Easter’s Joy Has No Restrictions
EDITORIAL: The light of faith that shines forth from within the Church can never be extinguished by this pandemic, nor by any other earthly difficulty.
Last Holy Week and Easter, nothing was the same as it was the year before — or for any past year, for that matter. As Catholics prepared to celebrate the holiest of seasons, the COVID-19 pandemic had plunged the world into chaos, characterized by fear, illness, death and a near-total lockdown on social, economic and liturgical life. The future was unknown.
Pope Francis responded to that dire moment with his remarkable urbi et orbi address. He uplifted countless viewers, focusing his gaze on Jesus Christ in the monstrance as he stood, a solitary figure, in front of an empty, rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square to bless the world. Whether on the first Good Friday or in today’s pandemic, the light of Christ brilliantly shines through the darkness.
More than 550,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S., as of the writing of this editorial. That number represents a major share of the worldwide total of 2.7 million deaths. For untold millions more Americans, this grim catalogue of death statistics translates into profound sorrow in the loss of grandparents and other family members, friends, neighbors and work colleagues.
In a number of locations, churches are marking these collective losses with special COVID-19 memorial services, offered now, many months later, because mourning together as a community has been impossible due to the restrictions on religious worship throughout the pandemic.
For many Catholics, these personal tragedies have been compounded by job loss stemming from the shutdown of large sectors of the economy. All of us have suffered from significant disruptions to the normal social interactions that are crucial to our lives. And there are no words to express the impact of severe restriction on our churches in many jurisdictions — restrictions that limited or completely severed access to our very lifeblood: the sacraments that animate the practice of the Catholic faith.
Yet for a Christian, such total upheaval has the chance to awaken the soul, for it can be reminiscent of another time, more than 2,000 years ago, when nothing was the same as it was before: the first Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.
In the eyes of the worldly, the story of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, followed by his humiliation, agony and death at Calvary on Good Friday, is viewed as fruitless suffering with a meaningless end. But believers know that the true story of salvation was only just beginning. Christ soon resurrected in glory from his tomb two days later at Easter.
And so, too, the sufferings and restrictions we all have experienced since last Easter provide each of us with an opportunity to be renewed. This happens only when we strip away the self-reliance and distractions that too often deflect us from reliance first and foremost on God and on the salvific sacrifice of his only Son.
Whenever things have appeared the darkest — and our individual crosses have sometimes seemed too burdensome to carry — the countercultural light of the Christian witness has continued to shine forth in the faithful who have united their sufferings to the cross of Jesus with total faith in his victory over death and sin.
Indeed, we have seen such faith in action. Countless Catholics around the nation have rallied in the face of the past year’s trials. Priests have found creative ways to shepherd their flocks, despite the limitations of lockdowns, and quite a few of our bishops have pushed back forcefully against the unjust and unconstitutional restrictions that some state and local leaders have sought to impose on our right to public worship.
Lay Catholics have also contributed to this witness of Easter faith. Catholic hospitals and medical professionals have been in the vanguard of delivering front-line care to COVID victims, accepting the grave risk to their own health. As soon as permitted by civil authorities, Catholic schools have taken the lead in opening their doors again to instruct their students, with effective health and safety plans. Clergy, religious and laypeople have joined together in a multitude of ways to extend concrete assistance to those who have been wounded and marginalized the most. And, wherever churches have been allowed to resume more normal levels of operations, spiritually hungry parishioners have returned to the pews, eager to benefit from renewed reception of the sacraments.
As we approach our second Holy Week and Easter celebration since the threat of the novel coronavirus began, it must be remembered that the pandemic is a long way from over.
The lockdown restrictions on public worship that remain in place in many jurisdictions, notably including Rome, will once again impact Holy Week liturgies. Still, as immunization begins to take place around the world, there does appear to be quite a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
Even more importantly, there is abundant evidence that, just as Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time, the light of faith that shines forth from within his own Church can never be extinguished by this pandemic, nor by any other earthly difficulty.
New converts are continuing to enter the Church — even during this Year of COVID-19. Whether or not local restrictions allow them to attend Mass in person on Easter, they will, undimmed by pandemic gloom, for the first time join the rest of the faithful in our joyful Paschal proclamation of the central fact of our faith: “Christ is risen, Alleluia!”