Some thoughts on the Coronavirus Situation . . .

The other day a friend of mine said, ”Jesus has to fix his church, because if he doesn’t people will just leave”. Maybe that is what all of us are here for — to fix the church. Legend says that a long time ago Jesus told St Francis to “rebuild my church”. Who can say that Jesus isn’t telling folks in our day to do the same?

The Coronavirus is having serious worldwide effects. One of the areas so affected is religion, especially the Roman Catholic version of Christianity. Throughout the world masses are cancelled and churches closed. We are reminded that the church is not buildings and plants, the church is people — us. It is our church, and we do our best to be open to the Spirit and Christ. Jesus told us “I will be with you always”, and, “I will send the Spirit to teach you to observe everything I have commanded you”. Especially these days we believe this is what is happening now, and we beg the courage to go where the Spirit is leading us, and do what the Spirit is guiding us to do.

The current crisis clearly shows us the devastating impact that clericalism has had on the church. Pope Francis points out that clericalism is perhaps the biggest problem we face. In the current crisis we see both clericalism and a remedy to it. We also see the power and impact of the “religious police” who who see themselves as the only “authorized” interpreters of the word and will of God, and eagerly set upon any who deviate in the slightest from their accepted norms and terminology. They are very active in their attacks on, and protests against, Pope Francis and his attempts to lead the church to be more open to the Spirit.

In a number of nursing homes and hospitals there are restrictions as to visitors and who can get in to help the patients and residents. In some of these places pastoral ministers who are not ordained are celebrating their own versions of the Sacraments of Anointing and Reconciliation. Many of these pastoral ministers are women. Who is to say that these ministrations “do not work”? Especially in the matter of women providing these ministrations, some would say that God is limited by gender. These pastoral ministers truly are serving God in their patients and residents, who don’t really care about the minister’s gender. We need to encourage and empower them as they do God’s work among us.

Recently the Vatican decreed that General Absolution can be offered under some circumstances. In the matter of a hospital or nursing home, it suggests that the ministers who can’t have direct access to patients and residents use “amplification of the voice, so that the absolution may be heard”. Why can it not be that someone on the staff who is already known to the patients and residents be able to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the face to face? Does it really have to be done by an anonymous voice of a public address system? Pastoral Ministers who are providing such ministry have to be encouraged. They very well may be a significant part of the church as we grow.

With the closure of churches and the cancellations of masses many priests are live-streaming masses on tv. Why could it not be that the heads of households and families be able to celebrate the Eucharist together, whether they are male or female, married or not married, gay or straight? This is the way the church started out 2000 years ago. When Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there with them”, he didn’t say anything about gender, faculties or permission, places, vestments. All that sort of thing came later with the rise of clericalism.

We are called to live the gospel in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. We don’t need civil law and circumstances to change so it is easier for us. These days we live in very difficult and challenging circumstances. Yet we believe the Spirit is among us, perhaps urging us to be creative and we believe that grace is real. We are also coming to realize that what is in the way is the way. Throughout history the church has adapted to circumstances. The gospel message remains the same, but how it is lived changes. The basic question, what does it mean for me/us to be a disciple of Jesus in my/our circumstances, is being asked today in the current crisis. The focus is on how we serve God in each other, and not how do we preserve the rights and privileges of celibate males.

Throughout the world women are stepping up where we celibate males cannot provide “sacramental ministrations”, and they are doing a terrific job. Some wonderful women, feeling the call to serve as priests themselves, have become ordained and, again, are doing a wonderful job, and the whole church benefits from their ministry. During my time as an active duty army chaplain, I came to see that women chaplains provided and insight and energy to pastoral ministry that we celibate males will never have. The same can be said of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. They, too, can provide pastoral insight that we celibate males will never have. The same can be said about the married priests I served with. Then, too, there are ordained priests who also felt called to be married and raise a family. We benefit from their ministry The obstacle to any development or growth in this area is clericalism, as we celibate males protect our turf and institutional system.

In the matter of the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, why does it have to be that when a person is gravely ill a priest unknown to the patient and their family has to come in to celebrate the sacrament. Why cannot a person who has been caring for patients be able to anoint and celebrate Reconciliation? God is not limited by gender — we are, and we can change that.

We have to be careful, though, that we do not create another clerical caste. It might be that Christ is calling each of us and all of us to “repair my church”. When we emerge from the current crisis, we might look back on how all of us, using our own ways in our own areas, provided ministry, and realize that these do not have to be limited to the time of crisis, but are valid too in ordinary times. Perhaps with Pope Francis we will come to know our equality of service and our focus on people rather than systems, as important as they may be.

At a pastors’ conference in 1983 the presenter said, “traditionally we have believed that the church has Christ’s mission; perhaps we should be saying Christ’s mission has a church; what Christ’s mission will have in the future could very well be something that we would not recognize from where we are now”. Perhaps the current situation is a step in that direction. It is clear the Spirit is not done speaking.

As we move on our goal has be be openness to the Spirit in all things, not just our own convenience, and the protection of clericalism. Everything has to be on the table. Grace is real.

Just sayin . . .

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Pat

    Jim, well said. We as a church need to rethink some of what we are doing. The church exists in each of us. Thank you, my friend.

  2. Jim

    Jim, I think the first paragraph says it all. Jesus is calling all of us to do our part to fix His church. We all have a part to play, and each of us should be open to the freshness of the Spirit’s promptings, however “non-standard they may see.

  3. John A. Dick

    In this serious time we will all be changed….and the church that survives will be Christian communities characterized by exactly the kind of creativity you mention here.

