I’d long regarded as shallow irony the curse, “May you live in interesting times.” But thanks to the SARS-COV-2 pandemic, I now appreciate its ironic depths: People actively want to think of themselves as living through “interesting times,” and they thus make the times — well, more interesting.
Already in mid-March, as civil authorities warned of imminent interventions, my bishop prudently consulted his advisors. My own contribution was limited: “Don’t say, ‘Masses are cancelled.’ Even if now the faithful can’t be present, the priests will offer the sacrifice of the Mass for the salvation of the world.” The bishop responded with understanding. A few days later, the communications team — some of whom had been in the room — put out press releases headlined, “All Masses Cancelled.”
Maybe they feared subtler language would not dissuade the faithful from crowding the locked doors of our churches. But when we had the city’s attention, we missed the evangelical opportunity to describe the efficacy of the Mass as a participation in the sacrifice of Christ, whether or not the faithful attend. And I can’t help wonder if a few preferred the hyperbole as a hint of the drama of their leadership through interesting times.
I fared no better in my own parish. I’d only arrived 18 months earlier, and hadn’t moved quickly to install effective wifi, live-streaming equipment, or other audiovisual capture tools, so we were reduced to broadcasting Lenten and Easter Masses pitiably via mobile phones and a parish Facebook feed. Unlike other pastors foresighted enough to buy disinfectant sprayers as soon as the pandemic loomed, I delayed my orders until the sanitizing equipment was on months’ backorder.
I got one thing right: When public officials still warned us not to use masks needed by healthcare workers, I intuited that even non-medical masks might help slow contagiousness. On March 25, I asked my staff to wear face coverings. (Some of them still need to report for duty to, say, livestream a Mass or aid vulnerable community residents with groceries or medicine.)
But my vindication in later policy was short-lived as the anti-mask movement mounted. Once we were permitted to resume publicly-attended Masses, my brother priests and I celebrated them outdoors, under canopies and shelters. The faithful came in substantial numbers — God bless them! — but many began to practice a liberation theology in which the oppressors were those of us keeping them out of the churches and requiring masks and social distancing. I received a steady stream of articles and petitions:
• Purportedly scientific articles proving the ineffectiveness of each or any protective measure, and often advocating instead for rapid progress to herd immunity by allowing free transmission of the virus;
• Explanations of an alleged conspiracy by the deep state (or sometimes the Chinese) to exploit the public health emergency in order to dominate the world; and
• Social media campaigns demanding that I allow the faithful unrestricted access to their churches.
I was surrounded by Paolo Freire wannabes, but without the reflection on praxis. Many leapt from momentary dissatisfaction to public conscientization, without any intermediate steps, such as politely asking me why I established one or another policy. Quietly accepting the imperfect judgment of the local pastor — why, that’s so uninteresting.
Inadvertently, my diocese enhanced the agitation. My bishop had asked pastors to take responsibility for applying the public health rules in their own parishes, and that was the right thing to do. Each community, each church, has its own peculiarities, and the pastors are in the best position to manage them. But of course, the effect is that when the faithful call the diocese to complain, those fielding the calls merely respond, “Don’t complain to us. It’s up to your pastor.” I grew angry until I discovered my own staff reversing the ploy, blaming the diocese for my decisions rather than refer angry plaintiffs to me.
I had neither time nor wits to adjudicate the countless scientific and medical disputes arising from this pandemic. Does singing help project contaminants into the air? At what rate must the air be filtered or replaced to minimize risk? How does this compare to air circulation outside? What level of ultraviolet radiation is required in an antiviral air purifier?
How do we socially-distance worshipers in churches with pews of irregular length? How reliably can we develop a statistical profile of the household sizes of our worshipers so as to plan the most efficient use of our pews, without exceeding church capacity limits? Is Communion on the tongue riskier than Communion on the hand, and if so, then how much so?
The best I can hope to do is set policy and communicate it clearly, so that the faithful can judge how best to care for their own households. If they choose to go instead to a church with laxer or stricter rules, who am I to say they are wrong?
Each absurdity had its own trajectory. “Don’t hoard the hand sanitizer” quickly became, “Have a large stock of hand sanitizer so you can have some available in every doorway, office, and aisle crossing.” After the anti-hand-sanitizer activists convinced a few that sanitizer was ineffective or harmful, then came the hand-sanitizer vigilantes, calling the ecclesiastical or civil authorities to denounce those who allegedly didn’t sanitize their hands. Thus the latest word from on high: “You must use hand sanitizer, and moreover, you must be seen to use hand sanitizer.” If hand sanitizer is required as a visible sign, does that make it a sacramental?
I don’t know how or why we have such inconsistent reports on the fragility of the virus on surfaces and the consequent need, or needlessness, of surface sanitization. And on the horizon are the eco-warriors, arming themselves with lawsuits over the harm the Church has allegedly inflicted upon the next generation by inordinately exposing them to the cleaning agents. They hope to make things even more interesting in the years to come.
Each absurdity had its own trajectory. “Don’t hoard the hand sanitizer” quickly became, “Have a large stock of hand sanitizer so you can have some available in every doorway, office, and aisle crossing.”
Interesting times, yes, and all too often made more interesting by those who imagine that their anger, fear, or sadness are fully justified by the peculiar times.
In this article I have not elaborated on the true heartaches: Funerals cancelled or inhumanely postponed, sacramental confessions unavailable to relieve porn addicts of their shame, weddings cancelled to unknown effect on incipient or struggling families, baptisms administered serially and without an assembly to welcome the neophytes with joy, furloughed employees … the list goes on, to my great grief.
One of the most poignant moments was a telephone conversation with a woman unable to visit her hospitalized husband, who was afflicted with SARS-COV-2 but not dead. The poor wife felt she was under pressure to withdraw life-sustaining measures in order to diminish the risk to medical staff and other patients, but she did not want to feel as if she’d betrayed her husband.
But the heartaches point also to Our Lord, who expected his followers to be among the dissatisfied, disgraced, and distressed, and who promised them he’d judge all the nations according to what they did, or did not do, for his little brothers and sisters. The Lord also promised life to those who persevere in charity. So let us think of ourselves not so much as living in peculiarly burdensome times, but in times affording us peculiar avenues toward God’s favor and life. The Church’s true interest is in the love of God.
Fr David Poecking is the pastor of Archangel Gabriel parish outside Pittsburgh. The picture is of the temporary altar and Tabernacle erected at St. Malachy’s, one of the parish’s three churches, so people could adore from their cars or seated outside.