Surviving this Lenten quarantine

Well, I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that Lent has been a lot Lent-ier than usual this year. As of Ash Wednesday, there had not yet been a single death from COVID-19 in the United States. And now, businesses are closing, “social distancing” is the norm, and the newest cocktail is called the “Quarantini.” (It’s a regular martini, but you drink it at home, alone.)

Worst of all, millions of Catholics are being deprived of participation in the Mass. Here in the Archdiocese of Denver, all public Masses have been suspended until further notice. In other dioceses, public Masses continue, with smaller crowds and liberal dispensations.

What could be more heartbreaking than to be deprived of our spiritual sustenance, the Eucharist, during this difficult time?

If my Facebook feed is any indication, people are plenty disappointed. Some are angry. And, in the midst of it all, I’m seeing a lot of misunderstanding — both about the nature of the disease and the reason for the drastic measures, and about the nature of the Mass itself.

So I wanted to spend a little time sharing a few thoughts, and a few responses to some of the more common misunderstandings:

“Why keep us from the Mass? People have risked their lives for the Mass. We should be doing the same.” Yes, people have risked their lives for the Mass. And we admire them for it. We make them saints. But that is not what is going on here. By continuing to gather in large group, we are not so much risking our own lives as we are risking the lives of others. Which is not so admirable. This virus, from what we know right now, is extremely contagious. And it spreads before the carrier shows any symptoms. One person can infect several others, who will go on to infect several others, and so on. And any of those down the line who are vulnerable — the elderly, the immunocompromised — are at serious risk of death. If you don’t believe me, google “Patient 31 South Korea.” The 31st person to be diagnosed in South Korea was apparently quite the social butterfly.  She attended church services four times after she was presumed to be infected, but before her diagnosis. She also went out to lunch, shopped in crowded areas, and otherwise flitted about town. Two days after her diagnosis, South Korea’s coronavirus cases doubled in a single day, from 53 to 104. More than 40 of those cases were in Patient 31’s home town, and 28 of those attended her church. Now, over 90 people from that church have tested positive. And I read today that fully 80 percent of South Korea’s COVID-19 infections can be traced back to Patient 31.

Patient 31 didn’t merely risk her own life. She risked others, and her actions have resulted in many deaths.

We all have vulnerable loved ones. We don’t want them crossing paths with a Patient 31, at church or anywhere else. Nor do we want to cross paths with Patient 31 and then carry the contagion back to our loved ones. Or anyone else.

“The world needs the Mass more than ever.” Please understand that the world is not lacking the Mass right now. The Mass continues. It is being celebrated all over the world, just as before. We the public in many cases cannot be present for it. But it is being offered — for the world, for our sins, for God’s protection in this pandemic. And we can still participate in the Mass, just not in person. We can watch it on TV. We can stream it online. We can join our prayers to those of the celebrant. No, we can’t receive the Eucharist. But we can make a spiritual communion. And I am quite confident that the Lord who loves us will be generous in dispensing graces to those who are doing the best we can to protect each other.

“Grocery stores are open for physical food, but we are being deprived of spiritual food, the Eucharist.” Yes, we are. And it hurts. But our easy access to the Eucharist is an exception, not the norm, throughout the history of the Church. Many of the greatest saints went long periods of time without receiving the Eucharist. Of course we don’t want to go back to those days, and we are fortunate to have such wonderful access to the Bread of Life. But I say that easy availability can cause us to take this amazing gift for granted. It cannot be a coincidence that all of this happened during Lent. We are truly in the wilderness, longing for Him. It is my hope and prayer that we can spend this time in preparation for our next holy communion, whenever that may be. Imagine the joy of that reunion!

In the mean time, we need to be patient, prayerful and prudent. Check in on your neighbors, especially the elderly and others at risk. Ask God to show you how you can help, how you can be of service without unnecessarily exposing others.

And, for the love of all that is holy, think of others as you are “stocking up.” Buying enough to get you and your family through a crisis is understandable. Hoarding scarce resources — taking more than you need, and thereby depriving others of what they need — is a sin against God and your neighbor. If you have hoarded items that are now scarce, repent and share your bounty with those who are without.

It is my great prayer that, by Easter, public Masses will be restored and we can fully celebrate His resurrection. But, like the apostles on Good Friday, we cannot know what the future holds. So we need to trust Him. And pray, more than ever.

COMING UP: In this global pandemic, be charitable and stay home

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There can no longer be any doubt about it — with COVID-19, we are living through a historic pandemic, one that requires swift action and societal cooperation. To think otherwise would be foolish.

