What a difference a day makes. Yesterday (March 18) I woke up with a full day of ministry awaiting. Lots of people calling, emailing – all asking “Are we going to shutdown? Will the Bishop suspend Masses. What’s going to happen now?” Today I awake wondering what I will do with all the time on my hands. Not that there aren’t a lot of things to do, but the rhythm of the day is changed. Changed dramatically. What a difference a day makes.
Yesterday, our local bishop – reluctantly but inevitably – make the decision to suspend the public celebration of the Mass. He described it as the hardest decision he has ever had to make. To take what we describe as the “source and summit” of the Church – the celebration of the Eucharist – and tell the Holy People of God it is not longer accessible to them. Be assured that the Eucharist will be celebrated in chapels, in the quiet of the morning, in monastic like settings that were never meant to be monastic in nature. Rooms and places that will, like the world around us, have a new rhythm. And yet in small pockets of time and place, our most ancient of rhythms will continue to play out, as priest celebrate Mass in private, praying for the world. As monastic men and women, carry out the cloistered patterns of their lives. Even as men and women find a new rhythm of daily devotion and prayer. As each of us finds a new normal.
A new normal for this parish priest and pastor who has always longed for more time away from the demands of life in an active and growing parish – a life which I love, but which does demand a price. And now I have more time on my hands that I ever imagined. There is no need to look on my calendar. There is almost nothing there. Nothing that demands that I set a reminder, leave a note on my computer screen, or any of the little ways we set the rhythm of the day.
A new normal in the hospitals, clinics, and fire rescue stations of the city. Our parish includes the regional trauma center, a 1200 bed hospital with an amazing array of care it provides from its ER, the 9 ICUs, transplant units, advanced cardiac care, and various other wings and units. We have hospice units, rehabilitation centers, and lots of other medical-related offices and clinics within the parish boundaries. Many of the parishioners are doctors, PAs and Nurse Practitioners, Nurses, Pharmacists, nursing assistants, technicians, patient care specialists, and more. If you had to have a medical emergency, Sunday mass at the parish was as good a place to have it as any outside of the hospital. But I can not imagine the new rhythms in their life.
Or in any one of the lives of people: working from home, not working because your place of work is shuttered for the time being, kids out of school with day care not available, being unable to visit a loved one in the nursing home, and a million other scenarios that are playing out in every home. New rhythms.
I chatted with two people yesterday wondering if their professional endeavors were slowing down. Just the opposite. One is a top-flight labor lawyer whose corporate clients are all calling, all at the same time, wondering what they can and can’t, must and mustn’t do, or what is possible in these evolving days. The other works in a large regional bank in which clients are all tapping lines of credit to keep operations going, asking for higher limits, or any myriad of things that are outside the normal range of most of our days. In their own way, they are the ER for their specialties.
There is even a new detectable rhythm to the internet. As more and more people are working from home, streaming content, and more – you can sometimes see the hesitation in the screen that just doesn’t refresh like it normally does. If you have become used to next-day or same-day delivery, well…it seems like that is also changing.
There is a new rhythm downtown as it is in cities, towns and villages across the nation and world. Less traffic, fewer businesses open every day, and even less homeless and poor in and around the downtown core. The sandwich shop next to the church closed yesterday. Not enough business. Although we will not have a public mass, the church will be open for private prayer and being present to Jesus who is fully present in the tabernacle. I wonder how much “business” we will have. When the horrific events of September 11th happened, without announcement, the church filled and unplanned prayer services evolved. Today’s crisis is slower and subject to social distancing. Will we have to say “sorry you can’t come in; there are too many people in the church already” even as the church looks sparse and empty
It raises the question of what is means to be Catholic in the days of Covid-19. It is not as though the Church has not seen such days before. It is not as though a part of the Body of Christ in our time has not seen such days. But for most of us, these are days we never imagined. Of the many things I have written about or thought about writing, “pandemic” was not one of them. And it asks us to face the question: what does it mean to be Catholic in these days and the days ahead? What will be our new rhythm?
There are lots of ways each one of us are responding to the moment-by-moment, rhythm changing news: fear, anxiety, worry, concern, apathy, indifference, panic, stress, sadness, grief, to name a few. And as things continue to develop, I imagine similar reactions will persist for a while even as new ones emerge. But at the deepest level, what it means to be Catholic has not changed. Even in the days when Eucharist is not available, when the pattern and patina of church is so very different, what remains constant and immutable are two greatest commandments: to love God and love neighbor.
We are in times when counter intuitively, loving your neighbor may well mean keeping away from them. Every individual, every family, every community has a social responsibility to help stop the spread of coronavirus, just as we’ve always had a social responsibility to seek the common universal common good due to the “increasingly close ties of mutual dependence today between all the inhabitants and peoples of the earth” (Gaudium Et Spes, 84). Maybe you feel fine and are confident in your immune system’s ability to combat the virus; but you’re putting other people, especially vulnerable people, at risk simply by habits and behavior that just last week were the norm of polite society. If we take the call to love our neighbor seriously, that means we will self-shelter, wash our hands regularly, wave from a distance, and do what we can — especially when it requires sacrifice — to slow the spread of the virus, to “flatten the curve” in an effort to protect those most likely to contract it and die from it.
But loving your neighbor in these times is also an opportunity to be imaginative and creative. There are new rhythms in the towns of Europe when people appear on the front steps of the houses at 8:00 pm to applaud and cheer for the health care workers. When someone in the neighborhood bakes a cake for a birthday, leaves it at the front door, rings the bell and scurries away. And when the door opens, the neighbors are on their porches singing Happy Birthday.
It is a time to use imagination and creativity to think about what Church can be. What it looks like to be Church at a time like this will shift; but at the same time, the reality of what it means to be Church will remain the same. Church was never exclusively about Sunday Mass and catechism — Church is always about loving God and loving neighbor. And it has adapted in every age. Adapted to persecution and plagues. Adapted to war and want. Adapted to flood, fire and famine. Adapted in time and technology. Adapted to life in the catacombs and to the gilded age of the grand churches of Europe – even as men and women missionaries went to the ends of the world creating Church in a villager’s kitchen, stumbling with a language not their own.
Although speaking of a different circumstance, but I think well applies to our times, when the young Hobbit Frodo said “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which the wizard Gandalf replied “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (Fellowship of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien)
And there it is. What will you do with the time given to love God and love neighbor – to adapt a new rhythm so that we continue to be Church?