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.
As many of you know, I was seriously ill with a strange, pneumonia-like illness from December through early February. The hacking cough I developed eventually led to torn intercostal muscles, three broken ribs, pleurisy and internal bleeding. I was in pain every time I coughed — which was all too frequently. For four weeks I had to sleep sitting up in a chair.
It took immunosuppressors, four rounds of antibiotics, heavy doses of antihistamines and breathing treatments four times a day to finally bring me back to good health. Thanks be to God and to expert medical help! I provide this background to illustrate that I am not unsympathetic to the pulmonary distress that is the hallmark of COVID-19.
In what follows, I do not argue that we should flip a switch and immediately return to what we called “normal daily life” just a couple of months ago. Further, I am neither an epidemiologist nor an immunologist, and I accept that some degree of protective measures is necessary to protect the vulnerable and to minimize the spread of the disease.
However, I am also concerned about the serious and potentially deadly effects of this unprecedented shutdown. I do not support every action or position of the demonstrators, but I am sympathetic to their essential concern that the “cure should not be worse than the disease.” The lives of those afflicted by or particularly susceptible to the new coronavirus matter, but so do the lives of others who are experiencing mounting losses and struggling to provide for their families.
Many with this concern are demonized and told that they are selfish and don’t care if other people die. This is, of course, an unfair accusation. Those who are calling for a gradual reopening want people to live, too. Living consists of more than having a pulse. Living involves thriving, interacting with others, cultural enrichment. Living involves the dignity of work, contributing our labors and sharing in their fruits. For a Catholic, living means the Holy Mass, receiving the sacraments and gathering for communal worship.
I ask those who support the continuation of the current shutdown to respect, rather than demonize, those of us who think that the balance is too heavily tilted toward safety and that other essential goods are being neglected. If you don’t agree, present your position. Describe your criteria for reopening and how you think it should be managed.
In my opinion, two things are required for individuals and our country in order for us be more disposed to a gradual reopening of the economy and culture.
First, we must face our fears and accept that illness, suffering and death are a part of life in this world we call “Paradise Lost.” Life is filled with countless risks; we must be sober and prudent but at the same time courageous and accepting. To be cognizant of risks and to try to minimize them is wise but to avoid all risk is neither possible nor healthy.
It is highly unlikely that the risk of contracting the coronavirus will be brought to zero. At some point we are going to have to return to our “normal” lives. The debate is around determining the right time and the acceptable amount of risk given the economic and social cost of continuing to remain locked down.
Even if we were to find a treatment or cure for COVID-19 tomorrow, there are countless other viruses, bacteria, allergens and toxins all around us. God has equipped us with immune systems that do an almost miraculous job of keeping us healthy in the face of a daily onslaught of attacks. For believers, trusting in God’s care and in what he has provided to keep us healthy plays an important part in overcoming our fear. Life has many risks, but our lives remain in God’s hands and we in his care.
This is not a call to recklessly abandon all the measures currently in place to reduce the spread of the virus, but it is a summons to remember that life has many risks, that accepting them is part of our life in this world, and that God is with us through it all.
Second, we have to accept the hard truth that people die. They die of many things, COVID-19 among them. The vast majority of people who get the coronavirus will survive. Some will be only mildly symptomatic, some will be severely ill, and yes, some will die. People will also keep dying every day of heart disease, cancer, from strokes, and in automobile accidents. Each of us is going to die one day, at a time and in a manner that is not of our own choosing.
It is alarming to me as a priest and believer how little we as a Church have had to say about death. Death is a reality, but it is not something we should excessively fear. Christ has conquered death and made it a doorway to the glory of Heaven for the faithful.
St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians:
Brothers, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you grieve like the rest, who are without hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, we also believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)
He also wrote this rather well-known passage:
Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast and immovable. (1 Corinthians 15:55-58)
We all have a natural fear of death, especially the dying process itself, but as Christians we are taught to confront and conquer our fear of death. The grace to do so has been given to us by Christ. Scripture says:
Now since the children have flesh and blood, Christ 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)
Pay attention, fellow believers: Christ has conquered death and summoned us, by his grace, to become free of the fear of death through which the Devil keeps us in bondage.
Death is not the end; it is a birth unto new life. For the faithful Christian, the day of our death is the greatest day of our life. Though we may require some purgation, we leave this world of sorrows and journey to that place of joys unspeakable and glories untold.
It is right that we should grieve the death of every human being, but something far more than grieving is going on in this current situation. What we have today is a gripping fear that so dreads suffering and death that almost everything else must be sacrificed.
Much of this, I am convinced, is because in this increasingly secular world, suffering and death have lost their meaning. Such an attitude is unacceptable for a Christian. Jesus taught us that the cross is a tree of life and that suffering produces glory. He taught us that to truly find our life, we must lose it to this world.
As Christ’s voice in this world, we have been too silent about these truths. We should be summoning people to a courageous stance in the face of suffering and death.
This does not mean reckless risk-taking. I am not advocating the complete, immediate reversal of all safety measures. But the widespread, gripping fear in the face of this virus is unprecedented in my lifetime. I have never seen anything like it. Its worldwide scope tells me that it is demonic in origin, and thus the Church must speak more vigorously to exorcize the demons of fear. Instead we have remained strangely quiet.
As usual, our muting of the Gospel message likely stems from a fear of appearing to be “insensitive.” If we were to speak out against the gripping fear or to suggest that not all of the limitations are necessarily good ideas, we might be accused of not caring if people die! We have allowed this bullying and misrepresentation of our views to silence us. Accepting reasonable safety measures, and making proper distinctions, we must preach the Gospel anyway to a world that is increasingly scornful of the cross and dubious that death has been conquered by Jesus Christ.
It is time to face our fears in this country we once called “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Some degree of fear and anxiety is understandable, but the paralyzing fear manifest in the news reports and displayed by many Americans is destructive as well as unbecoming.
It is time for prudent, incremental measures to reopen the economy and to resume public Masses. Different regions will open according to their situations, but in all cases it is going to require us to face our fears, master them, and accept that people are going to continue to die of COVID-19 in the months and years ahead (although the vast majority will not). People will also suffer and die from many other causes.
Dear Lord, may those who have died rest in peace. May those who are ill recover. May those who are unemployed due to the shutdown find work. May those deprived of the sacraments soon be restored to them. And may all those who suffer in myriad hidden ways find solace. Calm our fears, Lord, and help us to remember that our life is in your hands. Amen.