Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
The Scriptures warn us of a most serious threat to our spiritual well-being, which is the fear of death:
Now since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Yet now, we are manifesting an almost worldwide panic attack over a virus that, however bad it might be, has no power of itself to “separate us from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35).
One may excuse unbelievers, whom St. Paul describes as “those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but what are we to say of bishops and other Church leaders who have succumbed to pressure to cancel public Masses while bars and restaurants remain open (albeit on a reduced basis)? Food and drink are essential to our physical survival, but the Holy Eucharist is even more essential to our spiritual survival: Truly, truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man, you have no life in you (John 6:53). And thus we are confronted with deep indignation over the lack of hand sanitizer and surgical masks but too little indignation over the astonishing limits and outright refusal to offer the sacraments to God’s faithful.
Where are our priorities? We are obsessed over a virus but give little attention to the sinful drives that can kill our souls eternally. Too many pastors who have long refused to delineate the requirements of worthy reception of Holy Communion have suddenly discovered a reason to restrict access to Holy Communion from people who, even in a very remote and merely potential way, might incur physical threats to their health.
I simply ask you: Are we majoring in the minors? Physical health has its place, but spiritual health does too — and its place is vastly more important.
“Be ready to abandon this mortal life rather than the people committed to your care,” St. Charles of Borromeo told priests as the Plague of 1576 swept through Milan. “Go forward among the plague-stricken as to life, as to a reward, even if there is only one soul to be won to Christ.”
I am concerned that we have lost our courage and our faith and subordinated holy things to the state in this matter. Canceling Mass while bars and restaurants remain open during the day is obtuse and seems to demonstrate a lack of resolve among our leaders. St. Charles Borromeo did not hunker down during the plague outbreak of his day — he went among the faithful and cared for them as a priest should do. He also told the unbelieving civil leaders of his day to acknowledge that faith, public repentance and worship were essential parts of any solution. We have far less than plague today and are far too willing to let a secular government tell us to cancel our public prayers.
Some will call me irresponsible for calling for public and communal Masses to resume. “People are dying,” they will say. I can only respond by saying that souls are dying due to fear and worldly obsession with death. Death will come to all of us, and not likely by coronavirus. The deeper and more important question is this: Are you ready to die and face judgment?
Let’s take reasonable precautions. Wash your hands; avoid touching your face; respect that some do not want to shake hands just now. But above all, do not be afraid and think that God is no longer in control. Go to Mass and trust God! Now is the time for faith, not an unwise abandonment of the liturgy which remains our help for salvation in a sin-soaked and unholy world. Run to God! Do not run from him and his sacraments.
Lord, save us from foolish and unfaithful preoccupations! Give us health. But, above all, give us a faith that does not fear the mere attacks on the body but soberly recalls that attacks on the soul are far more serious than the world thinks. Help us to be most concerned in what matters to you. Our bodies will die but our souls will endure. By your grace may we tend to our souls so that our bodies may one day rise to glory.