Coronavirus, Caritas, and Communion Beyond Churches

It has been two weeks since Fordham sent out an email to its community requesting it to vacate the campus. As everyone is experiencing, these two weeks have been nothing but stressful and odd: we were asked to self-quarantine, yet we have been so desperate to focus on the tasks we have to complete and the futures we have to plan. In the midst of the upheaval, many find ways to cope with their situations. For me, a dedicated member of the Fordham Schola Cantorum who has spent a good amount of time praying and serving at the University Church since my Freshman Year, one afternoon I decided to tune into the University Church’s Live Stream just so I could feel more at home — but nothing was going on there. While seeing this familiar place made me calm, the sense of nostalgia brought with it a tinge of profound sadness.

This should be expected. At the same time Fordham suspended all in-person instruction on March 11, the school also suspended public Masses, announcing that beginning Sunday, March 15, the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass will be livestreamed from the University Church. (This was canceled later on.) On Saturday, March 14, Cardinal Dolan announced that no public Masses should be celebrated in the churches of the Archdiocese of New York until further notice. Around the same time, similar notices were released by dioceses and Archdioceses across the country and the world.

As an organized religion that requires its members to attend weekly Sunday service and other Holy Days services, such obligations have been lifted, and parishes have been seeking alternative solutions to fulfill their parishioners’ spiritual needs. While some churches provide livestreamed Masses and Eucharistic Adoration, others have uploaded pre-recorded Masses online. Some priests now offer outdoor, drive-thru confessions, and many other Catholic religious, such as Fr. James Martin, SJ and the Daughters of St. Paul, have also been utilizing social media to help Catholics take care of their spiritual wellbeing by providing livestreamed Bible study and prayers. Not to mention that the Pope himself has also requested Catholics around the world to pray the Rosary and Our Father in defense of families and against the virus outbreak.

Many Catholics are spiritually consoled and encouraged with these resources, praising their bishops’ decisions to be pastorally wise, but many others felt strongly against it, saying that Christians should have no fear of the virus. On social media, the latter view is represented by Abby Johnson, a Catholic Pro-Life activist, who, on March 10, posted on her FaceBook that “Deciding to close churches because of the coronavirus is the most cowardly thing [she] can think of.” She went on to call people who make such decisions “wimps” because “people literally died for our faith.” She later edited the post, adding: “And seriously, God did not give us a spirit of fear. That is biblical. If you are immunocompromised, make your own decisions. But I would NEVER stay away from the Eucharist because of this, unless my family was sick. We don’t close churches during flu season. Churches are a place for healing.” This post stirred up much controversy on Catholic social media accounts.

Johnson is very much right that we should not fear, as Christians believe that all things are in God’s control. However, her message is ironic because it is intrinsically contradictory to the Pro-Life values that she claims to embody. For one thing, the core of such values is that liberty over the lives of vulnerable human beings should not be celebrated and that every human being is equal. In this case, the vulnerable are the elderly and the immuno-compromised, as Johnson herself pointed out. However, by saying “make your own decisions,” what she is suggesting is that the vulnerable do not deserve the benefit of the common-sense sacrifices of those who are healthy in order to be protected. In other words, she is saying that her liberty of receiving Communion is more important than the well-being of others.

In addition, Johnson ignored the fact that the flu and the Coronavirus are two very different diseases. The latter can be transmitted before symptoms are present. It is more deadly and currently there is no vaccine for such a novel virus. It should be noted that the reason for suspending gatherings like the Mass is not only to protect the vulnerable but also to keep the virus from spreading in communities. And yes, churches are a place for healing, but while faith is important, so are science and concerns for the common good of the wider human community. Christians are called to do much for others, whether Christians or not.

Johnson is also right that there have been martyrs. In fact, there have been martyrs as early as the Apostolic period. However, it is inappropriate and senseless to make a comparison between martyrdom and the risk of spreading disease. This is both an insult to the memory of the martyrs and neglect of one’s social and civil responsibility. Johnson’s version of martyrdom would be vainglory, and its foolhardiness would cost innocent lives.

As a Catholic myself, I am wholeheartedly devoted to the Eucharist, and like many Catholics around the world, feel the great sadness of not being present at Mass. Yet, there is nothing more comforting than knowing that Christ is still substantially present in our churches’ tabernacles and that God, whose providence is ever sufficient, is with us. The suspending of Masses cannot and will not separate God from humanity, and such an unusual period of our lives should be recognized by Catholics as a time for examining conscience and striving to achieve spiritual Communion. Perhaps it is time to realize that many of us have been taking the Eucharist for granted. This is also a reminder for Christians that a church cannot be defined by its building, but rather by its community, in which each member builds up the others by being attentive to the greater good and sharing caritas, which is absolutely essential to Christianity.

When Abby Johnson later edited her FaceBook post, she also quoted the New Testament: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The question I have been pondering is, how are we maximizing our power of love, and what exactly should be going on in a sound mind in our current time? But meanwhile, let us be constantly reminded of the words in the famous Christian hymn, Ubi Caritas:

“Where charity and love are, there God is.

Therefore, whensoever we are gathered as one:

Lest we in mind be divided, let us beware.

Let cease malicious quarrels, let strife give way.

And in the midst of us be Christ our God.”

[A variation of this article was published on March 25, 2020, under the title “Remember the Meaning of Faith in Trying Time” on The Fordham Rams, a student-run publication at Fordham University.]

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Fiona Elizabeth Chen

Fiona Elizabeth Chen

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Fiona is a master’s student at Yale Divinity School who often finds herself reading and thinking about the arts, culture, and religion, and their intersection.