By Deacon Frank Agnoli
To go without the Eucharist is hard, even painful. This is a gut-wrenching Lenten fast. Especially because — for many of us — the threat of COVID-19 seems so unreal, so far away. It isn’t.
This isn’t just a bad flu. But to see how big of a deal it is, we need to change how we look at things. When we think of infections like the flu, we know how to keep ourselves from getting sick or getting those around us sick. Still, each year, millions get sick and thousands die from the flu. But the spread of a new virus is different.
With a new virus, no one is immune. A lot of people will get sick in a short period of time if we do nothing. And even if a small portion of them need to be in a hospital, in an ICU, or even on a ventilator, that will quickly put a stress on our ability to care for all who are sick. If we do nothing, we will quickly need more hospital beds and ventilators than we have. To see the numbers, visit our website: https://www.davenport diocese.org/documents/2020/3/QA031720.pdf.
But we’re talking about more than just a “health care system.” We’re talking about people who are putting their health and even their lives on the line for us. They are already facing issues of shortages of critical supplies, making their work more dangerous. As is already happening elsewhere, we need to be ready for the very real possibility that not everyone will get the care they need if things don’t change.
We need to slow down the pandemic, spreading it out over time so fewer people are sick all at once. And we need to do this now. We do it by what is called “social distancing” — limiting contact with people in terms of distance from one another, the number of people that can be in one place at any given time, and how much time people spend together. We stay home unless absolutely necessary. This is especially important for those who are more likely to get very sick if they catch this virus: those who are older or have other serious medical conditions.
That’s why we’re not celebrating Mass together. That’s why we’re limiting the number of people who can be present for baptisms, weddings and funerals. That’s why we’ve closed schools and faith formation programs. But “social distancing” is not “spiritual distancing.” We are called to care for one another, now more than ever. Part of that caring is being spiritually close to each other. And part of that caring is staying apart from one another.
Lent calls us to be a people of prayer. So, in this time of absence from the celebration of the sacraments as a gathered community, we go into our own inner rooms to pray and read the Scriptures. There are many electronic resources available (see: https://www.davenportdiocese.org/flu). Priests have been encouraged to make themselves available for confessions and the anointing of the sick. And, of course, they have been asked to celebrate Mass for all of us.
Lent calls us to almsgiving. Which means, even in our own anxiety and our own sense of loss, we need to keep in mind those who will suffer greatly in this pandemic. We need to avoid hoarding, make sure everyone has what they need, and support those charities that serve the poor.
Lent calls us to fasting. Yes, this is not the fasting we are used to, but we can embrace it in solidarity with those who are suffering here and around the world, who in this crisis lack even basic necessities. Who are afraid.
This is not the Lent we expected when ashes were smeared on our foreheads. But it is the Lent in which we find ourselves. It is a Lent in which we are being asked to embrace the Cross in a profound way, and to proclaim with our lives that after every Lent comes an Easter.
(Deacon Frank Agnoli is director of liturgy for the Diocese of Davenport.)