COVID’s Catholic Martyrs?

Opinions vary regarding the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the COVID-19 panic. Our pastor revealed as much the first Sunday after the prohibition against Mass was first lifted in our state. He had heard from parishioners who said they would not attend Mass unless everyone wore a mask and from parishioners who said they would not attend Mass as long as masks were required.

I sympathize with our pastors and their assistants. When they are ordained, they take a vow of obedience to their bishop. If the bishop agrees to obey civil authorities and closes churches, what choice do the priests have? If the bishop demands compliance with mask mandates, can a priest refuse to enforce that?

On the other hand, it’s common to hear in homilies the importance of attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist. We’re told the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” It’s a source of grace, a help to achieve holiness, to overcome sin in our lives. As a lifelong Catholic, I’ve taken the Sunday obligation to attend Mass very seriously, only once skipping Mass as a matter of misguided principle. I found it appalling during the recent panic that no Catholic in the entire world could attend Mass in person. (I’m sure there must have been some private or underground Masses being celebrated.)

Although the government’s restrictions on businesses and the mask requirements are keenly felt, the local parishes’ enforcement has had the most oppressive effect on me. I find it difficult to breathe while wearing a mask. Several months ago, waiting for daily Mass to start, it was a little stuffy in church and I was feeling a little faint. I noticed that four people sitting in nearby pews had their masks pulled down below their noses, a practice I had seen at every Mass. At first I just pulled my mask down, too, but then the absurdity of that action struck me.

For several people, wearing a mask was just for show, something they put up with to be allowed to attend. The priests had not been asking people to pull their masks up over their noses, or to make sure the masks were properly sealed around their mouths and noses. If they had truly thought the masks protected people, they would have demanded that people would wear their masks properly. The priests were apparently satisfied that everyone was wearing a mask in some manner. So, I said enough of this theater. I removed my mask (gasp!) and breathed freely. One woman seated near me stood up and moved to the other side of the church. I presume if I had merely kept it pulled below my nose, she would not have moved.

For several weeks, my wife and I did not wear masks to Mass. Thankfully no parishioners said anything to us, but it was difficult to concentrate on the proceedings when all I could do was think of what I would say if someone confronted us. Then one Sunday, the pastor asked that everyone wear masks. Since we were the only people not wearing masks, I felt singled out and from then on, bowed to the pressure to wear a mask. (Being 6’4″, it’s difficult not to stand out in a crowd.)

Contrast the Church’s response to COVID with the response of Catholic clergy in 1873, when our city was hit by the third largest yellow fever epidemic in U.S. history. During that time, five priests and a number of nuns died of the fever while attending the sick and providing the sacraments to the faithful. Some of the priests voluntarily came here to replace those priests that had died or were near death, knowing that yellow fever had killed a quarter of the population. Our diocese has begun the process to have the five priests canonized as saints. The diocese’s news release said “Each priest made the free and voluntary offer of life and heroic acceptance of a premature and horrific yellow fever death, in the act of charity.” It also said the cause for sainthood “is proceeding during a time of pandemic is a noteworthy historic parallel.”

What is the “noteworthy historic parallel?” I don’t see any heroic actions being taken by any clergy during the current panic. The continual harping about “this time of pandemic”, praying for those sick with COVID, the front-line health care workers and those who have died from COVID stokes the panic. (I’m not callous to those who are sick and die of COVID, but I object to the singling out COVID as somehow being more tragic than other forms of death.) The only parallel I see is that a bunch of people in both eras were sick. In the first era, contracting the disease almost guaranteed death, and men and women gave their lives in service of the diseased. In the second era, the disease has a survival rate in excess of 99% and the clergy ran for the hills.

At daily Mass today, the first reading was Acts 14:19-28, which recounts the story of St. Paul being stoned by the crowds, then picking himself up and continuing to Derbe to proclaim the good news. The celebrant was rather moved by St. Paul’s example and in his homily recounted the reading, adding a bit more detail to make the story more vivid. He told of St. Paul being struck by stones and falling to the ground, then getting up, dusting himself off and going to the next town. He encouraged us to follow the example of St. Paul, but to me his words rang hollow.

A couple of weeks ago, a different priest said it wasn’t enough to just sit in the pew every day, but that we needed to evangelize the world as called for by St. Pope John Paul II. He asked how many of us understood the book of Revelations or could explain Genesis to someone. Yes, I know – we Catholics in general have a low Biblical IQ. The point is the priest is calling us to evangelize the world when most of us consider ourselves lucky to even be able to attend Mass during this “pandemic”.

In fact, over the last few months, both priests have been belittling people or demeaning the efforts of people who attend daily Mass. Most recently one of them said “it’s easy to sit in the pew every day…” and once triggered, my irritation kept me from paying attention to his actual point. My thought was: “Hey Father, most of the people here are senior citizens with arthritis, bad backs, foot pain, insomnia and other assorted ailments that are just trying to get through this half hour struggling to stay awake. And the worst part of it is having to listen to your homilies!” Easy to sit in the pew – indeed!

One of the priests likes to accuse everyone of being experts and knowing better than anyone else. One of those accusations was related to our bishop’s “call for unity”, echoing the cry of one Joe Biden, rumored to be President. Father said Pope Francis was the pope and the one true symbol of Jesus Christ on earth. He said we Catholics needed to put our differences aside and that our unity as Christians would be a witness to the rest of the world (I get stomach cramps just typing that sentence.). Never mind that many of those Catholics aligned with Biden stand firmly opposed to Catholic teaching and opposed to our country and its flawed heritage. As with most calls for unity or compromise, it’s the conservative or traditional side that has to do all the compromising. Nevertheless, Father said the bishop had called on all parishes in the diocese to pray a novena to St. Joseph for unity and for Joe Biden (rumored to be President). Where was this call when Donald Trump was president? My response to be accused of thinking we’re all experts: “Speak for yourself, Father. I’m no expert but I’m pretty good at spotting liars, charlatans and those acting in self interest.”

Look, I know we all need to improve in virtue, in holiness, in knowledge, in our dedication to God. But the priests can encourage these things without also berating us. How about prefacing their encouragement with the positive acknowledgment that daily Mass attendance is a good thing and commending us for our effort?

So what’s my point? It is this: The priests are encouraging us to engage the world, be brave, speak the truth, gain knowledge, be more like the martyrs, while at the same time belittling us. Yet these brave priests participated in the shutdown of the Church, denying the sacraments to their flock. Yes, they were obeying their bishop, but did they or any of their brother priests ask the bishop for permission to violate the lockdown orders and hold Mass for those people willing to take the risk? I for one would greatly admire any priest who had offered to celebrate Mass and I would have risked arrest to attend, not because I’m a hero but because I think the Eucharist and religious freedom is that important. Once they’ve shown that kind of bravery, then they’ve truly earned the right to talk about the sacrifices of martyrdom. Otherwise, their talk is cheap.