The Two Forties: The Eucharist within quarantine and Lent

The word quarantine comes from a contraction of the Italian words (in the Venetian dialect) for 40 days, referring to the length of time a ship would have to remain in port during the Black Death. It’s not the only Italian word that refers to 40 days: la Quaresima, the Italian word for Lent, also means 40. Latin and the Romance languages all refer to Lent as “the forty,” the proper length of time needed for purification in the spiritual life, imitating Christ in his own time of prayer and fasting in the desert. Right in the middle of our 40 days, Catholics had to face a different quarantine, adding Mass to the list of their Lenten sacrifices.

Although rare, the Church has cancelled public Masses and funerals in the past, as recently as the 1918 flu pandemic. Chris Gehrz, writing on the website Patheos, detailed the impact of the pandemic on churches in the United States using newspaper articles from the time. The Globe wrote about the “quietest Sunday Boston ever saw,” with “less for the citizens to do probably than on any Sunday since the old Puritan days.” Cities that did not cancel church services saw higher rates of death, leading police to intervene in shutting down one Catholic church in Cincinnati. In Colorado, our Archdiocesan archives point to many heroic priests serving the sick under dire circumstances. One priest, Fr. C.F. O’Farrell, “drove an automobile 76 miles, then rode a horse 14 miles at night, to administer the last rites to a dying miner.”

The sacramental life of the Church also suffered extreme impairment during the Black Death, when priests and monks died disproportionately, at even higher rates than the average 30 percent death rate that struck Europe. Attending Mass was out of the question with civil and ecclesial life in disarray, leading to a crisis so severe that in 1349 the Bishop of Bath and Wells, England, decreed that the dying could confess their sins to anyone as a pious act, even if not sacramental, and Pope Clement VI granted special indulgences to the dying. During a later outbreak of plague, St. Charles Borromeo closed the churches in Milan in 1576, as he distinguished himself by heroic care of the sick.

There are a number of similarities between past and present—as the church doors close, the generosity of Mother Church increases. We see a similar dynamic of heroic ministry in Italy, especially the city of Bergamo, where at least 11 priests have died of the coronavirus from ministering to the sick (and many more throughout the region). Pope Francis has made it easier to receive a plenary indulgence by substituting prayer for the reception of Communion and Confession, and offering this to the homebound, caregivers, the dying, and all the faithful. The Apostolic Penitentiary has pointed out the possibility of general absolution in cases of emergency, such as in hospitals, and reminded us that “perfect contrition, coming from the love of God, beloved above all things, expressed by a sincere request for forgiveness and accompanied by votum confessionis, that is, by the firm resolution to have recourse, as soon as possible, to sacramental confession, obtains forgiveness of sins.”

Ultimately, this time without the Eucharist can deepen our Lenten penance, for there is no greater sacrifice than to be without Mass. In his book, Behold the Pierced One, Josef Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict) reflected that “fasting from the Eucharist, really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful on carefully considered occasions, such as days of penance.” Ratzinger asks: “Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ?” Likewise, St.  Francis de Sales advises us, in his great masterpiece, Introduction to the Devout Life, to strengthen our devotion to the Eucharist, even when we can’t be present at Mass: “If any imperative hindrance prevents your presence at this sovereign sacrifice of Christ’s most true Presence, at least be sure to take part in it spiritually. If you cannot go to Church, choose some morning hour in which to unite your intention to that of the whole Christian world, and make the same interior acts of devotion wherever you are that you would make if you were really present at the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist in Church.”

The Church has weathered many storms in the past. That this crisis has broken upon us within the season of Lent points us even more strongly to the Lord’s call for our purification and renewal, inviting us to grow in our trust and desire for Him.

Featured image: Josh Applegate | Unsplash

COMING UP: Transforming quarantine into retreat

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This bruising Lent, in which “fasting” has assumed unprecedented new forms, seems likely to be followed by an Eastertide of further spiritual disruption. What is God’s purpose in all this? I would be reluctant to speculate. But at the very least, the dislocations we experience – whether aggravating inconvenience, grave illness, economic and financial loss, or Eucharistic deprivation – call us to a more profound realization of our dependence on the divine life given us in Baptism: the grace that enables us to live in solidarity with others and to make sense of the seemingly senseless.

If we cooperate with that grace rather than “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14), it can enable us to transform quarantine, lockdown, and the interruption of normal life into an extended retreat, a time to deepen our appreciation of the riches of Catholic faith. Dioceses, Catholic centers, and parishes are offering many online opportunities for prayer, thereby maintaining the public worship of the Church. Here are other resources that can help redeem the rest of Lent and the upcoming Easter season.

* Shortly before the Wuhan virus sent America and much of the world reeling, I began watching Anthony Esolen’s Catholic Courses video-lectures on the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’ve long admired Tony Esolen’s Dante translation and his lucid explanation of the medieval Christian worldview from which Dante wrote; and there was something fitting about watching Esolen accompany Dante and Virgil through hell during a hellish Lent. Professor Esolen’s explication of Dante’s Purgatory and Paradise (also available from Catholic Courses) are just as appropriate these days, however. For the entire Comedy is a journey of conversion that leads to the vision of God; and that is precisely the itinerary the Church invites us to travel during Lent, as the Forty days prepare us to meet the Risen Lord at Easter and experience the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

* Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was arguably the greatest papal homilist since Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century. The March and April sermons in Seeking God’s Face: Meditations for the Church Year (Cluny Media), help put the trials of this Lent and Eastertide into proper Christian focus.

* I’ve often recommended the work of Anglican biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Two chapters (“The Crucified Messiah” and “Jesus and God”) in The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity Press) make apt Lenten reading in plague time. The fifth chapter of that small book, “The Challenge of Easter,” neatly summarizes Dr. Wright’s far longer and more complex argument in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press) and makes a powerful case for the historical reality of the Easter events. Like Wright, Pope Emeritus Benedict’s reflections on the empty tomb and the impact of meeting the Risen One in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (Ignatius Press) underscore the bottom of the bottom line of Christianity: no Resurrection, no Church.

* Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series is the greatest audio-visual presentation of the faith ever created. If you’ve never watched it, why not now?  If you have, this may be the time to continue with Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The New Evangelization (an exploration of how to put Catholic faith into action) and Catholicism: The Pivotal Players (portraits of seminal figures in Catholic history who did just that – St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, and Michelangelo).

* Pope St. John Paul II’s centenary is the Monday following the Fifth Sunday of Easter: an anniversary worth celebrating, whatever the circumstances. The first 75 years of this life of extraordinary consequence for the Church and the world are relived in the documentary film, Witness to Hope – The Life of John Paul II. Liberating a Continent, produced by the Knights of Columbus, is a stirring video evocation of John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism – and a reminder, in this difficult moment, of the history-bending power of courage and solidarity.

* The Dominican House of Studies in Washington and its Thomistic Institute are intellectually energizing centers of the New Evangelization. The good friars are not downing tools because of a pandemic; rather, they’re ramping up. Go to to register for a series of online “Quarantine Lectures” and an online Holy Week retreat. At the same home page, you’ll find Aquinas 101, 52 brief videos that make one of Catholicism’s greatest thinkers accessible to everyone, free and online, through brilliant teaching and striking animation.

And may the divine assistance remain with us, always.