By James Powers
I’ve been in kind of a bad mood lately. I expect you’ve been in kind of a bad mood as well, and for a lot of the same reasons. We’re all in this weird limbo where everything has turned upside-down, and yet the concrete result of all this upheaval is really anticlimactic. It has most of us staying at home, watching Netflix and spamming TikTok, venturing outside only for occasional groceries or absolutely necessary trips to the office.
A whole lot of crazy is happening, and yet at the same time… it feels like not much of anything is happening. We’re all just stuck indoors, getting a massive collective case of cabin fever, simultaneously blessing social media for allowing us to stay connected to the outside world, and cursing it for constantly, insistently, almost hysterically reminding us of this abstract threat of “pandemic.”
At least that’s been my perspective. Neither I nor anyone close to me (as far as I know) has come down with the much-ballyhooed COVID-19, thankfully – yet that stupid little bug has nonetheless managed to throw my life and that of everyone I know into a tailspin. My job has evaporated as a result of sweeping lockdowns in Los Angeles. Through a weird twist of fate that found me in my Washington state hometown (supposedly for a quick visit – lol) when similar lockdowns ramped up across the nation, I’m now living at my parents’ place for the foreseeable future. Next week I’ll still have to pay rent on my apartment back in LA, though I really have no idea when I’ll be living there again, or when I’ll have a paycheck with which to afford the place. Will my job still exist when all this is over? When will “this” even be over, anyway? Is this the beginning of the end of society as we know it, or just a temporary hiccup in the status quo?
Chances are good that your situation is just as bizarre as mine, if not more so. It may well be more frightening (though I pray that not be the case) if you or your loved ones have come in contact with the microscopic gremlin known as coronavirus – or, more accurately, SARS-CoV-2. In any case, we’re all sharing a sense of overwhelm at how quickly our governments, workplaces and communities have immobilized in an attempt to stop this thing. The whole thing feels so sudden and disproportionate that I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a vast conspiracy by Netflix and DoorDash to make us more dependent on their services (disclaimer – I don’t actually believe that… at least I don’t think I do).
But we Catholics find ourselves rattled by all this on an entirely different level, as many of our parishes have closed their doors, causing unprecedented disruption in our spiritual and sacramental lives. The weekly – and for some, daily – rhythm of participation in the Mass has come to a screeching halt, along with most all other facets of parish life. Youth group, music ministry, catechesis, prayer groups – blammo. Gone, or at least relegated to a digital half-life via Zoom and Google Hangouts.
Even if we intellectually understand the reasons for these measures, for many it still feels like betrayal, abandonment. The Mass in particular is supposed to be this immovable fixture in our lives, an eternal thing; and now it has seemingly disappeared. In terms of sacramental theology, that of course isn’t accurate – the Mass is still celebrated in private by our priests, and we can still participate in it to some extent through prayer, acts of spiritual communion, and even live streams of those smaller private Masses. Nonetheless, some Catholics do in fact see this as betrayal, decrying the bishops and priests who have ordered lockdowns, accusing them of caving to a kind of worldly logic that favors physical health over spiritual nourishment.
I personally disagree with that reasoning – our clerical leaders aren’t expert epidemiologists, so if they decide to err on the side of caution along with everyone else in response to the possibility of disastrous plague, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But that doesn’t make it any less painful to drive past my parish and see signs outside the door broadcasting that public Masses and Confessions (both of which I need more of right now) are suspended until further notice.
When the Archdiocese of Seattle shut down all public Masses about a week and a half ago, a good friend of mine who is a new priest there addressed his parishioners in a way that really struck me. Along with reminding them to persevere in prayer, and encouraging them to at least partially participate in the liturgy via livestream, he pointed out that we now find ourselves in a situation that has been all too familiar to many Christians throughout history. For those in certain missionary territories, or areas in which the faith is persecuted, going without the Sacraments for long periods was – and in some cases still is – just a way of life.
Whether due to a shortage of priests, or an inability to gather for the Mass without violent repercussions, or a combination thereof, millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have had to persevere in the faith without the key things that visibly and tangibly reinforce it. Of course, experiencing that for ourselves still stings, in particular because our faith is so deeply sacramental – it’s localized, sensory, tied to specific people and places and objects. Our life in the Church is suddenly enervated without those physical things to strengthen it, much as our material life is by the loss of a paycheck.
But as jarring as this experience is for contemporary, first-world Catholics… is it really that new? Is it just me, or is this actually the latest in a long string of hits that the Church has been taking for decades now? Despite all the optimism and hope suffusing the rhetoric around Vatican II, or the New Evangelization, or various neo-traditional movements, certain hard facts remain. Millennials and Gen-Z are notoriously atheistic or at least agnostic; religious and clerical vocations continue to dwindle; parishes dissolve for want of personnel or finances or both; and we’re repeatedly beat over the head with news of moral rot within the Church’s leadership.
Myself, I frequently worry that this latest crisis might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back – for my own faith if not the Church as a whole. But as often as I have that worry, I also remember the words of Pope Benedict XVI (or Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger at the time) in a 1969 radio broadcast to the German faithful. Although he was speaking in reference to the turbulence following Vatican II, he could just as well have been addressing the current situation.
In short Ratzinger reminds us that, although our collective faith has been under attack on various fronts, those attacks can be just as purifying as any other trial. If we believe that God permits evils so that greater good can come of them (and we do believe that), then why should these evils – scandal amid the clergy, theological confusion, suspension of Masses – be any different? “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much,” Benedict says. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning… But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.”
I think it’s very possible that, when churches around the world reopen their doors, the congregations in them will be noticeably smaller. Those for whom the Mass was more or less an arbitrary habit may not come back after having been away for a while. And make no mistake, that would be a tragedy. But perhaps the people in those smaller congregations will be better able to look at themselves, and at one another, and see more clearly the importance of the mission that God has for them specifically. After all, it’s hard to just be a face in the crowd when there’s no longer a crowd.
Regardless of what happens after the lockdowns and quarantines are lifted, I think we would do well to lean into this sense of powerlessness rather than struggling and raging against it. After all, it might be here for a long time. St. Paul gets to the core of it when he shares Christ’s words to him in his second letter to the Corinthians – “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And so, Paul concludes, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I don’t know about you, but being unemployed and stuck in my house, with no idea how long I’ll be in that situation, sure feels like a “weakness” and a “constraint.” And yes, I’m cranky as a result – worried, frustrated, confused, stir-crazy, the whole bit. But as long as there is literally nothing I can do about it… perhaps there’s something God is doing about it. Perhaps he is up to something, in our collective weakness, that we can’t begin to guess. Actually, there’s no “perhaps” about it – he’s definitely up to something.
So for now, in the interest of getting out of his way, I think I’ll just… sit for a while. Sit and pray. And maybe chip away at my Netflix watchlist, do some writing, work out in the garage. And pray some more. And then, hopefully, be ready for whatever comes next. It may well be scary, or it may not be much of anything, but either way, I have to believe that his power is made perfect in my weakness.
About the Author
James Powers is a writer for the Impacting Culture Blog and an alumnus of JPCatholic’s MBA in Film Producing (’19).
For all articles by James, click here.