Wash Your Hands, and Repent

“We remind everyone,” The New Yorker announced on February 27, “that the first defense against this outbreak is vigorous handwashing and repentance.” Perhaps I should clarify that the announcement was intended facetiously—it captioned a cartoon of Vice President Mike Pence, who was widely mocked for praying with the coronavirus crisis team. But, for once, The New Yorker is spot on. Despite the allergy of secularism to a) common sense and b) the supernatural, I can’t think of a better first line of defense against the COVID-19-related miseries that have fallen upon us.

Handwashing—or taking reasonable measures to avoid infection and to comply with emergency rulings issued by the public authorities—is simply common sense, a duty of charity towards ourselves and others. We are morally obligated to care for our health, and we’re also obliged to avoid unreasonably endangering the health of those around us. That said, these obligations must be met with a degree of common sense. Although the average seasonal cold is unpleasant, we wouldn’t suggest quarantining people or preventing them from attending work because they have a sniffle (although we might surreptitiously wipe down door handles and disinfect the microwave behind their backs). If someone has the flu, however, we hope he will be considerate enough to stay home until he’s recovered.

When it comes to the COVID-19 virus, most of us aren’t doctors. It would seem rash, therefore, not to comply with hygienic directives and governmental rulings issued to prevent the spread of disease, even if we ourselves are uncertain about the exact level of risk posed by the virus in question. Surely we ought to make every reasonable attempt to cooperate with legitimate orders from the authorities responsible for coping with it. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to be blind to attempts to manipulate this crisis for private ends. Who stands to gain from emotionally charged language liable to cause distress, confusion, and fear? It’s well-known that populations goaded into a state of fear are far more susceptible to manipulation than those in a calm and rational state of mind. Public authorities who insist on a firm, calm and orderly response to this situation are demonstrating trustworthiness and true leadership.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Part two of The New Yorker’s remedy for the outbreak is even more important: repentance. In Holy Week of 2019, France and the world were utterly dismayed by the sight of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris engulfed in fire, its spire toppling into the flames. It seemed inevitable that the entire building would collapse. And yet, through the grace of God and the heroic work of the pompiers de Paris, the structure—heavily damaged, it is true—was saved. Did the throngs of people filmed praying in the streets have nothing to do with this? Did the courage of the priest who entered the burning cathedral to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and the holy relics not draw down God’s mercy? Did the bells rung by Catholic churches throughout the country to summon the faithful to beg God to spare this emblem of Christendom not soften His just wrath?

As Holy Week 2020 approaches, we’re witnessing widespread distress and social disruption triggered by the coronavirus. As first responders try to contain the metaphorical fire, you’d expect our spiritual leaders to be launching a supernatural onslaught on the gates of heaven, making every effort on the institutional level to appease divine wrath, make reparation for our sins, and beg for God’s mercy and protection. Yet the early responses of Catholic authorities to the coronavirus outbreak seemed tinged with a shockingly secular spirit. Italian bishops moved quickly to forbid public Masses in Italy, at a time when swimming pools, gymnasiums, malls, and restaurants were still open, as if the Mass were less essential than any of these. In other parts of the world, holy water was removed from churches and members of the faithful wishing to show reverence to the Blessed Sacrament by receiving on the tongue were ordered to receive in the hand—a move that hardly seems calculated to please Our Divine Savior, whose presence in the Holy Eucharist is already subjected to so much irreverence, disbelief, and sacrilege.

And then they closed the baths at Lourdes. Now, the whole shrine has been shut down. Could there be any greater ingratitude to Our Lady, who caused the spring at Lourdes to flow for the healing of souls and bodies? For 150 years, persons with open sores, ulcers, infections, and contagious diseases of every description have bathed there and received graces in soul and in body. What an insult to our Blessed Mother, Salus infirmorum, the Health of the Sick, to imply that her healing waters could harm anyone, or that the coronavirus is more powerful than she is!

But Catholics were relieved to see some reactions of faith as well. The Polish bishops have addressed the crisis by calling for more Masses so that churches will be less crowded. “It’s unthinkable that we should not pray in our churches,” Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki said. The Austrian bishops have taken similar measures. On a smaller scale, encouraging reports have been circulating of priests taking action on an individual level: one video shows a Maronite priest being flown above Lebanon in a small aircraft to bless the country, carrying a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. Another shows a priest, fully vested, processing through an Italian town with the Blessed Sacrament, unattended but for a server carrying the traditional ombrellino. In Spain the bishops have asked churches to start ringing the Angelus again (leading one to wonder why they ever stopped).

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, God be praised, has called for priests in his diocese to carry out processions with the Blessed Sacrament and to ring the blessed bells of their churches in imitation of these fine examples. Perhaps in places where gatherings are still permitted, the faithful will process too, singing the Litany of the Saints in which we pray, “From plague, famine and war, O Lord, deliver us.”

There are reports, too, of priests going to heroic efforts to make the sacraments available to the faithful in areas where Masses have been cancelled, and of priests ignoring bans on Communion on the tongue (though, as it happens, is more sanitary than receiving on the hand)—an act of love and reverence for the Holy Eucharist that will not go unrewarded by God, although it may be rebuked by short-sighted men. Depriving Catholics of the sacraments is a grave matter, since without them we cannot attain and preserve sanctifying grace, which is the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in the soul. Sanctifying grace is far more important than bodily health, because without it we cannot be pleasing to God or enter heaven. But God can choose to grant us bodily health through sanctifying grace as well, especially in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

Sacramentals such as blessed medals, holy water, the Brown Scapular, and the sign of the cross are especially valuable to Catholics at this time. As the Baltimore Catechism tells us, sacramentals “move us to truer devotion, to greater love for God and greater sorrow for our sins, and this devotion, love and sorrow bring us grace, and the grace remits venial sins.” This grace can also protect us from physical misfortune, as countless stories of the Miraculous Medal, the Brown Scapular, and use of holy water show. Indeed, the Miraculous Medal is called “miraculous” because during the 1832 cholera outbreak in Paris many who wore it were spared from illness and death. (Just to keep things in perspective, the mortality rate for cholera at the time was 50–60 percent; the mortality rate for the coronavirus so far has been estimated at 3.4 percent.) Another powerful means of obtaining God’s blessing and protection is enthronement of the Sacred Heart in homes, hospitals, parishes, and schools.

A fine example was given to all authorities, civil and religious, when on March 13 the mayor of Venice knelt at the altar of the Madonna della Salute in Venice (a fitting choice, since the church was built in thanksgiving for Our Lady’s protection from the Black Death), dressed in his official regalia, and consecrated Venice and the region of Veneto to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It is certain that this institutional act recognizing the power of God, Our Lady and the Saints publicly and humbly begging for their protection will draw down God’s mercy on Veneto.

The man who trusts in God, the prophet Jeremiah tells us, “shall be as a tree that is planted by the waters… And the leaf thereof shall be green, and in the time of drought it shall not be solicitous, neither shall it cease at any time to bring forth fruit.” As a priest at the church of Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet preached in Paris last Saturday on the occasion of a sung Votive Mass for the Deliverance from Death in Time of Pestilence, it is in times of epidemic that we must turn towards God, convertere ad Dominum Deum nostrum, as we sing at Tenebrae in Holy Week. It is no time to empty holy water fonts or close churches. On the contrary, all public calamities are an opportunity to do penance and renew our spirit of faith.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Jane Stannus

    Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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