My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
On Good Friday morning, I did a radio interview with Sam Madonia on his AM Springfield program. He asked a question that I’m sure is on the minds of many people: Where is God in this coronavirus pandemic? I answered that God permits evil so that he may bring good from it, as we saw how his own son Jesus was allowed to suffer and die on the cross so that we might be saved from our sins.
God brings good from evil. For example, as a result of “sheltering in place,” more families are spending time together. Although people cannot come to church for Mass, more people are watching daily Masses being streamed online than normally come to church physically. Hopefully these people will come to church when the restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
Thinking about this question since then, others have noted that our society has removed God from our public schools, our movies and television programs, indeed from much of public life. God respects our freedom, so if we ask him to go away, why are we surprised that he seems to have left us in times of calamity?
Another answer suggested by some is that the coronavirus pandemic is a punishment from God. I cannot say for sure that it is, but neither can I say for sure that it is not. People have been scoffing at this notion for centuries. As we read in Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
Does God punish people for their sins? The Bible gives many examples of God punishing the sins of the people. Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, the Garden of Eden, after their sin of disobedience (Genesis 1:3-24). In the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6:5 to 8:22), God punishes the whole world for their wickedness, except the righteous Noah and his family.
God gave King David the choice of either plague, war, or famine as a chastisement for his sins, which included adultery and murder. David chose the plague with these words: “It is better that I fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men” (1 Chronicles 21:13). Therefore, St. Charles Borromeo concludes, “The plague, along with war and famine, is attributed very especially to the hand of God.”
Some might object that punishment occurs in the Old Testament, but, in the New Testament, Jesus brings forgiveness, not punishment. However, see the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25:45-46 on the Last Judgment, where Jesus says, “‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
President Abraham Lincoln, who died 155 years ago this past April 15, in his Second Inaugural Address given just a month before he died, suggested that the Civil War was a “scourge” from God as a punishment for the sin of slavery.
Pope Pius XII, in his discourse to the men of Catholic Action on Oct. 12, 1952, affirmed that the world was threatened by an enemy much worse than the fifth century enemy Attila the Hun, “the scourge of God.” We have a stained-glass window here in our Cathedral of Pope Leo the Great confronting and turning back Attila the Hun from his planned invasion of Rome.
Pope Pius XII continued, “Oh, do not ask us who the ‘enemy’ is or what clothes he wears. He is found above all in everyone’s midst; he knows how to be violent and subtle. In these last few centuries he has tried to create intellectual, moral, and social desegregation of the unity of the mysterious organism of Christ. He wanted nature without grace; reason without faith; freedom without authority; and sometimes authority without freedom. He is an ‘enemy’ who has become ever more concrete, with a ruthlessness that still leaves people astonished: Christ yes, Church no. Then: God yes, Christ no. And finally his full cry: God is dead; and even: God never existed.”
In 589, an overflow of the Tiber River in Rome brought about a terrible epidemic. St. Pope Gregory the Great suggested to the people that “the plague was a divine affliction that they should accept as a means of turning to God, and with fatherly encouragement he raised their panic-stricken spirits.” He organized a three-day penitential procession in which clergy and laity marched “to meet together at the basilica of the Blessed Mother.”
We talk about God’s “punishment” as a “scourge,” but the word I think expresses best what God is doing is “chastisement.” The word “chastisement” comes from the Latin castigare, which is often translated literally as “to castigate,” which still has its focus on a harsh punishment. But if we dig a little deeper, we find that the root of the verb castigare is the noun, castitas, which means “chastity” or “purity,” and the adjective castus, which means “morally pure.” Similarly, in English, the word “chastisement” comes from the verb, “to chasten,” which comes from the adjective, “chaste” or “morally pure.”
Thus, we can say that God chastises us as a purification. God is not a sadist seeking to afflict us with pain simply to see us suffer. God is cleansing us of sin to purify our faith. We see this clearly in the First Letter of St. Peter: “In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).
Faced with God’s chastisement, we turn to God with repentance and atonement for our sins, pleading for his Divine Mercy.
Immediately after the resurrection of Our Lord, the Disciples are behind locked doors because they are afraid the same thing will happen to them as happened to Jesus. Jesus appears in their midst and twice says, “Peace be with you.” When Thomas later joins the other Disciples behind locked doors, Jesus appears again and says, “Peace be with you.”
During these days of the coronavirus pandemic, many people are also behind locked doors “sheltering in place,” afraid to go outside. Jesus comes to us in our time of fear with this same message: “Peace be with you.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.