With the last nail to be hit on the lid of the Corona virus coffin nowhere in sight, it follows that the last word to be written on the pandemic will be a long time in coming! And so this treatise will deal not with the statistics involved but with how overwhelmingly the disease has affected the personhood of all human beings and the Christian response thereof.
Where is God…!?!
The most repressive measure adopted has perhaps been the closure of places of worship whereby even God, strangely, has been shuttered out of the reach of His children, probably the worst affected being the world’s Catholics. This is so because of all the religions in the world, the Christian faith involves a community dimension vis-à-vis the individual dimension marking practically all other religions. For a Christian, most specifically for a Catholic, the practise of the faith is rooted not in an individualistic observance of rituals but in a communal observance of Scripture and Tradition in letter and spirit as is best epitomized by the celebration of the Eucharist. Also known as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, this celebration has been aptly described by Vatican II as the “source and summit of Christian worship” (LG 11), serving as it does a meeting point between God and man, between Creator and Creation. The profundity of this amazing Sacrament is what makes people’s participation in it on Sunday de rigueur. Never in human history since the inception of this beautiful encapsulation of the Sacred Triduum of the Passion, Death and Resurrection has such a global blanket ban on one’s participation in it ever happened!
Civic sense v/s Sacramentality
Being stuck with our families at home, doing everything within its four/eight walls, cleaning, washing, cooking, eating, sleeping, praying together could be quite daunting, not to mention getting on each other’s nerves! Human as we are, the effects of this have reached the highest echelons of society and Church alike, what with heads of state and government testing positive, the Pope no less lamenting the insaneness of celebrating Mass without a congregation; the pain of loneliness evident on his countenance as he trudged up the steps of Saint Peter’s, addressed the world from his heart, prayed before the miraculous crucifix and the icon of Our Blessed Mother, his tryst with the Eucharistic Lord whom he hoisted in the night sky in an unprecedented “urbi et orbi” blessing, is too haunting to be forgotten in a hurry even as the world’s priests and bishops do their bit in terms of ministering to the faithful in the measure possible, some even risking arrest and penalization. Indeed, at the heart of the Church’s charity is her primary concern, viz. solicitude for the spiritual good and eternal salvation of souls. Any wonder then, that for the first time ever in liturgical history, the observance of Holy Week 2020, one of the most significant periods of time in the Church’s calendar, the faithful were coaxed to do what is otherwise considered sacramentally invalid, viz. participating in the Triduum via the internet in their respective homes! Salubriously, what emerged as the highlight of the exercise, marking as it did the test of our faith, was a brand new understanding of the all-time truth that the Family is the First Church which, in practice, shall continue until such time as the government deems it fit to permit an assembly.
Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est” (God is Love), deftly underscored an essential distinction between the respective roles of the Church and civil authority by asserting that whereas charity is the distinctive domain of the Church, the “just ordering of society and the State is a central responsibility of politics,” and that, therefore, justice “is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics.” He clarified that “for her part, the Church, as the social expression of Christian faith, has a proper independence and is structured on the basis of her faith as a community which the State must recognize,” the two spheres being “distinct, yet always interrelated” (DCE, 28a). Could that perhaps explain why Pope Francis, in l ess than 24 hours of having approved the closure of Rome’s parish churches and mission stations, reversed the decision, ordering the immediate reopening of the same? Indeed, best illustrating this volte-face is a 13 March 2020 letter signed by the pope’s personal secretary but widely considered to have been penned by the Pope himself, freely circulating among the Roman clergy, pointing out that their place is among the flock entrusted to their care and urging them to go to the “front lines” of the crisis and fulfil their God-given pastoral duty—so in keeping with his 28 March 2013 exhortation to priests to “be shepherds with the smell of sheep”!
“Think of all the souls who feel terrified and abandoned because we pastors follow the instructions of civil authorities—which is right in these circumstances to avoid contagion—while we risk putting aside divine instructions—which is a sin,” the letter stated, particularly focusing on bringing the faithful the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation.
“We think as men think and not as God thinks,” the letter further attests, adding that “we join the ranks of those who are terrified rather than joining the doctors, the nurses, the volunteers, the healthcare workers, and mothers and fathers, who are on the front lines.”
Going further, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano asserted (9 April 2020): “In these modern times of terrible tribulation, when the pandemic has deprived Catholics of Holy Mass and the Sacraments, the Evil One has gone into a frenzy and multiplied his attacks to tempt souls into sin.” He called upon believers worldwide to recite an exorcism prayer on Holy Saturday, which was first published by Pope Leo XIII in 1890, “to curb the power of the devil and prevent him from doing harm.”
Love in action
Pertinently, the Church has always played a crucial role in times of pestilence, promptly heading care-and-cure missions. During the 1576 twin-calamities of famine-and-plague in Milan, the governor and nobility having fled, Saint Charles Borromeo, a Medici scion and archbishop, rendered hands-on service, ministering both spiritually and materially to some 60-70,000 individuals daily, diligently enlisting the support of the innumerable religious communities in the diocese. Roch [14th century], the pampered son of the mayor of Montpellier, literally earned his sainthood and the patronage of those afflicted with diseases of serious nature by sheer dint of selflessly caring for the plague-stricken whilst travelling from Rome into Italy. Both saints, Roch and Charles, proved unequivocally that the formation of the Christian desirous of gaining a world far greater than the present cannot be complete unless forged with courage in the face of an epidemic of the most unlikely kind and in the most unlikely of places.
Notably, government action apart, the Catholic Church in India, though numerically small, is out there in the forefront amidst the fast-changing situation, manifesting the largeness of her heart so to say, leaving no stone unturned, willingly cooperating with all and sundry to ensure that no one but no one, whether old or young, child or middle-aged goes to bed hungry! Though beleagured by accusations galore as to conversion by force and such innuendo, she is busy sheltering the migrants and feeding the poor whose lives have been turned into a nightmare by what is happening around ever since the outbreak of the meandering virus, in the aftermath of which the prospects of joblessness looms large.
Every Christian a Shepherd!
It wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that COVID 19 has offered the Church the chance of a lifetime to prove herself a body of true shepherds rather than “hirelings” (cf Jn 10:11-12). Religious across the country and the world, rising to the occasion, are, shoulder to shoulder, ministering to the afflicted in ways that defy the imagination! From parish bodies providing rations to individual families cooking and supplying meals, from nuns in convents and seminarians to simple, ordinary salaried individuals providing clothing and bedding, each at their own expense, a classic example of simplicity and humbleness being Bishop Alex of Kannur in South India helping out as a municipal volunteer! That’s Divine Mercy 2020 challenging COVID-19!
(Published on 04th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 19)