Pondering the Pandemic

By Fr. Jerry Pokorsky ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 16, 2020

In the West, the Church has been reasonably immune from governmental interference in the practice of the Faith. There are payroll taxes, employment regulations, and the all-too-common lawsuits for the usual reasons. Occasionally, there is a challenge to the sacrosanct seal of Confession: litigation that is usually resolved before it gets to the courts.

But the current pandemic has set government authorities against Church authorities in matters of the celebration of the Mass, with some bishops surrendering to government pressure. The result? Many Church leaders have agreed to suspend the public celebration of Mass.

At times, canceling Mass makes sense: a bomb scare, crime scenes, safety concerns, mistakes, etc. The cancellations are anomalies, usually with the intention of resumption after a reasonable interval. But the willing long-term suspension of public Masses by entire dioceses is a new phenomenon outside of war zones and totalitarian states.

The current pandemic is a conundrum for Catholic leaders. How do we celebrate Mass in public while avoiding contagion? Of course, there is a significant difference between reasonable responses to health threats and hysterical reactions. Prudential judgments vary by the individual, and it is difficult to identify a clear line of demarcation. But the hoarders who emptied supermarket shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizers have crossed it. Their selfishness has increased the risk of disease because the shortage of sanitizers affects every public place, including churches.

The panic—fueled by some politicians and most of the media—has resulted in unnecessarily clogged emergency rooms and thefts of drug and pharmaceutical supplies. The frenzy has achieved what the Nazis and Communists—and 2,000 years of corrupt bishops and priests (to paraphrase a quip by a Napoleon aide)—were unable to accomplish: the suppression of the Church’s public worship. For how long and at what spiritual cost?

Church leaders find themselves caught in the crossfire of public opinion. It is expedient to satisfy government authorities by shutting down the churches and alienating many of the faithful. It is more challenging to keep the churches open—even with appropriate health precautions in liturgical practices—than to risk accusations of health dereliction.

Many of the health measures taken are prudent. Mercifully, the bishops have suspended the exchange of the Sign of Peace handshake (one hopes forever). We’ll never know how many viruses are exchanged with every friendly unwashed handclasp. It has always been customary that Catholics at risk due to age or health, are excused from Sunday Mass. There is even more leeway now. Maybe it’s about time we rediscover sanitary practices that mothers used to teach their kids. But in many parts of the country, these reasonable practices do not satisfy civil authorities.

The underlying root of the hysteria is atheism, or the faithlessness of implicit atheism rooted in the comforts of consumerism. According to the atheist creed, the greatest evil in life is suffering or a life cut short because of a catastrophic disease. For a believing atheist, suffering can be worse than death. (This explains the emergence of legislation approving assisted suicide in several countries.) But a “premature death” also horrifies. The atheist creed is easy to grasp, simple to live when the going is good, but always ends in despair. Human suffering is an insurmountable evil.

Christians believe God is not the author of suffering and death. “…God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” (Wisdom 1:13). Death is the result of the envy of the devil (Wisdom 2:24) and sin, original and personal (cf. Genesis 3).

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came into the world to rescue us from our sins. He confronted evil in obedience to the Father and endured His terrible Passion for our salvation. His mighty Resurrection reveals to us his final victory over sin, suffering, and death. He offers us his new and everlasting covenant to deliver us from everlasting horror and disgrace.

Hence, in Baptism, we spiritually die with Christ and emerge from the waters in union with Him, incorporated into his Mystical Body. When we die in friendship with the resurrected Jesus, “life is changed, not ended” (Preface, Funeral Mass).

All the comforts of life, including the best of health care, cannot substitute for the state of sanctifying grace at the moment of death. So amid this “vale of tears,” we joyfully proclaim with Saint Paul, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55)

The Christian narrative, summed up in the Apostles’ Creed, is realistic. It confronts the mystery of suffering and death and offers the hope of everlasting life. Our battle is for eternal life, and those of every generation must choose the Way of the Cross. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24) Living this narrative isn’t easy. The Way requires God’s grace, faith, prayer, study, courage, and hope in our ultimate victory in Christ.

But above all, to live, we need the Sunday (and daily) re-enactment of the love of the new and everlasting covenant in the Mass.

During the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early Church, Christians disobeyed the order of the emperor to cancel their religious meetings. They went to their death, saying:

We cannot omit the celebration of the Divine Mysteries. The Christian cannot live without the Eucharist and the Eucharist without the Christian. Don’t you know that the Christian exists for the Eucharist and the Eucharist for the Christian? Yes, I participated with the brothers in the meeting, I celebrated the mysteries of the Lord and I have here with me, written in my heart, Divine Scripture. The Eucharist is the hope and the salvation of Christians.

Sorry, Governor. Regrets, Your Honor. The celebration of the Mass is non-negotiable and none of your business. We’ll do our best—no guarantees—with personal hygiene and safe distances. But we “seek the things that are above” (Col. 3:1) and live and die by the Mass.

Fr. Jerry Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Father Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal. He writes regularly for a number of Catholic websites and magazines.
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  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Mar. 18, 2020 6:40 AM ET USA

    Regarding the diocesan suspensions of the Mass to limit the spread of the coronavirus, for over two hundred years, Japanese Catholics practiced their faith in secret without access to Mass, See 2007 Catholic Answers Article Noting: "What had sustained these Christians in the long dark years was their trust in Christ and the examples of those who had died for the faith." May God give us the grace to follow in their example.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Mar. 17, 2020 12:04 PM ET USA

    An interesting sequencing: "God’s grace, faith, prayer, study, courage, and hope in our ultimate victory in Christ." Grace leads to faith, faith to prayer, prayer to study, study to courage, and courage to hope in our ultimate victory in Christ. Once we have hope, increases take place in reverse sequence: hope leads to increased courage, courage to increased study, study to increased prayer, prayer to increased faith, and faith to increases in grace. The Eucharist at Mass makes all this possible

  • Posted by: TreeRing - Mar. 17, 2020 12:15 AM ET USA

    Thank you Father, for giving voice to my own thoughts on this matter. Our Bishop has not cancelled Masses so far, Thanks be to God. Would that all Bishops would allow us as individuals to evaluate our need for the spiritual graces of the Mass and our own risk tolerance.

  • Posted by: steve.grist2587 - Mar. 16, 2020 8:31 PM ET USA

    The Bishop just suspended all Masses. Yes, we live and die by the Mass. I cannot begin to articulate my feelings.