With churches in America shut down and deemed non-essential, there is no one harder hit than Catholics at the start of Holy Week. For every other non-Catholic denomination, separation is only a matter of location and their services can go on much as they did before. For liturgical Christians, separation from the sacraments of communion, confession, anointing of the sick, and last rites are a spiritual death sentence. A petition titled “We Are an Easter People” has been filed to ask the bishops to start administering the sacraments to the people as soon as possible.
During the COVID 19 pandemic, Catholics are being deprived of what is central to our Faith—the sacraments. The sacraments are gifts of inestimable value: They open up for us the gates of Heaven and bestow upon us graces that enable us to be loving disciples of Christ our Savior.
We, the faithful, appeal to our bishops to provide safe access to the Anointing of the Sick and to some form of public celebration of Mass during this time of strife and pandemic. We appeal to them to keep our churches open for prayer and adoration. This appeal’s intent is to show forth the intrinsic value of such spiritual support given the current crisis we face as Catholics. We have a great desire to have our spiritual needs met in the safest and most effective way possible.
The letter goes on to point out the unprecedented refusal of some bishops to allow priests to anoint the sick or administer last rights to the dying. Hospitals, too, are not allowing priests to visit the sick. For Catholics, this is devastating.
While not having access to the sacraments is always difficult, it is especially devastating not to have access to the Anointing of the Sick when a lethal pestilence is ravaging our world. Catholics believe the sacrament can sometimes effect a physical healing, but that it always strengthens the sick and gives stamina and hope in the face of suffering and death. It enables the sick and dying to unite their sufferings with those of Christ, and to enter eternal life newly blessed by God. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “in the case where one is bound to look after the salvation of his neighbor, he is also bound to expose his bodily life to dangers for the sake of that salvation” (On Charity, art 11).
It’s a strange thing to have priests, who historically have been some of the bravest men in the world—who regularly go into war-torn countries to minister to people under the threat of death or genocide—barred from American hospitals. Throughout history, priests and nuns have gone to heroic lengths to bring the sacraments to people in need. Many of the Saints of the Catholic Church were given sainthood for doing so, in spite of the dangers.
St. Damien of Molokai is described as a martyr of charity for his work in a leper colony on the island of Molokai, dedicating his life to serving the sick who had no one to care for them. He contracted leprosy as a result, but still stayed, working through his illness to care for his colony. That is the kind of sacrifice and love that the church has shown for the sick and dying. St. Theresa of Calcutta worked for decades with people dying of HIV, tuberculosis, and leprosy in India. One wonders what she would have said if ordered to stop caring for her flock in order to preserve her own health or to stop the spread of some disease. I find it hard to believe she would have obeyed those orders and left the sick to suffer and die alone.
The petition confirms the historical truth of Christianity.
Many states, hospitals, and even bishops are forbidding priests to attend to those afflicted with COVID 19, even the dying. While we understand the concerns that have led to these decisions, nonetheless, the love of Jesus inculcated by the Catholic faith fills believers with the ardent desire to attend to the needs of others—even to the point of martyrdom. We are preeminently compelled to attend especially to their supernatural needs at the hour of their death. Thus, every attempt must be made to enable priests to minister to the sick and dying.
The letter goes on to request three things from the bishops.
- To find ways that you and your priests can provide the Anointing of the Sick., especially to those at risk of dying.
- If a state or local government prohibits priests from ministering to the sick in the hospital or in their homes, make a personal and formal request of civic leaders to permit such minister with assurances that all due precautions will be taken. Urge them to recognize religious services as essential services.
- To inform your flock of what you have done and hope to do.
The petition also includes ideas to administer communion at this time including holding outdoor masses, administering the eucharist with tongs, and other ideas listed here. For certain, the Catholic body of Christ is suffering during this time of separation. Some priests are getting creative.
Lt. Col. John Barkemeyer, an Army chaplain, is taking confessions from parishioners driving through the parking lot of Fort Carson’s Soldiers’ Memorial Chapel. He says it is similar too ministering during war.
“I’m used to going into a hostile environment in order to take care of soldiers,” Barkemeyer told The Gazette. “There are certain inherent risks. But if you look throughout the ages, that’s what priests and chaplains have done.” Certainly, drive -thru confessions are better than none at all. “There’s nothing in church law that says confessions have to take place in a church or in a chapel,” he said. “We’re certainly trying to adapt it to the new realities we face.” Other priests are trying to continue their ministries in this way.
For Palm Sunday the Jesuit’s are doing drive thru confessions, and blessings. Stay safe everybody pic.twitter.com/68Rjiub9tt
— Erik Lukas (@tripump) April 5, 2020
But directives from the bishops seem to leave out the possibility of finding creative ways to administer the sacraments and instead opt for cancelation of the usual duties of the church and total compliance with state directives. R.R. Reno’s thoughts in the Catholic journal First Things echo my own.
In truth, I am demoralized by the Catholic Church’s response to what Ephraim Radner calls “the Time of the Virus.” Those of us who live in densely populated areas are aware of the intense anxiety and fear that has become pervasive. The massive shutdown of just about everything reflects the spirit of our age, which regards the prospect of death as the supreme evil to be avoided at all costs. St. Paul observed that Christ came to free us from our bondage to sin and death. This does not mean we will not sin or die. It means that we need not live in fear.
It is imperative that Christian leaders not succumb to the contagious panic, which is a weapon of the Enemy to enslave us to our fears. Many steps short of suspension and cancellation can be taken to ensure that prayer, worship, and the administration of the sacraments are done in responsible ways. In a time of pandemic—a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment, and death—churches must not join the stampede of fear.
Megan Fox is the author of “Believe Evidence; The Death of Due Process from Salome to #MeToo,” and host of The Fringe podcast. Follow on Twitter @MeganFoxWriter