My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
My father’s older sister, my Aunt Marian Jacobs, who is also my godmother, turned 102 years old on March 25. Aunt Marian lives in her own “independent living” apartment within a retirement community near O’Hare Airport. She is mentally sharp and physically doing pretty well for her age.
Normally, I would have said she “celebrated” her 102nd birthday, but this year it wasn’t much of a celebration. When I called that morning to wish her a happy 102nd birthday, she answered the phone, but I could tell she was crying. I asked her what was wrong. She said it was a very sad day. So I asked why. She said her daughter Pamela had come with her husband, along with Aunt Marian’s great-granddaughter, to wish her a happy birthday, but the staff of the retirement home would not let them come through the front door because of the safety precautions put in place to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. With my cousins standing in the foyer while my Aunt Marian was in the lobby, separated by the glass windows and doors, all they could do was wave at each other. The most I could do was assure her that I would come and celebrate with her as soon as the situation improves when visits would be permitted again. At this point, however, I worry more that my Aunt Marian will die of a broken heart rather than from the coronavirus.
Painful scenes like this are playing out across the world. A couple of days after my aunt’s birthday, I received an email from a former Swiss Guard who wrote, “The virus took my dad Alberto in just three days. My parents live in [northern Italy], I’m an only child, my poor mom can’t go out, nobody can go in, they took my dad’s body and told my mom they will bring her some ashes in a month or so. Awful!”
Yes, this is awful. As we all try to cope as best we can under these circumstances, it is crucial that we not forget the role that our faith can and must have in the midst of a crisis such as this. While attention rightfully focuses on the advice of health care experts and the decisions that government officials must make to protect public health and safety, we must at the same time keep God front and center in our awareness and maintain a vigorous life of prayer, trusting in God’s providence to deliver us from evil and affliction. Perhaps it is fitting that this scourge has descended upon us during Lent, a time of offering prayers, almsgiving, penance and fasting in atonement for our sins.
Of course, maintaining a vigorous prayer life has been complicated by the fact that we are unable at this time to celebrate Masses as we usually do in the presence of a congregation. While many people are taking advantage of participating in the Masses that are being livestreamed on the internet or on television, the biggest sacrifice in this regard is the inability to receive Our Lord in holy Communion.
One answer to not being able to receive holy Communion that is well-established in our Catholic tradition is the making of a spiritual communion, which is simply expressing in prayer one’s longing and desire to be in communion with Our Lord. One can say such a prayer of spiritual communion in his or her own words, or use some of the beautiful prayers that have been composed by saints over the centuries and which can be found by searching online (see more about spiritual communion on page 6).
I have also encouraged the faithful to see fasting from holy Communion as a spiritual sacrifice, as described by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in his book, Behold the Pierced One (pp. 97-98), “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? … Sometimes we need hunger, physical and spiritual hunger, if we are to come fresh to the Lord’s gifts and understand the suffering of our hungering brothers. Both spiritual and physical hunger can be a vehicle of love.”
Of course, spiritual fasting from holy Communion, like physical fasting from food, can only be done for a while before a person must return to taking nourishment. It is anticipated that the restrictions of social distancing will not be lifted all at once, but will be implemented incrementally, in stages. As such, our celebrations of Mass without the congregation present and dispensation from the obligation to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will continue until it is determined that larger gatherings of people may resume. At the same time, we will begin looking at how we might be able to reintroduce the reception of holy Communion in our parishes while taking proper precautions to safeguard against transmitting disease. One way or another, we will again make it possible for people to be nourished by receiving the Body of Christ in holy Communion.
Throughout the Bible, we see numerous examples of how God brings good out of bad. The same is happening now. Families are spending more time with each other. People are going out of their way to help the most vulnerable among us. Most of all, during this Holy Week, we celebrate the fact that Christ Our Savior has conquered suffering and death, extending to us the eternal life of sharing in his resurrection.
May God give us this grace. Amen.