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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.

Mary Beth Bonacci
Mary Beth Bonacci has been giving talks on love and relationships across the United States and internationally for . . .well . . . her entire adult life. She was among the first Catholic speakers to introduce audiences to St. John Paul II’s beautiful Theology of the Body. She is the founder of Real Love, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting respect for God’s gift of human sexuality. Her book Real Love, based on the Theology of the Body, has been translated into ten languages. She is also the author of We’re on a Mission from God, writes a monthly column for Catholic newspapers and contributes regularly to the Catholic Match Institute blog.
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