by Father Richard Gennaro Cipolla
The crisis into which we are all immersed—there is no escape—is showing forth in a clear way, clear at least with those whose eyes are not clouded by false piety, the complete irrelevance of the Catholic Church within this crisis. The Catholic Church throughout her two thousand year history has been involved in very many crises: heresy, war, plague, ecclesial strife, famine—you name it and the Church has been involved in these crises within civilization, which civilization in the end means people, not merely groups of people, but individuals: he and she and their children. And the reaction of the Church in the past was to be radically involved with the crisis facing the society in which she lived. This is not to romanticize the past as if bishops have always responded to these crises of life and death in the best possible way. But we do have the image of St. Aloysius Gonzaga carrying victims of the plague in Rome to the hospital on the Isola Tiburina. But then again, Aloysius was not a bishop or even a priest. He was just a Jesuit novice.
And what do we see today?
The Pope in Rome speaking alone to no one in St Peter’s Square. The Pope going through the motions of Holy Week Services in an empty church. Bishops in my country, the United States, offering streaming Masses and services during Holy Week as palliatives to their flock in this crisis. It is not romanticism to hope that our bishops and priests would follow the examples of St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century during the plague in Rome processing through the streets of the city pleading to God for an end to the plague. It is not romanticism to hope that our bishops would follow the example of St. Charles Borromeo during the plague in Milan in the seventeenth century who was so deeply present to his people at his own risk.
What is the difference between Gregory and Charles Borromeo and the bishops of today? It is not that the bishops of the United States should not have obeyed the rational response of the government to the national health crisis caused by the Corvid-19 virus. It is that they are nowhere to be seen except in the shadowy unreality of “streaming”. I shall address the real problem of streaming Masses at a later date. But the fact is that the bishops, those who are ordained to be Christ among us, are holed up wherever they live and issue pious statements every so often and think that this is the imitatio Christi, that this is how to bring Christ to their people.
Given the lock-downs and mandates for physical distancing, the bishops are irrelevant when compared to the talking heads on the media. They may appear every so often in the media to give some pious observation and offer some innocuous brief prayer, which message could have been given by anyone at all with Christian sensibilities, or even just plain non-religious but good sensibilities. Those who lead in these dangerous times in which we live are secular: from heads of government to those with scientific backgrounds and much worse, to the endless talking heads on endless so-called news channels.
What the Covid-19 crisis shows above all is the deep secularization of the Catholic Church. The process that began in the 1950s within the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe was brought to fruition in the Second Vatican Council, which Council decided to be modern when the world had abandoned modernity. There is no need to trash the Second Vatican Council, for like any Council—name one important doctrine to come out of Lateran II—it is but one stage in the ongoing task of understanding of the Catholic faith in any particular age. But there can be no doubt that the implementation of the documents of the Council, especially that dealing with the worship of the Church, has brought us to the situation in which we find ourselves now. That our Catholic people are unable to deepen their faith in this time of crisis—thanks to the negative leadership of the clergy—except to complain about their inability to receive Holy Communion on Sunday is prime matter in showing us exactly where our Catholic faithful are in relationship to their faith. Who will talk to the Catholic faithful about the opportunity to deepen their faith in a time of deprivation of the Mass and the reception of the Eucharist? Who will talk to them about the necessity of the spiritual desert in order to grow in faith? The general hope is expressed in the secular hope that in a few months this will all go away and we will be “back to normal”. But “normal” is not a category for the Catholic to embrace, for we believe in a God who became flesh and died on a Cross so that we might be saved and have life eternal. God forbid that we return to normal.