It’s often said that with God, there are no mere coincidences. So the overlap of the explosion of the global COVID-19 pandemic with this year’s Holy Week celebrations should give cause for Catholics to engage in some serious reflection about what this unanticipated juxtaposition signifies.
Understandably, the initial response of Catholics in the U.S. has been shaped by the deluge of disturbing coronavirus images from other countries that have dominated news and social media for weeks. This frightening imagery now is combined with firsthand experiences of cases of infection here at home, empty shelves at supermarkets, and an ever-growing range of shutdowns of public events and workplaces — including cancellations of public Masses in most parts of the nation — that are being imposed in order to slow the disease’s spread.
The picture of Pope Francis standing above a deserted St. Peter’s Square, which is featured on the front page of this issue of the Register, might be viewed as an especially evocative example of how disheartening the situation has become.
But while Pope Francis’ Angelus blessing over the city of Rome without a soul in sight was chilling, it was also strangely comforting. Prayer goes on. God is with us.
Our Christian hope always rests in God — yet as we recall throughout Holy Week, this hope did not arise in the context of comfort and security. It arose from Jesus Christ’s victory over sin and death, purchased for us through the excruciating sufferings of his passion and death on the cross at Golgotha, abandoned and almost entirely alone. But out of that seeming disaster was born the resurrection of Easter, the reason for our hope both here and in the hereafter.
This hope can never be shaken by any physical disease, not even one so serious as the coronavirus. And as believers, it’s our particular responsibility to manifest this hope to the many others in our secularized contemporary society who, lacking faith, might be drawn toward despair by the advance of the coronavirus.
But since hope is only one of the three Christian theological virtues, Catholic clergy and lay faithful are called equally to serve as beacons of charity and faith in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Indeed, such a witness has been modeled countless times previously over the 2,000-year life of the Church, through the compelling example of Catholics like St. Charles Borromeo who, in the face of a deadly plague besetting his own 16th-century Archdiocese of Milan, refused to follow the lead of civil authorities in fleeing the city. Instead, Cardinal Borromeo courageously remained in place to shepherd his flock, both spiritually and materially.
Elsewhere in this issue of the Register there are reports about how U.S. Catholics are ministering to their brothers and sisters in need. In terms of charitable assistance, help is being delivered through a range of initiatives coordinated through dioceses and parishes, Catholic agencies and religious orders. Catholic doctors, nurses, chaplains, nuns and other front-line personnel are also striving heroically, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to care for those who have been hardest hit by the virus.
Individual Catholics can play their part, too, both indirectly by donating to such efforts and directly by reaching out to overburdened neighbors whenever possible to lend their support.
Perhaps even greater assistance can be provided in the area of faith, however. At another time of great national crisis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously remarked, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Addressing the nation during the depths of the Great Depression, Roosevelt wasn’t dismissing the legitimate fears that almost all Americans then shared regarding their collective economic future.
Instead, he was indicating that specific fears can be addressed in a number of ways, such as sound public policies and a spirit of national solidarity. What is paralyzing is to be overcome by an overwhelming and generalized despair, one that provides no room for hope and therefore robs people of the spirit they require in order to rally in the face of adversity.
The only antidote to fear is faith, and the surest way to build and strengthen faith is through prayer. Catholics know that the very highest form of prayer is the Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life,” in the words of the Second Vatican Council.
With public Masses suspended in so many areas, and unavailable to many of the faithful even in areas where they haven’t been, this issue of the Register provides insight into what can be done to maximize the effectiveness of our prayers in these circumstances. Such means can include viewing televised Masses, making frequent spiritual communions, strengthening the “domestic Church” through instruments like praying the Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours within the family, and even participation in public prayers outside of hospitals and homes in support of patients and residents quarantined in those locations.
An interview with the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes eloquently explains that even though the spread of the coronavirus forced the closure of the shrine to the public, it remains “the prayer lung of the world,” in terms of seeking the intercession of Mary in this time of suffering and peril.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus entered Jerusalem for the final time during Holy Week, to embrace there his cross on behalf of all humanity. Near the end of his passion, as Our Lord’s earthly strength drained away, Simon of Cyrene stepped forward to help him shoulder the weight of the cross of salvation.
Today, as the cross of the coronavirus is weighing down so many in so many different ways, afflicting Christians and non-Christians without distinction, it is now our turn to try to serve as contemporary Simons of Cyrene, by bringing the faith, hope and love of Jesus to others in these most challenging times.