Priest Don Marcello gives a blessing to the coffins of coronavirus victims inside the church of San Giuseppe in Seriate, Italy, on March 28. The prospect of death has always been real. (Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP)
Death remains a major talking point these days. It cannot be otherwise when a virus continues to kill people across the world, unconcerned about race, status, riches, nobility, faith or political clout. Covid-19 has already killed nearly 60,000 people worldwide. Experts say it threatens to become the worst plague in human history. In this Easter season, death stares at humanity.
For the first time, Catholic bishops have asked their people not to go to churches to take part in the annual liturgies that mark the core of their faith — the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. It has never happened in the history of the Catholic Church, which has challenged persecutions, calamities, wars and plagues to preserve and celebrate its faith. A strange question is being asked: Is the fear of death above faith in God?
Governments have imposed restrictions and lockdowns to check the spread of the coronavirus. These state curbs have forced all religious groups to suspend prayer gatherings in most parts of the world. And Catholics are no exception, even if the foolhardy among them are ready to challenge death for their faith, which they don’t understand.
The Palm Sunday procession — which falls this year on April 5, marking the start of the Passion Week — will be a sparse affair in most churches. The Easter feast of the Resurrection on April 12 looks to be a gloomy and solitary event for most Catholic families.
Parish priests are instructed to have Passion Week liturgies privately, offering them for their people. The vital liturgies include Maundy Thursday that celebrates the establishment of the Eucharist, the source and summit of Catholic faith life, and the Good Friday service remembers the passion and death of Christ. Celebrated without people, they cannot be anything more than rituals. But that’s how things will be this year.
For the past several weeks, Catholics have been forced to break a precept of the Church — the obligation of Sunday liturgy (Canon 1246). Another precept they will be breaking in the coming week deals with the annual confession and reception of Communion, traditionally done during the Easter season.
One of the five precepts of the Church stipulates that all Catholics who are initiated to the Eucharist are obliged to receive Communion at least once a year, and it must be fulfilled during the Easter season “unless done for a just cause at another time during the year” (Canon 920). The catechism teaches Catholics to receive Communion after preparing for it with a confession. This year, however, government restrictions will force them to abandon these practices.
The Catholic Church, which has a history of about two millennia, has systems to face the unexpected, even something as wired as the situation created by the novel coronavirus — a virus that had never previously attacked humans. Bishops are competent to issue decrees freeing Catholics from these obligations in times of emergencies, offering pastorally appropriate alternatives. Most of them have already done that, explaining how Catholics should celebrate the Passion mysteries of their faith in their homes.
The bishops have no other choice. One example is India, where a 21-day lockdown is in force until April 15. During this time “all places of worship shall be closed for the public. No religious congregations shall be permitted without any exception,” said the federal government order on the lockdown. That makes it abundantly clear that violators will face penal action. Similar situations continue in most Asian nations, just as in Europe, Britain and the US.
Follow the state or faith? Obey God or man?
Missing the annual confession is a lesser worry for some than the prospect of dying without a confession. Easter confession was a chance to get ready for death from Covid-19, a grandmother told me with tearful eyes. Catholic communities let generations grow up and die in spiritual immaturity without ever thinking about the possibility of keeping them away from Communion and Confession during a passion week.Catholics, just as other religionists, continue to confuse religion with spirituality without knowing that they both can exist without the other. Even after the pope and bishops have told them that "a personal confession" is acceptable and valid in this season, many Catholics are not sure of it. The Church has unfathomable spiritual immaturity that takes rituals as a source of grace.
The churches are closed, and priests are not available at this time of death. Does that leave priests and churches redundant? To an extent, that worry is genuine. Indeed, they are unnecessary if they continue to exist only as elements necessary for dispensation of sacraments. At some point in time, pastors need to explain that the priesthood is beyond the dispensation of sacraments and that the validity of sacraments comes from Christian life, not from priestly rituals.
The meaning of the Catholic Church and its priesthood is the totality of the readiness to share life with one’s community. They are meaningless without a community. Every baptized Catholic is called to part take in this sharing sacrifice of Christ — breaking of the body and shedding the blood — for the community.Each Sunday celebration is a call to celebrate the resurrection without fear of life or death. Maybe the epidemic offers Catholics a chance to think of a de-clericalized church.
Are churches redundant? All religious buildings, not just churches, are sociological necessities rather than requirements of faith. Buildings may be needed to help Catholics grow to the maturity of worshiping God “in spirit and truth.” The number and splendor of religious buildings in a society show the socioeconomic clout of a religion in that society. They speak nothing about the depth of faith — nothing. This epidemic season gives us a chance to understand the splendorous wastes we created in the name of spirituality.
The prospect of death is real; not just now, it has always been so. The fear is the possibility of dying unattended, probably on a street, because of Covid-19. But humans have been born, lived and died unattended on the streets, always. For example, just on the streets of Delhi, 10 people die every day, Covid or no Covid.
Resurrection comes after death, only after death.
Christopher Joseph is a journalist for UCA News based in India.