I want to offer encouragement to people who are troubled by the COVID-19 crisis. My heart goes out to all who are suffering, especially the sick. Many friends or family members are healthcare workers …
I want to offer encouragement to people who are troubled by the COVID-19 crisis. My heart goes out to all who are suffering, especially the sick. Many friends or family members are healthcare workers and first responders placing their lives in jeopardy to care for the ill, and we are anxious for them. Also, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions are apprehensive and isolated. Others have lost their jobs, and business owners are experiencing huge financial losses. Death tolls rise daily.
In these trying times, people yearn to be close to family and friends, and they find comfort in church services. Yet the warning to practice “social distancing” causes separation. I believe it is better to practice physical distancing and social closeness. That is, we need to avoid any groups, but we cannot survive without human contact. We need social closeness, and that requires creativity. We can reach out by calling others, writing letters, sending a text of encouragement, making a meal for someone or even having food delivered to their house.
Catholic Christians will not publicly celebrate Holy Week and Easter. This feels strange and empty, and it is deeply painful for those accustomed to expressing our faith in community. The last time worship services were canceled in the United States was during the 1918 flu pandemic.
Many Catholics are asking why I suspended all public liturgies. The Eucharist is an immense source of grace; thus, only in an emergency should a bishop cease masses. To make prudent decisions, I formed a COVID-19 Response Team, consisting of four pastors, three lay leaders from the Chancery Office and two doctors who are life-long Catholics with 40 years of medical practice. Our decisions are based on faith in God, medical science and key values that uphold the common good.
An essential value behind our decisions is solidarity. We are obligated to do all we can to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19, especially to the elderly and people with underlying health conditions. Solidarity requires us to act so as to prevent any person from being infected. At this time, public gatherings endanger those in attendance, who in turn could infect others. We need to consider the common good of all people, not just fellow Christians. We must be co-responsible citizens and while ceasing public religious services is a drastic measure, it will mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. This is an essential way of loving our neighbor.
Initially, Italy closed the churches, and then pastors had outdoor Masses. But the bishops and police told them to stop. Those pastors wanted to feed their people spiritually, but the result was that more people were exposed to COVID-19 and are dying. By Monday, the death toll in Italy was 16,000 people, including 87 priests. In the Diocese of Bergamo alone, 25 priests have died!
When I suspended Masses, I was not just thinking of the next few weeks, but the next several years. If some priests die from the virus, then instead of months with no Mass, some churches could be without Mass for 10 years.
How can you celebrate Holy Week and Easter in a way that will feed you spiritually? Consider the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They felt defeated, but while walking and talking about Jesus’ death, the risen Lord joined them. As he explained the scriptures to them, their hearts were burning with his love (Luke 24). Or think of the disciples hiding in fear behind locked doors, only to have the risen Lord appear to them (John 20). They spent Easter in isolation, yet they were stunned by the presence and peace of the risen Christ.
Reading the scriptures will be crucial as we observe Holy Week. Do this as a family, or if you are alone, call a friend and reflect on the scriptures together. A second way to observe the passion, death and resurrection is to love your neighbor. Imitate the love poured out on the cross. When you’re lonely, reach out to others. When we die to self, God fills us with the new life of the risen Christ.
Our model is the paschal mystery — trust like Christ in suffering, live and die for others and be hopeful of sharing in his risen life right now. If we keep the memorial of the Lord’s death and resurrection by listening to his word and imitating his love, then we will share in his triumph over death.
(Steven Biegler is the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne. He has held the position since March 2017.)