Back when I was a Protestant, one of the Catholic Church’s great draws to me was its teaching that it’s actually a sin to skip formal, collective worship on Sunday. In the Episcopal Church, we were very much into the idea that you could honor the Sabbath “in your own way,” and—well, there’s only one sacrament for middle-class Yankees, and that’s brunch. The rest is optional.
Not in the Catholic Church. Here’s a faith that tells us exactly what God expects of His creatures on a week-to-week basis. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? As a Protestant, I was told He invited me to spend time with Him once a week in His house; I could never bring myself to believe that God didn’t really care if I declined. Either He never really wanted me to accept in the first place, or He was setting Himself up for disappointment.
I didn’t know much about who God is, though I felt fairly certain I knew what he is not. And God is not indifferent.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Now all public Masses cancelled in every diocese in the country. Most dine-in restaurants closed indefinitely, too. Neither Catholics nor Episcopalians may honor the Sabbath in their own way.
And, for the first time since St. Peter established the Holy See, there are no public Masses in Rome. The Vatican is empty of pilgrims; the cafes and markets are abandoned. Suddenly, the Eternal City looks anything but.
I’m doing my best to trust the bishops—to trust that they know what they’re doing, that they’re making the right decision (not that all of them have earned our trust). This is their prerogative. If they say that I’m not in a state of mortal sin on Monday because I didn’t go to Mass on Sunday, then I’m not. But it still makes me sick at heart, as I know it does millions of my fellow Catholics.
And, still, we cannot help but ask: is it the right decision?
Christ wants us to be at Mass on Easter, as on every Sunday. Many of us would gladly meet Him there. We’d wash our hands before and after the service, we’d sit 6 feet apart from each other, and we’d avoid the sign of the peace. If we’ve been dutifully self-quarantining every other day of the week, there’s very little chance we’d catch it. If someone my age did happen to contract COVID, the CDC says there’s about a 99.9 percent chance he would recover.
Of course, we must think about the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, who are at a much higher risk of succumbing to COVID-19. But the aged and infirm are automatically dispensed from their Sunday obligation if attending public worship would be hazardous to their health. The bishops could have simply reminded us of that provision.
If an 80-year-old man took the risk and caught it, there’s 15 percent chance he would die. And yet, seeing as just one in three Americans lives to be an octogenarian in the first place, he’s already beating the odds with each passing birthday. Those extra years are a bonus. If he wants to spend them in Mass—even if it means only living to be 81 instead of 82—I don’t see why anyone should stop him.
Not to be callous, but it’s worth noting that life expectancy in the developed world only hit 70 years old in the 1960s. The average age of those who die of COVID-19 in the United States is 77 years old. I wonder if we don’t lack perspective here. Are we not placing our spiritual health in grave danger in order to preserve our high expectations of physical health?
In the coming months, thousands of Catholics may perish at the hands of COVID-19; most of them will be elderly or suffer from preexisting conditions. Yet many thousands more will succumb to those chronic illnesses or die of old age. And many will depart from this life without the Eucharist, Reconciliation, or the Last Rites. This will not be for any fault of their own, but because their ordinaries felt it necessary to restrict their access to the Sacraments.
It’s only natural to fear death. I certainly do. But perhaps we take the life-extending powers of modern medicine too much for granted. The modern materialist may do everything in his power to preserve his longevity, but we as Catholics are supposed to believe that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I wonder which holds more sway in the minds of our bishops: our inevitable descent into the grave, or the hope of the Resurrection?
Let us ask Archbishop Wilton Gregory. In his press release announcing the suspension of Masses in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, the Archbishop stated that his “number one priority” is “to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services.”
Out of filial respect for His Grace, I have to assume that statement was written by some layman in the Archdiocese’s communications department. These words could not have come from the mouth of a Successor to the Apostles, all but one of whom died a martyr. They took seriously Our Lord’s warning not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” And they took seriously His promise that “whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Did the early Christians avoid Mass when the Romans were sending them to be slaughtered in the Coliseum? Did their bishops dispense the faithful from their Sunday obligation when Nero was tying them to posts and lighting them on fire to serve as “nightly illumination,” as Tacitus recalled?
And what about the Catholics executed by England under Elizabeth, or in Japan under Tokugawa, or under the communist regimes of the Soviet Union? They risked their own lives sheltering priests in their homes—to save the priests’ lives, yes, but also so they might have the chance to hear the Mass in secret and receive the Eucharist. Were they wrong to do so? Should they have simply told those brave missionaries to leave the country, find shelter, and wait until it was safe to come back?
Masses continued throughout Europe during the Black Death, which is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of the population of Europe. St. Charles Borromeo, as Archbishop of Milan, risked contracting the Plague himself by refusing to discontinue his personal ministry to the poor, even as the rich (including many of his brother-bishops) retreated into their castles and barred the doors of their palaces. I wonder, if he was Archbishop of Washington today, what his press release would have said.
I’m not a brave man. I’m certainly not in any hurry to die. But I don’t want to live without my Lord, either. I made my confession last Tuesday, and I have no idea when I’ll be able to do so again. When’s the next time I’ll be able to adore the Blessed Sacrament? When’s the next time I’ll even set foot in a church?
And I know I’m not alone in asking these questions. Hundreds of millions of Catholics around the world are begging our bishops to tell us: When can we come home?
The ten Apostles hid in the upper room for two days after Christ died. Then, on the first Easter, Our Blessed Lord appeared in the midst of them and said, “Peace be upon you.” Monsignor Knox mused that “He, who three nights ago rebuked them for sleeping while he agonized, seems now to rebuke them for agonizing while He sleeps.”
Well, there will be no Easter Masses across large swathes of the country this year. It’s possible that not a single diocesan parish will publicly observe the Resurrection of Our Lord. This is the most important and joyous moment of the Church year: the day that Jesus Christ broke the bonds of death and triumphed over Hell. We know Christ is risen—and yet, on the day of His Resurrection, He’ll find us all hiding in our homes, live-streaming Mass on YouTube.
Once again, we’ll hear him say, “Peace be upon you.” But in the back of our minds, we’ll hear the voices of the bishops whispering, “Don’t go to Mass. Stay in your homes. Nothing is more important than your health and safety.” This is not the message of the Gospel. This is not the faith of the Risen Lord.
Please, all you Eminences and Excellencies: let us come down from the upper room. Unlock the doors to our churches. Let us come home.
Image: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (Caravaggio)