For some time now, we have been in combat against the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19. From all that we can tell – and one of the difficulties of the combat is that so much about the pestilence remains unclear – the battle will yet continue for some time. The virus involved is particularly insidious, for it has a relatively long incubation period – some say 14 days and some say 20 days – and is highly contagious, much more highly contagious than other viruses we have experienced.
One of the principal natural means to defend ourselves against the coronavirus is to avoid any close contact with others. It is important, in fact, to keep always a distance – some say a yard (meter) and some say six-feet – away from each other, and, of course, to avoid group gatherings, that is gatherings in which a number of people are in close proximity of each other. In addition, since the virus is transmitted by small droplets emitted when one sneezes or blows his or her nose, it is critical to wash our hands frequently with disinfectant soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds, and to use disinfectant handwash and handwipes. It is equally important to disinfect tables, chairs, countertops, etc., on which these droplets may have landed and from which they are capable of transmitting the contagion for some time. If we sneeze or blow our nose, we are counseled to use a paper facial tissue, to discard it immediately, and then to wash our hands. Of course, those who are diagnosed with the coronavirus must be quarantined, and those who are not feeling well, even if it has not been determined that they suffer from the coronavirus, should, out of charity toward others, remain at home, until they are feeling better.
Living in Italy, in which the spread of the coronavirus has been particularly deadly, especially for the elderly and for those who are already in a state of delicate health, I am edified by the great care which the Italians are taking to protect themselves and others from the contagion. As you may have already read, the healthcare system in Italy is severely tested in trying to provide necessary hospitalization and intensive-care treatment for the most vulnerable. Please pray for the Italian people and especially for both those for whom the coronavirus can be fatal and those entrusted with their care. Being a citizen of the United States, I have been following the situation of the spread of the coronavirus in my homeland and know that those living in the United States are becoming more and more concerned to stop its spread, lest a situation like that in Italy be repeated at home.
The whole situation certainly disposes us to a profound sadness and also to fear. No one wants to contract the illness connected with the virus or to have anyone else contract it. We especially do not want our beloved elderly or others who are suffering in health to be put in danger of death through the spread of the virus. To fight the spread of the virus, we are all on a kind of forced spiritual retreat, confined to quarters and unable to show usual signs of affection to family and to friends. For those in quarantine, the isolation is clearly even more severe, not being able to have contact with anyone, not even at a distance.
If the illness itself associated with the virus were not enough to worry us, we cannot ignore the economic devastation which the spread of the virus has caused, with its grievous effects on individuals and families, and those who serve us in so many ways in our daily life. Of course, our thoughts cannot help but include the possibility of an even greater devastation of the population of our homelands and, indeed, of the world.
Certainly, we are right to learn about and employ all of the natural means to defend ourselves against the contagion. It is a fundamental act of charity to use every prudent means to avoid contracting or spreading the coronavirus. The natural means of preventing the spread of the virus must, however, respect what we need to live, for example, access to food, water and medicine. The State, for instance, in its imposition of ever greater restrictions on the movement of individuals, provides that individuals can visit the supermarket and the pharmacy, with the observance of the precautions of social distancing and of use of disinfectants on the part of all involved.
In considering what is needed to live, we must not forget that our first consideration is our relationship with God. We recall the words of Our Lord in the Gospel according to John: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we come to him and make our home with him” (14, 23). Christ is the Lord of nature and of history. He is not distant and disinterested in us and the world. He has promised us: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28, 20). In combatting the evil of the coronavirus, our most effective weapon is, therefore, our relationship with Christ through prayer and penance, and devotions and sacred worship. We turn to Christ to deliver us from pestilence and from all harm, and He never fails to respond with pure and selfless love. That is why it is essential for us, at all times and above all in times of crisis, to have access to our churches and chapels, to the Sacraments, and to public devotions and prayers.
Just as we are able to purchase food and medicine, while taking care not to spread the coronavirus in the process, so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels, receive the Sacraments, and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion, so that we know God’s closeness to us and remain close to Him, fittingly calling upon His help. Without the help of God, we are indeed lost. Historically, in times of pestilence, the faithful gathered in fervent prayer and took part in processions. In fact, in the Roman Missal, promulgated by Pope Saint John XXIII in 1962, there are special texts for the Holy Mass to be offered in times of pestilence, the Votive Mass for the Deliverance from Death in Time of Pestilence (Missae Votivae ad Diversa, n. 23). Likewise, in the traditional Litany of the Saints, we pray: “From plague, famine, and war, O Lord, deliver us.”
