Bishop Paul Mason advised priests that “minimizing the spread of the virus must be the priority of all”. In the context, this seems to have meant not “a priority” (as in an important consideration) but “the highest priority”—which can never be true when it comes to ministering to the sick and dying.
Obviously, priests attempting to anoint the sick should work with medical staff to do this in a way that maximizes safety. Just as obviously, there is not a great deal that a priest can do if he is barred from seeing a patient. One of the great problems of having so much of medical care under secular control is that the ordinary services in support of life, in which the Church has traditionally been an important presence, are often managed by bureaucrats who do not consider any form of spiritual service to be essential. If we add to this the often arbitrary distinction between essential and inessential “businesses” (essential to whom?), it is not hard to see how much of this is value-driven: And not often by those with the values of Christ.
Difficult decisions demand faith
I understand that many of these decisions are difficult. It is certainly important to take precautions; but it is even more important not to abandon priestly ministry. It is quite rightly a matter for prudent determination how long a community can legitimately be deprived of normal sacramental ministry for the sake of a natural good (in this case, freedom from illness); but in many cases such deprivations can be greatly alleviated by thinking outside the box. For example, many dioceses and parishes have opened churches to controlled streams of small or segregated groups: Offering adoration to the Blessed Sacrament, providing the Sacrament of Penance at a greater distance and in relative isolation, or even arranging for “car masses”.
But when you are dying, receiving Anointing becomes highly urgent and demands the personal presence of a priest—on God’s schedule, not ours. I do not believe there is an absence of priests willing to take the risks of fulfilling their vocation in these circumstances. But there may well be an absence of both secular officials and Catholic bishops who are willing to admit that the avoidance of infection is most emphatically not our highest priority. The argument that the risk is too high for the priests is completely false, notwithstanding cases of cowardice here or there, and even in weighing this argument it is possible to think outside the box a bit, as I will mention in a moment.
But the larger argument that priests with the courage to minister properly to the dying must be prevented from doing so because they might catch the disease and then communicate it to someone else—well, this is an argument that implicates us all, for it is an argument that represents our culturally dominant hierarchy of secular values. It has no place among Catholics, especially among bishops. However we may settle the debate over how long a time, under unusual circumstances, the general population may be deliberately left without normal sacramental access, the particular risk of anointing the dying cannot possibly tip the scales in favor of denying the sacraments to those in their final and most desperate need.
Perhaps priests in some situations cannot get past hospital authorities to perform that task. If so, the sin is not theirs. But for any bishop to endorse this situation, on the basis that “minimizing the spread of the virus must be the priority of all”, is unacceptable. Following reasonable guidelines is one thing; not performing this sacred ministry at all is quite another. I am very much afraid that fear of sickness and death, which are always of course to be taken into account, is too often now being weighed in the absence of a living faith, and sometimes at the highest levels of the Church.
Outside the box of our withered souls
Now, I mentioned a moment ago that it was possible to think outside the box even in this matter of Anointing of the Sick. Another news story today highlights this point, though it comes from what many will regard as an unlikely diocese: Chicago archdiocese recruits young priests to anoint CO19 victims. Here the archdiocese has recruited priest-volunteers who are under age 60 and in good health to do all of the anointing of COVID-19 patients. It has also provided, in addition to observing hospital precautions, special training in how to most safely administer the sacrament. And it has asked other priests who learn of someone in need to report the case to the diocese for assignment to one of the COVID-19 team.
Fr. Matthew O’Donnell, one of the pastors involved in this work, described it this way:
I know that all of us who are doing this ministry in Chicago right now are doing it because we believe that this is what we’re called to do as priests, to be present to people. And I think all of us are knowledgeable of the risks, but the importance of the sacrament outweighs that.
The Church’s first priority—and this goes for each one of us who claim to be members of the Body of Christ—is never to avoid catching a disease, or even to avoid spreading a disease. Please: It just isn’t. Without diminishing the true spiritual wisdom involved in reasonable precautions, this avoidance simply is not the first priority for any child of God, let alone any Catholic, all of whom should know better. By the way, this applies to many other things as well; not just to anointing when in danger of death.
As we enter the Triduum, I suspect we all need to freshen up our priorities, while contemplating the absence of Christ in our own lives. We may find it is not the temporary absence of the Church’s liturgies that lie at the root of our problem, but the absence of a deeper reality within ourselves. Maybe what is lacking is this conviction of St. Paul:
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]
This conviction is clearly lacking in our culture as a whole. Its absence is highly contagious. Is it also lacking in me?
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Posted by: maryebaranski5728 -
Apr. 13, 2020 1:53 PM ET USA
It has certainly been a question on my mind as a Catholic Layperson. But if a Bishop cannot answer the question - How can he even teach the answer. I applaud all Bishop's who have answered and fulfilled their Priestly Ministry.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Apr. 11, 2020 2:37 PM ET USA
Thinking outside the box. Most parishes occupy property with at least one acre of parking space, plus other open space. I did some quick calculations. Assuming a one-acre square grid on 6-foot centers allows a 6-foot zone of safety (I refuse to call it "social distancing") for each of 1,210 in attendance. While visiting the site of an apparition, I confessed my sins to one of several priests dispersed well apart from one another under tarps. On 60-foot centers, one acre accommodates 12 tarps.