Love in the Time of Coronavirus– Faith, Prayer, and the Sacraments

St. Charles Cares for the Plague Victims of Milan (Jacob Jordaens, 1655)

Rome has canceled all public Masses and it was shocking. Now dioceses across the US are following suite, or at least considering the same… (Since I wrote that my own Archdiocese of Boston has suspended all Masses for the time being.) Most of those that haven’t canceled Masses are at least letting people know they are not obligated to attend Mass if they are sick or vulnerable or a caregiver to someone who is the same.

Many people are shocked at the idea of Masses being cancelled. And, well, yes, it is shocking and sad– though I don’t think that necessarily makes it the wrong call. But my friend Katie had some comforting words that really resonated with me:

I know it is a sacrifice. I know it is hard to stay away from Mass and the Eucharist. I am really, deeply saddened to have to make this sacrifice myself, if I’m honest.


I don’t think for a moment that bishops are making these decisions lightly. I believe that they are trying to be the best shepherds they can be. And I believe that no matter what particular decision they came to. (Yes, including if it’s “everything as normal”) – I’m still sure they are trying to be good shepherds.

This is shaping up to be a heck of a Lent. We’re in the desert right along with the Lord. But where there is sacrifice, there is extraordinary opportunity for grace. Let’s avail ourselves of that and use this as an opportunity to let Jesus draw us even closer to Himself.

”

She also shared this:

“There’s a particular beauty in obedience. Our priests are obedient to the bishops regularly. It’s a rare time for such great a burden of obedience on the lay Catholic but our bishops are asking us to make a sacrifice for the weak and vulnerable among us. 
”

I really like the part about the desert. In Lent we are called to the desert and this quarantine is most definitely a spiritual desert. And the part about the sacrifice of obedience really pulled at me. Even if we disagree with our bishops about the prudence of cancelling Mass, we can take comfort in the ability to practice obedience just like the Son did who ‘became obedient even unto death’. That’s a thought to carry with us during Lent.

May we allow our hunger and longing for Our Lord in the Eucharist to help us to grow in love and holiness and may it increase our prayers rather than decrease them.

If my spiritual life is so diminished by not having access to Mass, maybe I need to spend more time in prayer with God, be more faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the communal prayer of the Church. I can still watch a Mass livestreaming and make a spiritual communion, pray the rosary, pray novenas, meditate on the Life of our Lord.

And I can choose to live in solidarity with all the Catholics throughout the ages who have not had regular access to the sacraments but who nevertheless persisted in faith. I’m thinking especially of the brave men and women of Japan who had no priests for 200 years and only the sacraments of baptism and matrimony. And yet despite persecution managed to hand on the faith to their children and grandchildren and wait in hope until priests came again. There will be Masses again.

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Meanwhile, some people have been looking to the past, to the influenza epidemic of 1918, to the Black Death and plagues of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. What can we learn from those who have gone before us? First, that people have been incredibly creative about how to bring Jesus to each other.

On Twitter Fr. Shrenk writes:

St. Charles Borromeo closed the churches of Milan during the plague of 1575. What he did instead of endangering his people within closed spaces — of disease they understood that much — was send out his priests into the streets to minister the sacraments as the people needed them.

Out of concern for the health of his priests, he urged them to due caution and prudence. He himself, the archbishop, ministered to the sickest patients.

That’s an example of faith, reason, charity, and heroic virtue in good balance.

In some places outdoor altars were erected so that the Eucharist could be confected and brought to the people as Viaticum. In thanksgiving for the end of the plague, crosses were erected where the altars stood. You can still find some similar crosses in the city of Brugherio.

Tell me if this doesn’t remind you of Pope Francis inviting the faithful to follow his daily Mass by live stream. This is the 16th century equivalent!

Here’s the excerpt from the Life of St Charles Borromeo:

It did not escape him that the forty days of quarantine, if given up to idleness, afforded many temptations to sin; he therefore was heedful to provide that this time should be spent so as to promote the glory of God and the salvation of their souls.

