My hospital, like all hospitals throughout the country, has adopted new procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Emergency Room, where I work, patients cannot even enter the building until someone has determined whether they are harboring the coronavirus. There are elaborate gowning, masking, and gloving routines, as well as a host of other procedural changes.
Nearly every other department has taken similar measures. When taking X-rays, radiology technicians stand outside the patient’s room, shooting rays through the windows to avoid contaminating the machine. Respiratory therapists no longer use the standard nebulizer machines for fear of propagating the virus. Each department, even the cafeteria, has creatively altered its practices. We have to continue working during this plague, because what we do is essential for individual and social well-being.
I have been thinking about the bishops’ cancellation of public Masses in light of these hospital changes. When many states declared the celebration of the Eucharist non-essential, few bishops resisted. My state banned public gatherings of more than 8-10 people except for “essential” services, which included courts of law (apparently Shakespeare was right: justice delayed is justice denied), business operations, airport travel, and even daycares. My spiritual life is the most important aspect of my being, and the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of my faith—yet it was deemed less essential than daycare, and few bishops demurred.
In the hospital, each department creatively tailored its practices to accommodate the new reality. Bishops, by contrast, uniformly banned all public Masses—even though releasing Catholics from the Sunday obligation had already greatly diminished Sunday Mass attendance and led to social distancing (as had health concerns about the coronavirus). Moreover, why cancel daily Masses, which only 10–15 people usually attend? And why treat rural parishes the same way as urban parishes? (So much for subsidiarity.)
Some priests devised work-arounds, like drive-in Masses, a daily (or Sunday) lottery for ten people to attend Mass, more Masses with fewer parishioners at each one, or outdoor Masses in Catholic cemeteries. In many cases, they were stopped by their bishops. I will not even discuss the possibility of a legal challenge to state orders. Only the evangelicals—in Brazil, where they won, and in the U.S., where they have met with mixed results—have mounted legal challenges. In the age of the New Evangelization, it is Protestants who are publicly evangelizing: They believe their services essential. But is there anything heroic in our presbyterate’s response that might inspire young men to a priestly vocation? Especially when church leaders accept the state’s judgment that daycares are more essential than Mass?
Jesuit priest Walter Ciszek once described his years as a prisoner in a Soviet gulag. Risking great punishment, Ciszek said Mass in secret every day for his fellow prisoners, whether in drafty storage sites or muddy building foundations. Sometimes the ever-hungry prisoners would forgo their meager rations for 24 hours in order to keep the fast. In short, both priest and believer did whatever was necessary to celebrate the Eucharist.
Why would these believers act this way? Ciszek states:
Yet what a source of sustenance it was to us then, how much it meant to us to have the Body and Blood of Christ as the food of our spiritual lives in this sacrament of love and joy. The experience was very real; you could feel its effects upon your mind and heart, upon your daily life. For us it was a necessity, to foster the life of the soul, just as much as our daily bread was necessary to sustain the body . . . I would go to any length, suffer any inconvenience, run any risk to make the bread of life available to these men.
He was echoing Augustine, who said the Eucharist is the daily bread we ask for in the Our Father. For many, it is a necessity.
The laity show passion and faith. Some are signing online petitions. A rural priest recently told me he received a phone call from a previous parishioner, who now lives 300 miles away. The parishioner inquired whether he could bring his family of seven to the priest’s private Sunday Mass. Contrast this with the actions of our leaders. Cardinal Blase Cupich cancelled Easter services three and a half weeks before Easter. And he did not ask, for example, for fasting and daily prayer to end the scourge in time for Catholics to celebrate the Triduum, the most important days in the Church calendar.
I understand the dangers of the coronavirus, for I face this threat every time I step into the hospital. And I understand the bishops' sense of responsibility to the common good. But I also know that infectious diseases are a danger every winter. Influenza kills 30,000–50,000 people every year and infects 10,000 people a day in winter. Yet we still exchange handshakes and receive under both species at many Masses. Apparently that level of morbidity and mortality is tolerable, but the coronavirus required draconian measures.
The bishops’ solution to the coronavirus was private Masses by the priests and Internet streaming for everyone else. But this gives rise to clericalism (isn’t the call to holiness universal?) and confusion. Our leaders have obscured the distinction between celebrating and receiving the Eucharist in the company of fellow Catholics and watching the Mass from the comfort of a couch. To minimize the distinction between the two practices—which is what many Church leaders have done in their zeal to promote their technological solution—is to further diminish the obligation of attending Sunday Mass in the minds of many Catholics. Why should people return to attending Mass in church after the pandemic?
As the country considers reopening, perhaps the bishops can consider measures that would make participating in the Eucharist less dangerous than going to the grocery store. A number of small changes would minimize risk, including leaving the Church doors and windows open (at least in temperate weather), forgoing the use of missals or hymnals, encouraging ill parishioners or priests to stay home, eliminating the sign of peace, suspending altar servers and Eucharistic ministers, receiving Communion in the hand, standing or sitting six feet apart, and perhaps having parishioners wipe down their pews after Mass. These measures would make going to Mass safer than grocery shopping. More important, it would communicate to Catholics that this sacrament is so crucial that we must take the necessary steps to celebrate it.
The bishops would do well to recall Emeritus and the Abitinian martyrs. They were arrested in ancient Rome for celebrating the Eucharist, which the authorities had forbidden. The historical record notes that when the judge asked Emeritus why he had committed the capital offense of attending the Eucharistic celebration, Emeritus famously replied, “We cannot live without the Lord's Day.” Let us hope our spiritual shepherds channel Emeritus and not government epidemiologists.
Dr. John Safranek, M.D., Ph.D. is an emergency room physician in Columbus, Nebraska, a city hard-hit by COVID-19, and the author of The Myth of Liberalism: An Account of Freedom.