Here in Colorado, our normal daily routines and facets of everyday life have altered drastically over the past two weeks. Store shelves usually fully-stocked have been bare. Movie theaters are closed. Schools are closed. Restaurants are closed or offering take-out or delivery only (for now). Many people have lost their jobs. Virtually every single large public gathering and event has been cancelled or suspended. And as Catholics have painfully had to accept, that includes the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

The response to this decision by the bishops of Colorado has been mixed. Some have taken to email and social media comments to express their frustration with the decision, arguing that it is a cowardly thing to do and accusing the Church of bending to secular whims. Others have expressed support and solidarity with the decision, painful as it may be, because the seriousness of this pandemic underscores the need to be adaptable and flexible.

It’s easy to turn to anger and frustration in these uncertain times. Sunday Mass serves as a constant for many of us each week, and a reassurance that no matter what kind of week we’ve had, the Lord is always waiting for us in the liturgy. When that solace is stripped from us, the natural response is sorrow masked with anger.

And while it seems easy enough to offer alternatives, such as allowing those more at risk to skip Mass and allowing those who are healthy to still attend, such suggestions are not adequate in these times. If we are to heed the directives outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the various other medical experts who have weighed in, then we must accept that daily life in society, and subsequently the Church, is going to look a lot different for the foreseeable future.

The facts

As prominent health and government officials have reiterated over the past couple of weeks and and continue to reiterate, this outbreak is something that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Here are the facts: As of this writing on March 24, there are over 400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, and over 18,000 deaths. In the U.S., there are nearly 53,000 confirmed cases with 684 deaths. And in our own backyard here in Colorado, we have 720 confirmed cases with 11 deaths.

Now, these numbers may not seem drastic when compared to the grand scheme of things, but being a people of reason, we can surmise the potential for disaster by looking at other examples of countries who did not act quickly enough. Sadly, Italy is completely overwhelmed with the rampant spread of the virus. News reports from the country paint a dire picture of desperation.

Because Italy didn’t act quickly enough and enact social distancing measures, their healthcare system is being stretched to its limits and on the verge of collapse. Doctors are having to make impossible decisions of which patients can still be helped, and which ones are beyond saving. Nurses on the frontline are calling the situation akin to a war.

The reality is that if people don’t start taking this outbreak seriously, the U.S. could very rapidly be in a similar situation. Consider that on Feb. 21, Italy had zero confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the course of one month, over 53,000 confirmed cases were reported with nearly 5,000 deaths. This is why the entire states of California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and over 10 others have enacted shelter-in-place measures (Editor’s Note: And now Colorado, too). This means one in four Americans are being ordered to stay indoors.

This all sounds very alarmist, but again, being a people of reason, we must look at the facts. This is a virus that doesn’t discriminate. Young and old alike are being infected and brought close to the edge of death or past it. While preliminary data shows that elderly and those with underlying conditions are at higher risk, the CDC recently contended that 40% of patients sick enough to require hospitalization were aged 20 to 54.

Now is not the time for people to be cavalier about this. This is compounded by the fact that some people are asymptomatic, meaning they could be carrying it and not even know it.

In a recent interview with Wired, Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped defeat smallpox, summed it up rather succinctly: “It’s the most dangerous pandemic in our lifetime.”

Canceling Mass: An act of charity

When presented with these facts about COVID-19 and more, the bishops of Colorado have done what any good shepherd would do: they did what was necessary for the common good to protect the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In light of all of this, the suspension of public Masses should be seen as an act of charity more than anything else. As Catholics, we champion the dignity of life from conception until natural death. And the fact of the matter is that if we were to unknowingly infect one of our fellow parishioners with COVID-19 and they died from it, that would not be a natural death.

This is an unprecedented time in human history. And it’s in times like these that the Church has a profound opportunity to do what Christ commissioned her to do: serve those most in need and love our neighbors. To do so requires sacrifice, and at this moment in history, we as Catholics are being called to something greater than ourselves.

It is a strange irony that this “greater calling” is participating in the Mass from our own homes rather than at our parishes. But if the Church truly is the mystical body of Christ, then the communion that exists while kneeling next to each other in the pews still exists within the walls of our homes.

In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to see stories of how the Church is being impacted through all of this. You can also expect to see stories of the many ways in which Denver Catholics will live out this calling and step up to love our neighbors most in need through this challenging time.

Until the government mandates it, some will continue to disregard the seriousness of this situation and the urgent need to practice social distancing, starting right now. We at the Denver Catholic are urging you: please stay home and resist the temptation to act as though we are not living through a global pandemic. It is for your own good and the good of our local, national and global neighbors.