In periods of social upheaval, the church has always been there for those who seek her. The idea of sanctuary is rooted in the idea that sacred spaces are universal safe houses for those in trouble. They’re also havens for sinners, the poor, and seekers of divine Presence. For these reasons, a Catholic church is consecrated territory, generally open to all comers and a welcome refuge in difficult times especially.
The church building as place of refuge and safety is contradicted in times of contagious disease, however. Where contagion is present, gathering is a dangerous thing to do. Not just for the individual, but for society altogether. This wasn’t understood in the Middle Ages during the era of plague, nor even in more recent centuries when waves of yellow fever or leprosy spread through port cities. While germ theory was proposed as early as the 11th century, and reintroduced periodically, it was largely dismissed until 1850 when Louis Pasteur did his research. Viruses were discovered in the 1890s. This better understanding of how disease spreads gives us many new tools with which to contain and defeat it.
The church isn’t exempt from the science of a pandemic. We exercise charity in acknowledging that, while Catholics are spiritually hardwired to seek the sacraments, especially in anxious times, what serves the common good is to consider the welfare of the whole community. Yes, I want access to sacraments; and I want the support of the community in faith. But there are other ways to do this besides gathering in a church building in these weeks when special caution benefits the world that God so loves.
Charity recommends we do what the saints did: enjoy “spiritual communion” until we have the privilege of the real thing. Mother Francis Cabrini took 37 sea voyages back and forth across the Atlantic during her missionary years. During those voyages, she and her sisters were without Mass or the sacraments for weeks or even months. She wrote often about this deprivation: “We believed we would arrive in time to celebrate the Feast of the Patronage of Saint Joseph; instead we have to spend it at sea, without Mass, without Communion…. Meanwhile, the view continually before our eyes, the work of the One whom we so much desire to receive into the small sanctuary of our souls, serves as preparation for a worthy Communion.”
Perhaps this time of austere fasting from even the consolation of the sacraments will prepare us for a more worthy communion soon.
Scripture: Matthew 10:27-32; 12:1-8; John 14:1-6; 15:1-5; 17:1-19
Books: To the Ends of the Earth: The Missionary Travels, by Francis X. Cabrini (Center for Migration Studies, 2001)
The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, by Monika Hellwig (Sheed & Ward, 1992)