In the first place, he required the clergy to make it a time of penance and fasting, as they were just now entering on the season of Advent; and urged on the laity the duty of confession and communion before beginning it.

 Next, in order to sanctify the time, he directed that every one should hear Mass devoutly every day ; and to give effect to this order, he erected altars at the crossways and conspicuous places, where Mass was said daily, so that all could assist from their windows. In the same way he arranged for confessions to he heard, sending priests round at stated times from house to house, the confessor sitting on the doorstep outside, and the penitent kneeling within, the door serving as a barrier.

The parish priest went round with the Blessed Sacrament on Sundays, and gave holy communion on the doorsteps to all, as if they had been cloistered religious.

He also made arrangements that each district should keep seven times of prayer throughout the day and night, singing psalms and hymns in two choirs, after the manner of a chapter of canons, and saying suitable prayers, each hour being announced by ringing the great bell of the cathedral. When it sounded, all the inhabitants attended at their windows, a priest or other person appointed began the prayers, and all the people on their knees made the responses, each having the book of prayers which the Cardinal had printed for the purpose. It was a sight to see, when all the inhabitants of this populous city, numbering little short of three hundred thousand souls, united to praise God at one and the same time, sending up together an harmonious voice of supplication for deliverance from their distress.

Milan might at this time have been not unfitly compared to a cloister of religious of both sexes serving God in the inclosure of their cells, an image of the heavenly Jerusalem filled with the praises of the angelic hosts.

I absolutely love that image of the city of Milan as a cloister of religious. Perhaps we during this time can also do our best to imitate the cloistered religious in devoting ourselves more fervently to prayer, even if we are still enmeshed in the chaos of family life?

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We used to have a missionary priest from Bolivia come to visit our parish every year. He was a friend of our pastor. His parish was about the size of our Archdiocese of Boston. He had to forge rivers in a jeep to get to some of his parishioners. And many of his people were lucky to see him as often as once a month. It helped me to be mindful of how blessed we are to have such ready access to the sacraments.

And I’ve heard similar stories from friends who are missionaries in India. And from Africa. We are so very lucky in this country those of us who can pick and choose which parish to go to, which Mass to go to.

One woman in Northern Italy writes on Facebook about how her Catholic community is being creative, using technology to bring the people the sacraments in a safe way:

“Our church on post has made an amazing accommodation for us by streaming Mass on Facebook Live, which we all watched in our cars in the parking lot on Sunday, then we filed into church, one family at a time, to receive the Eucharist and returned to our cars. Unique? Yes. But it was a slice of normal life in what has become an unusual time.”

I’ve heard tell of other parishes that are having Eucharistic processions and offering benediction and communion to parishioners in their cars. Maybe this can become a thing?

Our parish already records Sunday Masses for the homebound and combines that with visits from Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. I know the logistics for our priests will be much harder, though. We don’t live in a compact city like Milan was at the time of St Charles. We live in sprawling suburbia. And my parish has only three priests for three combined parishes and thousands of families. So there’s a lot of problem solving that will need to happen to reach everyone. But I have faith in people’s creativity. If this quarantine lasts, I expect to see a lot of resourcefulness cropping up.

But at the very least livestreaming is a very good start. A grace that people in the Middle Ages couldn’t have imagined and which we should not take for granted. Isn’t this exactly what St Charles Borromeo was going for by setting up altars at the crossroads?

How are you and your families praying during this time of quarantine?

Updated: Dallas has canceled all public Masses and I like the bishop’s statement:

“I recognize that I had the option of simply dispensing of the obligation to attend mass and continue to have the masses celebrated, but knowing my flock, and knowing their steadfastness in faith, many of them would continue to come to mass and it would result in significant numbers even in light of the guidelines set forth by government officials. In order for all the Catholic faithful to be at peace and to live without any anxiety as well as to remove any conflicted conscience of whether or not they should attend mass these days, as the shepherd of the diocese and out of affection for the faithful, I make this decision so that they may remain healthy and strong. “

I love the pastoral attitude of relieving anxiety and easing conflicted souls. This is what fathers do, they take the hard choices on themselves so their children don’t have to.

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