Coronavirus and the Mass: Following the science

By Deacon Rob Lanciotti

Deacon Rob Lanciotti is a permanent deacon at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Collins and holds a doctoral degree in Microbiology. He was employed as a virologist for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) for 29 years.

Back in June as we began returning to Mass, I wrote from my perspective as a virologist with experience in public health that attending Mass for most people was a relatively low risk event. 

The past several months have convinced me that this is still the case. Mass attendance under the guidelines that we are following in the Archdiocese of Denver is reasonably safe, and at this point most of us should be participating in the weekly liturgy. Here I would like to reiterate a few previously stated points in support of this, with the addition of new and valuable data.

It is unfortunate that most news organizations are emphasizing case numbers and other rare outcomes of the disease.  We may read about the 10-year-old who died of COVID-19, yet the story fails to place this rare event into perspective.  For example, there have been 72 deaths due to COVID-19 among the 0-14 age category (of over 200,000 total fatalities), whereas we typically have 700 deaths due to drowning per year in this same age cohort.  COVID fatalities are not even within the top 20 causes of death for this age group.  Media emphasis on these rare outcomes has led to a generalized fear that is unfounded for most of the US population.  The facts are clear; the disease is of low incidence overall and severe outcomes and fatalities are occurring among an identifiable sub-set of the population – a subgroup that can be protected.  Overall, the public health response and the media focus has been disproportionate to the threat.  Catholics should focus on the facts and not be manipulated by the press.

The overall rate of infection among the entire population has been determined by randomized testing in 10 separate cities throughout the US.  New York City is clearly the exception, with an infection rate of around 20%.  All other sites are at 5% or less.  For comparison the 1918 flu pandemic caused infections in well over 30% of the population.  

Secondly, as has been observed from the outset of the pandemic, there is a clear age and health relationship between COVID-19 infection and serious outcomes.  Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.

With these facts in mind, it is clear that most people are at low risk of serious outcome and thus should feel safe returning to Mass; especially with the precautions in place at the Sunday liturgy.  

Moving forward, there are two principles of Catholic social teaching that I would like to reflect upon that can be applied in dealing with response to the pandemic; subsidiarity and the common good.  The principle of subsidiarity teaches us that those closest to the situation under consideration are best suited to make correct decisions.  Applied to this current scenario this means that individuals and families (not necessarily the government) are best suited to decide the appropriate level of precautions necessary.  For example, a healthy couple with young children should approach returning to Mass differently than an elderly couple with pre-existing health conditions, because the risk is objectively different for the two categories.  Secondly, the common good, the health of others, must also be considered.  Although the couple with young children is facing a disease of low consequence for them, they must consider the potential of infecting those in higher risk categories.  Combining these two principles, it is possible for individuals and families to make prudent decisions.  As an aside, I can attest from my 30 years of experience in public health that government & public health officials detest subsidiarity, because they believe that it is their role to inform and guide your decisions.  Unfortunately, they are unable to assess every situation and therefore generally overreact.

The National Center of Health Statistics website reports that among the 0-44 age category, automobile traffic deaths (19,663) significantly exceed COVID-19 deaths (4,638).  What this means is that for those in this age category, the drive to Mass poses a much greater risk than attending Mass! My advice is that each individual & family determine their own health risk of attending Mass, consider the risk to others, and then make a decision.  In this process, it is essential to focus on the data and ignore the media’s bias.  Even statements by Public Health officials must be taken “with a grain of salt,” since they believe that individuals are unable to make good decisions, and that it is their role to tell you what to do.  Without hesitation, I can say that for the majority of individuals, attending Mass at this time is a low-risk endeavor.  Finally, as should be obvious to us, Mass attendance is of paramount importance for our salvation and therefore we should do all we reasonably can to participate in this great liturgy! 


Sources:

  • For example, there have been 64 deaths due to COVID-19 among the 0-14 age category (of 180,000 total fatalities), whereas there have been 700 deaths due to drowning.
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from: cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm
  • Deaths from other causes: worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa-cause-of-death-by-age-and-gender
  • The overall rate of infection among the entire population has been determined by randomized testing in 10 separate cities throughout the US. NY City is clearly the exception, with an infection rate of around 20%. All other cites are at 5% or less. For comparison the 1918 flu pandemic caused infections in well over 30% of the population. 
  • Seroprevalence study data from: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/commercial-lab-surveys.html
  • 1918 Influenza infection rate: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3291398/#:~:text=An%20estimated%20one%20third%20of,pandemics%20(3%2C4).
  • Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from above compared to influenza infection fatality rate average of 0.12%
  • The National Center of Health Statistics website reports that among the 0-44 age category, automobile traffic deaths (19,663) significantly exceed COVID-19 deaths (4,638).
  • COVID-19 fatalities by age from cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm
  • Auto traffic deaths by age from: www.worldlifeexpectancy.com/usa-cause-of-death-by-age-and-gender

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”