Imagine a primitive tribe somewhere, whose shamans perform a ritual rain dance each year.
Now imagine that the region where the tribe lives is struck by a terrible drought. The drought is so bad that the people are thirsty, so bad that whenever they walk, they raise clouds of dust.
Now imagine that the time has come for the annual rain dance. But the elders of the tribe tell the shamans that this year they must not dance. The effort would increase their thirst, and would raise clouds of dust, making everyone else thirsty, at a time when that thirst cannot be satisfied.
If the elders made that ruling, would you think that the tribe really believed in the efficacy of the rain dance?
Christians do not perform rain dances, nor do we believe that God will provide rain on command, whenever we pray for it. (Although He might; ask Elijah.) But we do believe in the efficacy of prayer. Don't we?
In times of great need, it should be an instinctive reaction for Christians to turn to God in prayer. During the Covid epidemic most of us have felt a great need — not only for healing and for safety and for a cure, but also for peace of mind, for a restoration of what we have lost, perhaps above all for hope. In the course of 2020 we Americans have frequently been asked to pray for those who are sick or dying. But rarely have Christians demanded the lead role in our society's response to this health crisis. Shouldn't we have been telling civic leaders, when they suggested restricting public worship: "Look, you need our prayers; you needour public celebration of the Mass. This is your best chance for relief from the scourge!"
The keepers of fashionable public opinion have encouraged us obsessively to put our trust in flimsy face masks, our hope in the pharmaceutical companies working to produce vaccines. What might happen if we put the same communal energies into prayer? We don't know, because communal prayer has been discouraged — even by many religious leaders.
Of course we can pray by ourselves, in the privacy of our own homes. But Christians have been taught by the Lord Himself that there is special power in common prayer: "where two or three are gathered in my name." A coincidental meeting of two or three people would be acceptable even under the most draconian lockdown rules. But any gathering is viewed with suspicion. In some cities the rules have allowed only one person at a time to pray privately inside a church: even a cathedral that could hold several thousand. And most pastors have meekly accepted those rules.
In times of trouble, the practice traditionally taught to loyal Catholics was to redouble the intensity of their prayer. This year the directives that American Catholics received from their shepherds often pointed in the opposite direction. The lockdowns began during Lent: a season of prayer and fasting. Strange, then, that several bishops told their people that they would be dispensed from the traditional ban on eating meat during Fridays in Lent.
One bishop explained that he was lifting that ban in light of "many other sacrifices that we are suddenly experiencing." He was evidently assuming that everyone had the same experiences that he had, and reacted the same way. Even so he was failing to explain the traditional Catholic practice of "offering up" one's sufferings, uniting them to the sacrifice of Christ. He further missed the mark insofar as a voluntary sacrifice, like giving up meat, has far more spiritual value than the suffering one cannot avoid. Indeed suffering, in itself, is not a sacrifice; it only takes on a spiritual dimension when it is willingly endured. When we are battered by events that we cannot control, that is the time when it is most important to intensify our spiritual discipline, so that we will have the resources we need to meet extraordinary challenges.
Lenten fasting and penance are practices tied to a recognition that we are all sinners in need of redemption. That same recognition of our sinful nature is addressed, in the regular life of the Church, by sacramental confession and the last rites. Confession, alas, became difficult to manage during the lockdown, when churches were closed and priests were ordered to stay away from their people. Even the last rites were curtailed. Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics had been encouraged to make use of the anointing — not just when they were nearing death, but when they were in some danger of death or simply in need of healing. Now suddenly that advice was reversed; the faithful were instructed that they could not expect the comfort of the sacrament unless they were in extremis — and even then they could not be sure that a priest would come to them.
When we are battered by events that we cannot control, that is the time when it is most important to intensify our spiritual discipline, so that we will have the resources we need to meet extraordinary challenges.
A friend of mine, a priest who served as a chaplain in Iraq, was decorated for heroism when, during a heated battle, he rushed to the side of a man who had been mortally wounded in order to give him a final blessing. The dying man was lying helpless on the ground where, obviously, the enemy had trained their sights on him. My friend could now have been in the same crosshairs; he revealed later that he expected to die. He administered the sacrament nevertheless, because that was his mission: to serve as a priest, in persona Christi, to give his life to save others. His ministry was more important to him than his life.
When a crisis strikes, we reveal what is important to us, as individuals and as a society. We as a society clearly do not believe in the power of prayer; we don't consider religion essential. The churches were closed before the bars and restaurants were shut down. Surely the virus was more likely to spread in places where people sat elbow-to-elbow, eating and drinking, than when they were seated quietly in pews. But public officials were reluctant to impose what would inevitably be unpopular orders.
People must eat, the authorities reasoned. So at first, restaurants continued to serve meals. People need exercise, so gyms were not immediately shut down. People need to go to work, so subways and buses continued to run, bringing people into close proximity with strangers. Mothers need to work, so, still more remarkably, day-care centers remained open and even in some cases expanded their services. (Children were generally immune from the Covid infection, we were reassured. But the teachers and parents who gathered daily at these centers were not.)
Yes, people do need to eat; but with rare exceptions they could prepare and eat their food at home. Yes, people should exercise; and the great outdoors beckons, with parks and hiking trails and bike paths that preserve social distance. And yes, people need to work, but at what cost did society preserve some employment options, after having closed down others? Thus we revealed our priorities. Our political leaders judged — rightly, for the most part — that Americans would not tolerate the abrupt closure of restaurants, bars, gyms, and day-care centers; but they would tolerate the closing of churches.
Personally, I was not terribly surprised that politicians made that judgment, nor that the vast majority of Americans accepted it. But I was astounded by the cavalier attitude displayed by Catholic leaders about the restrictions on sacramental ministry. The very first pastoral priority of a Catholic bishop is, or should be, to ensure that the faithful have access to the sacraments. Yet within a few weeks after the lockdowns began in March 2020, the public celebration of Mass ended in most of the dioceses of the United States. Baptisms and weddings and funerals were restricted, deferred, or cancelled outright. Priests were not available to hear confessions. This was an unprecedented disaster: a suffering that American Catholics had never experienced or even contemplated.
Phil Lawler. "Mass in time of Covid: what 2020 revealed." Catholic Culture Commentary (Jan 4, 2021).
Reprinted with permission of Phil Lawler.
Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News (CWN) and the director of Catholic Culture. He attended Harvard College and did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. He is the author of The Smoke of Satan, Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture and A Call to Serve: Pope Francis and the Catholic Future. He is the editor of When Faith Goes Viral: 11 Success Stories of the New Evangelization from Alabama to Vladivostok.Copyright © 2021 Catholic Culture
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