A reflection on the Relationship Between Charity and COVID-19

It was a couple days after Notre Dame’s initial announcement of spring break’s extension due to the pandemic. The holy water fonts still proffered a communal touchpoint–but they were bone-dry. Instead of holy water resting within, hand sanitizer jauntily reared its plastic spout over the empty basin. This seemed an appropriate icon of the Church’s reaction, yet perhaps not a flattering one.

This Lent the faithful’s presence at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not only made optional; it was banned. The cancelling of public Masses is very rare, but not an unprecedented situation. Dictators of history, four-hundred years of Black Plague, and the recent Ebola crisis could not cancel Mass. Yet the suspension was acquiesced to this Lent with silence and even applause. And it was done in the name of love. 

One bishop announced that “Out of charity and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ, we encourage all the faithful, in particular those who are sick, experiencing symptoms of illness, or are at risk of illness seriously to consider refraining from Mass attendance.” While the sickness and deaths caused by the virus are a deep tragedy which no one desires, this line of reasoning deployed by the bishop makes me wonder two things. 

Firstly, in this rare situation, how are we to balance the two virtues of prudence and charity? How do we determine what acts of mercy we can perform and what sacraments we can celebrate? For if out of charity we are to avoid contact, then what are we to do in the situations that contact is necessary for in the practice of charity? For example, volunteers at soup kitchens face a dilemma. Those they serve are already at-risk, but to stay away means that the homeless may go hungry. Of course, it is a work of mercy to avoid making someone sick. What an odd moment we have come to! Now our actions seem to mimic the rich man who knew Lazarus’ name and passed him by (see Luke 16:19-31).

The Catholic exercise of charity in response to this pandemic is different from that of the past. One need not look very far back to when there was relative ignorance about the spread of disease to see the difference in how Catholics exercised charity during epidemics. For example, during the deadliest epidemic of modern history, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati believed that “visiting the poor was like visiting Jesus Christ. And regardless of the consequences, between 1918 and 1919 he went to care for them and perform the humblest services, even related to hygiene, among people afflicted by the epidemic of Spanish influenza.” 

Secondly, what do our actions say of the modern Church? An old adage says, “God helps those who help themselves.” We want to practice prudence. We want to save lives. Yet when does prudence become fear?  In whom do we place our trust? We trust our medical professionals who encourage hand sanitizer and masks, and of course even if we are perturbed, we trust our bishops. Are we lifting our anxiety and suffering to God or are we individually allowing our spiritual life to grow stagnant? Do we genuinely trust that God still has the power to save both body and soul? 

According to our Catholic faith, holy water has the power to wash away venial sin (take it up with Aquinas). Hand sanitizer protects our bodies which are holy but “dust” unto which we “shall return” (see Genesis 3:19). Holy water defends and heals our souls, which are eternal. God gifted us with the ingenuity of research that gifted us with the science and technology to fight disease. But, is it necessary to entirely replace blessing ourselves with holy water for dowsings of hand sanitizer? Is this defensive isolation a mark of materialism creeping in? Are we focused more on the body than on the soul?

Is our action as a Church today a sign of not only materialism, but secular humanism that negates the Divine? The greatest commandment is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…And second…Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:37-38). What is this pandemic revealing about whom the modern church loves? We love both God and man, but are we forgetting Our First Love in this difficult moment? 

This Easter season (which even Chreasters make an appearance for) the faithful were banned from attending Mass. During the Triduum, the voice of Christ, “sorrowful and sore troubled” continued to plead through the centuries: “abide ye here, and watch with me” (Matthew 26:38). But this year all His words fell upon was an empty church nave. As fear rises, are we should rather be witnesses of Flannery O’Connor’s chilling words: “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, it’s logical outcome is terror.”

Or did the Church, in leaving the pews empty like the saints that came before us were cast apart in times of persecution, take this opportunity to recognize something? To see in our loss of Christ’s Physical Presence in the Host, how Christ aches even more for us? Did we, though feeling confused, take this time to unite our sense of isolation to that of Christ, betrayed and alone on the Cross?

One can easily recognize the reasons why the Church is taking precautions. In some cases, the decisions seem prudent and wise. But that does not make these decisions easy. While trusting the Church, the faithful face a difficult situation that, previous to the decision and the research it sparked, had not been considered. While trusting Holy Mother, seeing the practical decision (of not necessarily the bishops but the priests and lay members of parishes across the country) to remove holy water and proffer hand sanitizer seemed to tangibly replace the original object of purification. The habitual movement of our hands now cleanse a part of our bodies, but does not necessarily cleanse our souls. 

While yet loving and trusting the Church, this can prompt one to ponder and ask: When suffering strikes, are we putting our faith in God or in hand sanitizer?

Teresa Breckler, Class of 2021, is a Visual Communications Design and Theology double major. She enjoys authentic conversations, drawing (see @Teresa.Ttm on Instagram), sugary coffee, and being outdoors. You can contact her at tbreckle@nd.edu with any questions or comments.