Oftentimes, when we find ourselves in great suffering and even facing death, we ask: “Where is God?” But the real question is: “Where are we?” In other words, God is assuredly with us to help us and save us, especially at the time of severe trial or death, but we are too often far from Him because of our failure to acknowledge our total dependence upon Him and, therefore, to pray daily to Him and to offer Him our worship.
In these days, I have heard from so many devout Catholics who are deeply saddened and discouraged not to be able to pray and worship in their churches and chapels. They understand the need to observe social distance and to follow the other precautions, and they will follow these prudent practices, which they can easily enough do in their places of worship. But, often enough, they have to accept the profound suffering of having their churches and chapels closed, and of not having access to Confession and the Most Holy Eucharist.
In the same light, a person of faith cannot consider the present calamity in which we find ourselves without considering also how distant our popular culture is from God. It is not only indifferent to His presence in our midst but openly rebellious toward Him and the good order with which He has created us and sustains us in being. We need only think of the commonplace violent attacks on human life, male and female, which God has made in His own image and likeness (Gn 1, 27), attacks on the innocent and defenseless unborn, and on those who have the first title to our care, those who are heavily burdened with serious illness, advanced years, or special needs. We are daily witnesses to the spread of violence in a culture which fails to respect human life.
Likewise, we need only to think of the pervasive attack upon the integrity of human sexuality, of our identity as man or woman, with the pretense of defining for ourselves, often employing violent means, a sexual identity other than that given to us by God. With ever greater concern, we witness the devastating effect on individuals and families of the so-called “gender theory.”
We witness, too, even within the Church, a paganism which worships nature and the earth. There are those within the Church who refer to the earth as our mother, as if we came from the earth, and the earth is our salvation. But we come from the hand of God, Creator of Heaven and Earth. In God alone we find salvation. We pray in the divinely-inspired words of the Psalmist: “[God] alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Ps 62 , 6). We see how the life of faith itself has become increasingly secularized and thus has compromised the Lordship of Christ, God the Son Incarnate, King of Heaven and Earth. We witness so many other evils which derive from idolatry, from the worship of ourselves and our world, instead of worshiping God, the source of all being. We sadly see in ourselves the truth of Saint Paul’s inspired words regarding the “ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth”: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Rom 1, 18. 25).
Many with whom I am in communication, reflecting upon the present worldwide health crisis with all of its attendant effects, have expressed to me the hope that it will lead us – as individuals and families, and as a society – to reform our lives, to turn to God Who is surely near to us and Who is immeasurable and unceasing in His mercy and love towards us. There is no question that great evils like pestilence are an effect of original sin and of our actual sins. God, in His justice, must repair the disorder which sin introduces into our lives and into our world. In fact, He fulfills the demands of justice by His superabundant mercy.
God has not left us in the chaos and death, which sin introduces into the world, but has sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to suffer, die, rise from the dead and ascend in glory to His right hand, in order to remain with us always, purifying us of sin and inflaming us with His love. In His justice, God recognizes our sins and the need of their reparation, while, in His mercy He showers upon us the grace to repent and make reparation. The Prophet Jeremiah prayed: “We recognize, O LORD, our wickedness, the guilt of our fathers; that we have sinned against you,” but he immediately continued his prayer: “For your name’s sake spurn us not, disgrace not the throne of your glory; remember your covenant with us, and break it not” (Jer 14, 20-21).
God never turns His back on us; He will never break His covenant of faithful and enduring love with us, even though we are so frequently indifferent, cold and unfaithful. As the present suffering uncovers for us so much indifference, coldness and infidelity on our part, we are called to turn to God and to beg for His mercy. We are confident that He will hear us and bless us with His gifts of mercy, forgiveness and peace. We join our sufferings to the Passion and Death of Christ and thus, as Saint Paul says, “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1, 24). Living in Christ, we know the truth of our Biblical prayer: “The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble” (Ps 37 , 39). In Christ, God has fully revealed to us the truth expressed in the prayer of the Psalmist: “Mercy and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed” (Ps 85 , 10).
In our totally secularized culture, there is a tendency to view prayer, devotions and worship like any other activity, for example, going to the cinema or to a football game, which is not essential and therefore can be cancelled for the sake of taking every precaution to curb the spread of a deadly contagion. But prayer, devotions and worship, above all, Confession and the Holy Mass, are essential for us to remain healthy and strong spiritually, and for us to seek God’s help in a time of great danger for all. Therefore, we cannot simply accept the determinations of secular governments, which would treat the worship of God in the same manner as going to a restaurant or to an athletic contest. Otherwise, the people who already suffer so much from the results of the pestilence are deprived of those objective encounters with God Who is in our midst to restore health and peace.
