Dear Friends in Christ,
In March 2020, an invisible enemy in the form of a virus brought life as we knew it to a halt all throughout the world. Health care professionals advised governments that strict lockdowns would quickly end a pandemic whose initial results portended a demographic disaster. Religious leaders responded by curtailing worship in a way never seen before. As Catholics, we believe in faith and reason, and what seemed to many at the time a prudent temporary measure to “flatten the curve” drove decisions. As Catholics, we responded with obedience to legitimate authority in this matter and prayed for a quick end to the pandemic. Of course, science this side of heaven is never really settled, and recommendations and mandatory measures have changed and changed again numerous times during this historical event. Questions were raised about the motives behind the lockdown as political agendas sought to take advantage of the panic to reset society as we know it. Questions were raised as to the very real human costs that were more than just in terms of physical health: emotional health, financial health, and spiritual health. We know more now than we did when we began this Covid-tide, but there’s still a lot we don’t know. A mixture of lockdown fatigue and attempts to figure out how we could co-exist with this pernicious enemy and still have some semblance of normal life have colored the past few months.
In May 2020, after the first Easter since 33AD was not publicly celebrated in our churches, we began public celebrations of the Mass once again. Public health officials and religious leaders tried to figure out what were prudent measures to implement to curtail the spread of the virus. Those measures have not been applied univocally everywhere; some have been more restrictive, some less, and interpretations have varied. There are as many opinions on what should and what should not be done as there are individuals to have them. For my part, I have tried to listen earnestly to all of them and to stay abreast of all of the developments that have been publicized in various places throughout the world. At Prince of Peace, we have sought to stay a middle course by which we have enacted the specific recommendations of the Diocese of Charleston without being more restrictive than that, and always respecting the sacred character of what we do in worship here at Prince of Peace. We have encouraged our people to listen to the recommendations and follow them in a spirit of docility, even when they had reservations about them, as a penance and out of concern for their neighbors who may be more cautious.
As new liturgical year of grace has dawned, we have seen a number of new faces at Prince of Peace that have made the parish their spiritual home. I hope they choose to stay with us after the pandemic is a bad memory. We have had some who have not come back to Mass at all, and others who, feeling that their expectations have not been met, have chosen to not return to Mass or to worship elsewhere. I am always concerned about the unity of the Body of Christ, and trying to keep all who call Prince of Peace their spiritual home connected and unified has been one of the greatest challenges of my priesthood.
As you are well aware, the second commandment, Keep the sabbath day holy, has always been interpreted by the Catholic Church to include going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Our Lord passed on to Peter and to the Apostles, and their successors, the power to bind and loose His children. There is always a dispensation from the obligation in times of illness, necessary work or caregiving, or physical impossibility. That obligation is there in view of the dictum: Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. Sometimes we are called to worship at the altar of the Eucharist at church; at other times at the altar of the sickbed or in other ways. Those dispensations are not given lightly, and a properly formed Christian will always yearn to be one at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Unless you eat My Body and drink My Blood, you have no life in you. For Christians, Sunday Mass is not an option. The early Christians cried, Sine Dominico non possumus – we can’t live without the Lord’s Day.
In Matthew 10.28, the Lord says, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Catholics have always known that this world is not our true home. The heroic virtue of the saints knows of the virtue of prudence in observing the dogmas of the faith and the dictates of reason, but also the virtue of courage in seeking the good beyond that of even physical health and life. Catholics throughout the ages have literally shed their blood in order to go to Mass, to receive Holy Communion, and to serve their Lord in the sick and the poor.
During the lockdown, as I celebrated private Mass in the adoration chapel, we were able through the miracle of technology to bring you into that act of worship to participate in some way. But being a passive spectator at the Mass is not the same as full, active and conscious participation in the spiritual and physical reality of the sacraments given for our salvation. One of the most edifiying things was the witness of some of you, who watched and waited outside of the chapel or the church, just to gain a glimpse of Our Lord truly present on the altars. When the churches were reopened, there were many in our parish community who, having experienced real hunger and thirst for God, returned to Mass and Holy Communion with tears in their eyes and gratitude in their hearts.