    Thank you very sincerely


  4. Bobby Jones

    Went to get in line today to pick up pancakes & turkey sausage this AM. Them found myself in a row
    Of many vehicles pointing at a small Baptist church.
    Me being Catholic/Methodist, i looked around nd saw a large, handwritten sign tellingall to open 1 windo, tune youe car radio to xuz.5 station. So I complied and music came from my car speakers and then, far forward, standing behind 2 closed glass doors was a southern baptist preacher with the sermon… It was short and spot on for world events. Asking all not to shake hands as a gesture of peace to your neighbor, but to beep your horn 2 times! What a great feeling sitting there and thinking… Ya… We got this.. ??

  5. Lorene Coughlin

    Your comments validate so much of what we do in the Spirit and in hope that we are truly trying to follow the Lord’s example. It has so little to do with regulations and rubrics and everything to do with love. We are called, all of us, to be sacraments to one another, and while I deeply love the rituals of our Church, I also see clearly that they are not ALL there is, that Jesus comes to and through us whether or not someone is wearing a stole. We are anointers of one another when we listen with compassion and empathy. We are reconcilers when we offer a hand to someone who is struggling with guilt they can’t seem to let go of on their own. We are feeding one another when we run to the grocery for someone who cannot, or we bring flowers, or we send a card or note, or when we pass along an email that has a hopeful message.
    Do we all miss receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament? I believe we do, but He gives us so many chances to receive Him in sharing and spreading love. And I believe that’s why we are here and how we are going to get through the current crisis, as well as any others we may e in our time on this earth. May God bless us all.


  6. Monica Deangelis

    Hi, Padre. Thanks for your note. As usual, I have something to say.

    This virus, which is worse here than anywhere else, is forcing us to question everything we’ve been taking for granted. Instinctively, we resist its power and long for the day when all will return to “normal” again. The day when we can be “in charge” of our lives again.
    Yet, this moment may be the crack in our busy lives through which the mercury that is the Gospel can squeeze, inviting us to see life, faith, and ourselves very differently. Perhaps I who have been judgmental of others can begin to see them as equals, because we’re all suddenly vulnerable to something we don’t deserve, when we’ve been thinking of ourselves as the good people of the earth.

    Bear with me, please.

    As I see it, the sacrament of inclusion is Baptism. Anyone who’s baptized, even as a child, is entitled to stand in our midst as much as anyone else to hear the Word proclaimed. If we listen to the Word, perhaps not at first, but over time, we are challenged to become what God calls us to be. All of us, not just the people I don’t like. Not just the people the Church doesn’t like. All of us. The priest who’s hanging onto his faith by a thread. The man cheating on his wife. The woman who’s had abortions. The guy in serial relationships. The old lady who doesn’t know what she believes anymore. The man who once abused a child. All of us, in the same boat. None of us more entitled to stand at the bow than anyone else.
    As the Word penetrates us, some more than others but eventually all who open our minds and hearts, we have a decision to make: for the Word or against it. Even if the Word isn’t well proclaimed. Even if the Word is hidden behind human frailty. Sooner or later, the Word finds us, even if we’ve given up and gone home in despair.
    As I see it, all who allow the Word to penetrate their lives, even if they can’t bring themselves to embrace it in its fullness, are entitled to come forward and stand at the table, breaking bread with — not perfect men and women, but those who, like us, believe in spite of their frailty. Believe because faith is stronger than the foolishness of human institutions. We stand side-by-side with men and women who may think of themselves as sinners, but whom God calls to make all things new again, starting with themselves.
    It takes faith for us to stand and listen to a Word that permeates us even when we hide, even when we hide from the Word because it comes to us through imperfect men and women and a thoroughly imperfect institution.
    There’s a wonderful paragraph at the end of Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, as he imagines himself listening to God speak to his heart.

    “I hear You saying to me:
    “I will give you what you desire. I will lead you into solitude. I will lead you by the way that you cannot possibly understand, because I want it to be the quickest way.
    “Therefore all the things around you will be armed against you, to deny you, to hurt you, to give you pain, and therefore to reduce you to solitude.
    “Because of their enmity, you will soon be left alone. They will cast you out and forsake you and reject you and you will be alone.
    “Everything that touches you shall burn you, and you will draw your hand away in pain, until you have withdrawn yourself from all things. Then you will be all alone.
    “Everything that can be desired will sear you, and brand you with a cautery, and you will fly from it in pain, to be alone. Every created joy will only come to you as pain, and you will die to all joy and be left alone. All the good things that other people love and desire and seek will come to you, but only as murderers to cut you off from the world and its occupations.
    “You will be praised, and it will be like burning at the stake. You will be loved, and it will murder your heart and drive you into the desert.
    “You will have gifts, and they will break you with their burden. You will have pleasures of prayer, and they will sicken you and you will fly from them.
    “And when you have been praised a little and loved a little I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you shall being to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.
    “Do not ask when it will be or where it will be or how it will be: On a mountain or in a prison, in a desert or in a concentration camp or in a hospital or at Gethsemani. It does not matter. So do not ask me, because I am not going to tell you. You will not know until you are in it.
    “But you shall taste the true solitude of my anguish and my poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of my joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end and brought you from Prades to Bermuda to St. Antonin to Oakham to London to Cambridge to Rome to New York to Columbia to Corpus Christi to St. Bonaventure to the Cistercian Abbey of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani:
    “That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

    So, Padre, after a long and circuitous journey, I think we can learn something while this virus has our attention. We can learn, if we want to, that we’re called, not to the God of righteousness, but to the Christ of the burnt men and women. It’s good to remember that every year during Lent.

    Ciao, Padre,


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