We bishops and priests need to explain publicly the necessity of Catholics to pray and worship in their churches and chapels, and to go in procession through the streets and ways, asking God’s blessing upon His people who suffer so intensely. We need to insist that the regulations of the State, also for the good of the State, recognize the distinct importance of places of worship, especially in time of national and international crisis. In the past, in fact, governments have understood, above all, the importance of the faith, prayer and worship of the people to overcome a pestilence.
Even as we have found a way to provide for food and medicine and other necessities of life during a time of contagion, without irresponsibly risking the spread of the contagion, so, in a similar way, we can find a way to provide for the necessities of our spiritual life. We can provide more opportunities for the Holy Mass and devotions at which a number of faithful can participate without violating necessary precautions against the spread of contagion. Many of our churches and chapels are very large. They permit a group of the faithful to gather for prayer and worship without violating the requirements of “social distance.” The confessional with the traditional screen is usually equipped with or, if not, can be easily equipped with a thin veil which can be treated with disinfectant, so that access to the Sacrament of Confession is possible without great difficulty and without danger of transmitting the virus. If a church or chapel does not have a sufficiently large staff to be able to disinfect regularly the pews and other surfaces, I have no doubt that the faithful, in gratitude for the gifts of the Holy Eucharist, Confession, and of public devotion, will gladly assist.
Even if, for whatever reason, we are unable to have access to our churches and chapels, we must remember that our homes are an extension of our parish, a little Church into which we bring Christ from our encounter with Him in the bigger Church. Let our homes, during this time of crisis, reflect the truth that Christ is the guest of every Christian home. Let us turn to him through prayer, especially the Rosary, and other devotions. If the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, together with the image of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is not already enthroned in our home, now would be the time to do so. The place of the image of the Sacred Heart is for us a little altar at home, at which we gather, conscious of Christ’s dwelling with us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, and place our often poor and sinful hearts into His glorious pierced Heart – always open to receive us, to heal us of our sins, and to fill us with divine love. If you desire to enthrone the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, I commend to you the handbook, The Enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, available through the Marian Catechist Apostolate. It is also available in Polish and Slovak translations.
For those who cannot have access to the Holy Mass and Holy Communion, I commend the devout practice of Spiritual Communion. When we are rightly disposed to receive Holy Communion, that is, when we are in the state of grace, not conscious of any mortal sin which we have committed and for which we have not yet been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance, and desire to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion but are unable to do so, we unite ourselves spiritually with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, praying to Our Eucharistic Lord in the words of Saint Alphonsus Liguori: “Since I am unable now to receive Thee sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.” Spiritual Communion is a beautiful expression of love for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. It will not fail to bring to us abundant grace.
At the same time, when we are conscious of having committed a mortal sin and are unable to have access to the Sacrament of Penance or Confession, the Church invites us to make an act of perfect contrition, that is, of sorrow for sin, which “arises from a love by which God is loved above all else.”. An act of perfect contrition “obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1452). An act of perfect contrition disposes our soul for Spiritual Communion.
In the end, faith and reason, as they always do, work together to provide for the just and right solution to a difficult challenge. We must use reason, inspired by faith, to find the correct manner in which to deal with a deadly pandemic. That manner must give priority to prayer, devotion and worship, to the invocation of God’s mercy upon His people who suffer so much and are in danger of death. Made in God’s own image and likeness, we enjoy the gifts of intellect and free will. Using these God-given gifts, united to the also God-given gifts of Faith, Hope and Love, we will find our way in the present time of worldwide trial which is the cause of so much sadness and fear.
We can count upon the help and intercession of the great host of our heavenly friends, to whom we are intimately united in the Communion of Saints. The Virgin Mother of God, the holy Archangels and Guardian Angels, Saint Joseph, True Spouse of the Virgin Mary and Patron of the Universal Church, Saint Roch whom we invoke in times of epidemic, and the other saints and blessed to whom we regularly turn in prayer are at our side. They guide us and constantly assure us that God will never fail to hear our prayer; He will respond with His immeasurable and unceasing mercy and love.
Dear friends, I offer these few reflections to you, deeply conscious of how much you are suffering because of the pandemic coronavirus. It is my hope that the reflections may be of help to you. Above all, I hope that they will inspire you to turn to God in prayer and worship, each according to his or her possibilities, and thus experience His healing and peace. With the reflections comes the assurance of my daily remembrance of your intentions in my prayer and penance, especially in the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
I ask you please to remember me in your daily prayers.
I remain yours in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and in the Purest Heart of Saint Joseph,
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke
21 March 2020
Feast of Saint Benedict, Abbot