The Bishop of Charleston, in his role as spiritual leader of the Diocese, has encouraged all of us to come back to Mass except for those who are in high-risk categories. A corollary of that is those who are caregivers for them. Many bishops around the country are ending the dispensation entirely except for those categories of people. Our Bishop has confidence in the spiritual maturity of our people that, if they are truly not identified as high-risk by a medical professional, they will want to come back to Mass. He has not employed his apostolic authority to command in this matter. But neither does he envision the continuation of the dispensation as a freebie ticket out of an obligation either.
The Church’s law grants dispensations out of a concern for a greater spiritual good, not just out of some momentary laxity. That is why, when we choose to avail ourselves of the dispensation, we may not commit a mortal sin by enjoying the dispensation, but we incur the obligation to wisely use the gift in the spirit in which it is offered. To fail to bring wisdom into our choices is a sign of spiritual weakness, and our lives can become disordered and we can wander far away from God as a result. When we adopt a spirit of entitlement or frivolously use these gifts of grace, we should not presume that God will infuse us with extraordinary graces when we abuse our freedom by failing to use the ordinary means of grace He offers His Church.
There are those who are truly in a high risk category and legitimately avail themselves of the dispensation from Sunday Mass at this time. There are others who are simply unsure or paralyzed by fear. My hope is that their psychological state is such that their judgment in this matter is impaired to such a degree as to not to be able to incur sin as a result of the decisions made from that place. But I am continually heartbroken when I see people go on vacation, entertain people at home, go shopping, go out to eat at restaurants, send their kids to school, and go to work, and then turn around and act like going to Mass, even observing the protocols put into place, is going to kill them and others.
I’m also concerned about those who are coming back to Mass, but adamantly refuse to wear masks, social distance and sanitize when they do so in any other public place. Their recalcitrance in this manner has led people who were coming back to Mass to opt not to do so. As more people come back to Mass and social distancing becomes more of a problem, it is even more imperative that those who do not have a legitimate medically diagnosed condition that makes masks impossible to wear, conform to the same requirements that are necessary in every other public place in the area. I’m disheartened by the uncharitable behavior of those who just refuse obedience in this matter. The only reason I don’t mask in church except for Communion is because of my relative distance from people at the altar and the issues it causes for public leadership of prayer. I observe all of the required norms everywhere else, out of obedience and charity, even given my own reservations about their effectiveness.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Throughout the pandemic, priests, deacons and laypeople, including those who are actually in high-risk categories, have responded to the Lord’s call to sacrificial love. They have continued to administer and receive the sacraments, visit the sick (including COVID positive patients), and feed the hungry. There was a risk, all the time, and they decided to continue to do the Lord’s work, not rashly and imprudently, but because they knew that whenever and however they would appear before the judgment seat of Christ, their eternal salvation would depend on how they loved on this earth.
I have lived through this pandemic as an immuno-compromised person myself. I went to Istanbul to study, and lived through a near terrorist attack and an earthquake. I have continued to minister to the sick and the dying, and to try to live the life of grace with courage and prudence, from a spirit of penance and obedience. I decided that I was going to live life to the fullest, even in this most tenuous of times. I am doing this, not because I have a death wish (I don’t), or just because I’m a priest. I have chosen not to be paralyzed by fear and to live the life of grace because Jesus is Lord, and it will be His decision, not mine, when I am to cross the threshold into the wedding feast of the Lamb. I only pray that I may be worthy to sit that that table forever, even if I am turning the lights out in purgatory. But I won’t be if I squander this beautiful life God has given me by hiding my light under a bushel.
It’s time for some of you to come home for Christmas. We’ll be here, and the sanctuary lamp that indicates the presence of the Lord in our churches has been lit, for you, this whole time. For some of you “home” is still literally at home. But for others of you, “home” means learning to live with a virus that isn’t going away anytime soon, and live an abundant life filled with the fruits of a Spirit who is calling us to life beyond what any mere coronavirus can ever destroy. I’m looking forward to seeing you, hearing you, and praying with you.
Father Christopher Smith, PhD/STD