Lessons From the 2020 COVID Crisis

BOOK PICK: ‘Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic’

‘Contagious Faith’ is a timely read as more Catholics return to the pews.
‘Contagious Faith’ is a timely read as more Catholics return to the pews. (photo: Crisis Publications)


Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic

By Philip F. Lawler

Crisis Publications, 2021

192 pages, $19.95

To order: amazon.com

In the introduction of his new book, Courageous Faith, Philip Lawler offers the thesis, “in the COVID crisis of 2020, the fear of the disease was deadlier than the disease itself.” In the 10 chapters that follow, Lawler powerfully defends that view. 

Though Lawler references the broad socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19, his focus is on the Catholic Church and how its members responded, or failed to respond. As he puts it, “This is a book about a time when leaders of the Catholic Church told their people not to come to church.” 

In the midst of pandemic madness, it might be very tempting for an author to turn a manuscript like this into a long rant, but Lawler — a Catholic journalist with four decades of experience in covering Catholic issues — has done something remarkably refreshing instead. 

Lawler’s book reads like a letter to a fellow Catholic friend, a letter that urges us to calm down and take a deep breath, to think about COVID rationally as men and women of Catholic faith, to look at where we are and, more importantly, who we are. 

And it is on this point — who we are and who we are called to be — that many readers will find the book of great value. It is also on that point that faithful Catholics hope more bishops listen.


Casualties of War

Throughout the book, Lawler reminds us Catholics that we are people of faith, hope and charity, but these theological virtues have been casualties of the war on COVID. He writes, “To bring the gift of hope to our neighbors, we must be able to show that our Faith is alive and real: that we practice what we preach. We must demonstrate to them that our life in Faith — our life in the sacraments — is our top priority, that our spiritual health is more important to us than our physical health. Sadly, that is not the story of the Catholic Church in the COVID era.”

Lawler agrees that COVID is a serious illness and does not object to reasonable precautions, but he insists that taking the sacraments away from the faithful was irrational. He writes, “And in the greatest tragedy of the COVID era, access to the life-giving sacraments of Christ’s Church was choked off during this time when we needed it most.” He also notes that, to add insult to injury, the pastoral attitude about removing the sacraments sometimes bordered on indifference: “I was astounded by the cavalier attitude displayed by Catholic leaders about the restrictions on sacramental ministry.” 

Though Catholics over the past 16 months have launched into jeremiads about their governors, Lawler reminds us, “The sacramental life of the Church was suppressed — not by persecuting tyrants but by our own bishops.” 

Lawler points out that bishops such as Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki (who increased the number of public Masses in 2020) and Texas Bishop Joseph Strickland (who urged priests to lead Eucharistic processions around their churches) were too few and far between. For many Catholics, that has proven the hardest pill to swallow. We needed Church leaders to defend our God-given right to attend Mass and receive the sacraments, but some bishops issued directives that went beyond the governors’ often-draconian orders. 

Lawler notes that “the bulletins did not convey any sorrow over the absence of the lay faithful. On the contrary, many episcopal directives conveyed the impression that lay Catholics who were pleading to attend Mass had become a nuisance.” Some intrepid priests who did try to administer the sacraments reverently and creatively — such as drive-through confessions — were often forbidden from doing so. Lawler notes that more than 30 dioceses “explicitly banned” such confessions. 


State of the Church

When governmental officials deemed Masses “nonessential,” many princes of the Church readily concurred. As a result, much of the laity began to consider themselves nonessential as well: When the churches began to reopen in 2020, they simply decided to stay home. Lawler notes that, even for Christmas Day, only 20% of America’s Catholics attended Mass. During the following months, churches began to lift some restrictions and allow fuller pews, but many of the pews remained eerily empty anyway. 

Late summer and fall of 2021 might witness an even greater decline in Mass attendance, as variants of COVID-19 continue to arrive on the scene. 

Lawler reminds readers that, in the year 1576, the dreaded plague reappeared in Milan. The archbishop of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo, decided to close the great cathedral. But that’s not the end of the story. Lawler writes that Cardinal Borromeo said Masses outdoors, organized Eucharistic processions, and  “exhorted his priests to bring the sacraments to the sick, promising them that if they contracted the plague themselves, ‘it will be a quicker attainment of blessed glory.’” 

The holy shepherd also traveled to houses himself to administer the sacraments. Lawler relates Cardinal Borromeo’s assurance to his flock: “If someone does contract the disease, and others are no longer there, then I myself — who will be going out among you every day, on account of the sick — will be there.” He was good to his word.

How should the Church respond this time? The answer is simple: We need courageous priests and bishops like St. Charles Borromeo. 

As I finished reading the final few pages of Lawler’s book — with his message of the importance of reverence, the sacraments, grace, the virtues and the love of one another — it struck me that the book constitutes what should have been the sermon we heard every Sunday in the midst of the pandemic. Perhaps Church leadership will have learned from its missteps from 2020, and the Church will meet the next stage of this crisis head-on — fueled by the sacraments.