By Jonathan Lynch
When I got the news this past Tuesday, I felt like I’d been socked right in the pit of my stomach: the Diocese of Superior had cancelled the celebration of all public Masses due to the impending threat of COVID-19. I looked to see if there was anywhere else to go, but Green Bay, La Crosse, Madison and Milwaukee had all done the same thing. All of Minnesota and Michigan weren’t far behind, and now the closest thing to attending a public Mass in all of America is down in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, where the faithful stay out in their cars and listen to what’s going on inside over speakers, and then the priest comes outdoors to administer Holy Communion.
My mind was filled with the cry of the Psalmist: “Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” (Ps. 90:13). And again, with the cry which Jesus echoed from the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:2). And I found myself asking, “Why would God permit such an evil?”
And as difficult as this new cross is to bear, we have to believe that it is not without a purpose. When before has God apparently abandoned his chosen people? If you look, you will see that this isn’t the first time. We see it all throughout history, all the way back through the Old Testament. When God allows such a distance to fall between us and him, it is for two reasons: to test our faithfulness and to punish us for our sins, that we may see in our physical separation a symbol of how far we have gone astray spiritually. To be clear, God is never the cause of this distance and all the pain, suffering, sickness, and death that it brings, nor does he desire it. All of those things entered the world through the sins of mankind, beginning with Adam, and we bear them as a result of original sin, and our own offenses against God. However, he permits these things to befall us as a natural result of our sinful choices, to bring us to repentance, because they are a sharp reminder of what our eternity would look like separated from him.
When it comes to testing our faithfulness, we have to ask ourselves: “Will I continue to practice my faith when I no longer have the habitual stimulus of the weekend Mass? Will I trust God in this time of pain and darkness, or will I allow myself to grow slack and indifferent? This is indeed a call to persevere, and to sanctify the Lord’s Day, despite the fact that we cannot – for the time being – receive him sacramentally. I am particularly inspired by a quote from Bishop Athanasius Schneider in his book, Christus Vincit, regarding his family’s Sunday traditions under the oppression of Communist Russia:
“On Sundays, we closed all the doors, drew the curtains, and knelt down… and we sanctified the day of the Lord because there was no priest, no Mass. We had to sanctify the day of the Lord, so in the morning we prayed the Rosary, a litany, prayers, and then we made our Spiritual Communion, to unite ourselves spiritually with the Mass which was being celebrated in some place at that time… It was our Sunday worship as a family, in the house, in the domestic church. Then sometimes, a priest secretly came, and it was always a very deep and silent joy… There were some years when we went without Holy Communion.”
What faith! And what an example for us! While we cannot attend Holy Mass at this time, we have an obligation to make holy the Lord’s Day and to participate in the mysteries of our faith in whatever ways we can. The suspension of the public liturgy is certainly not a proclamation of freedom from our religious obligations, and we have plenty of opportunities in which to participate. Masses can be streamed online from numerous sources, such as our own Cathedral, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, and possibly your own parish. Many churches throughout the diocese will be unlocked on Sundays to allow the faithful to come and pray in the Presence of God. On Thursday, Pope Francis announced a new Plenary Indulgence for this time of pandemic, which can be obtained without even attending Holy Mass or receiving the Sacrament of Confession. Hopefully this difficult time can be an opportunity to examine our lives and to realize how much we have taken for granted all of the gifts that God has given to us.
And that leads us to the second reason that we feel a separation from God: justice for sin. You might hear that and recoil, thinking, “No way! What have I done to deserve this?” But this punishment is not for you (or anyone else) alone; it is allowed to affect us as a whole. Where is the reverence that we owe to our Eucharistic Lord? As a whole, it is hardly to be seen! Recent survey polls from Pew Research and CARA state that only one third of Americans who identified as Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is truly and sacramentally present in the Holy Eucharist, only one quarter believed that cohabitation before marriage is sinful, and 45% do not go to the Sacrament of Confession at all. Let that sink in for a few minutes.
To receive Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament is to be united to the Holy, Living God, in a way that we can not experience anywhere else on earth. And there can be no unity between God and sin. Saint Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord,” (1 Cor 11:27).
But many Catholics do not prepare their souls to receive him worthily and so make themselves even less deserving of his infinite gift. As a whole, we need to rediscover the true worth of Christ’s gift and to rediscover the reverence that this gift demands. Perhaps this time of separation from God is a call for penance for the many sins and outrages against the Holy Eucharist; a time for those who would follow after him to repent of their own lukewarmness which is so easy to fall into and to make atonement not for their sins alone, but for those of the whole world, for “The fervent petition of a holy man is powerful indeed,” (Jas 5:16).
So what can you do? Pray. PRAY! PRAY! PRAY! Petition God that a cure may be quickly found and that the spread of the virus be ended. Pray for the souls of those whom God has called from this world to himself. Pray for those who are caring for the sick and the dying. And pray for the Church, that the public celebration of the Holy Eucharist be quickly restored and that every Catholic may know in the depth of his heart what it means to receive the Living God – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – when he comes before the altar and in the presence all of heaven, surrounded by countless angel hosts, to the very face of the Triune God says “I believe.”
All for Thee, Sweet Jesus,
Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
For the glory of God
And the salvation of souls!