The whole world is now quarantined. We’ve given up TV Sports, restaurants, visits with friends, every kind of social event—even Sunday Mass! As one guy said, “I didn’t plan on giving up quite this much for Lent.” You may know that the word “quarantine” comes from the Latin word “forty” (quadraginta), the same word many European languages use for “Lent” (quaresima, cuaresma, le carême, etc). Ships putting in at 14th Century Venice would be sealed off for forty days, until the risk of contagion dissipated. Like it or not, all of us are now living a period of greater simplicity, silence, and poverty. Despite what you hear on commercial and social media, this is not a disaster. It is a blessing, if we manage actually to “shelter in place;” that is, if we keep still, if we maintain our peace, and if we see its deeper meaning. Deeper meanings are always good, because everything God made, and everything God permits, is good in the long run. We call this Divine Providence.
In Germany there is a quarantined seminary of priests and seminarians. “As foreseen, the virus has done its work in our seminary,” the community’s website announced. “All the priests and most of the seminarians are infected. With the powerful aid of faith, hope and charity, we do not let ourselves be torn down. In a few days, the first ones to recover will be able to take the places of the newly infected, so as to maintain the spiritual and material life of the community. Since God only allows evil for the sake of a greater good, we have confidence in the Lord, who alone is able to give meaning to our brief time on this earth.”
Many people are asking their priests if the Corona Virus is a chastisement from God. The answer is yes, in the sense that every affliction, from a stubbed toe to terminal cancer, can help us dive more deeply into the mystery of life’s essential goodness. The great evils in human history—the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet gulags, and the Khmer Rouge killing fields—produced great saints, from Maximilian Kolbe to Walter Ciszek to Francis van Thuan. “I am content with weakness,” wrote St. Paul, “with affliction and with suffering for the sake of Christ, for when I am weak then I am strong.” The Marines say “pain is weakness leaving the body.” The Corona Virus can destroy us, or it can strengthen us, by the grace of God.
Today is Laetare Sunday, so named from the first words of the opening verse: Laetare Ierusalem, gaudete cum Laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: “rejoice Jerusalem, exult with joy, you who were sad.” This verse, from Isaiah 66, was spoken to the inhabitants of Jerusalem when their city had been overtaken by their enemies, shut down, destroyed and burnt. Cast off your sadness, the prophet urges, by looking to God. “Our hearts are restless,” St. Augustine famously said—what better description of the chaos that has gripped the entire world—"until they rest in you.” It is at times like these, when human agencies fail us, that we either trust in God’s providence, or we despair.
In chapter 6, the prophet Hosea urges his people to “return to the Lord.” It is he, surely, who has struck us, but it is he, and he alone, who will heal us. “On the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence.” The heart of the Christian faith is the death of Christ and his resurrection on this “third day.” Your priests will celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but most likely in a locked church, with only a server and camera operator. I urge you to follow these live streamed Masses, but not merely watching them at your desks, with a cup of coffee. You must pray with your priest, even though we are quarantined. Set up your computer in your living room, for all to see. Stand, sit, and kneel at the proper times. Turn off other devices, so that you can surrender to the Holy Sacrifice, especially when you make your spiritual communion as the priest gives Holy Communion to the server and camera person.
“Let us know, let us strive to know the Lord,” the prophet says. Because our “piety is like the morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.” We Catholics, we Christians, are so inconstant in our love for God! Sunday Mass for most Catholics is at the very bottom of our to do list. When life gets a little hard we so easily blame God and stop praying. We check our stock portfolios ten times more than we check our Bibles. We are so quick to gossip and mistreat each other, who are God’s image and likeness. God is permitting this corona virus precisely to chastise, to break open, our hearts, to humble us, to bring us back to Him and to each other.
It is certain that He will “heal” us, even if everyone of us dies in the flesh from this virus. The word “salvation” comes from the Latin word salus, meaning health. Our final health and flourishing is not for this world. God permits death so that we can finally live in perfect joy and peace. It is up to us to either let ourselves be torn down by fear and panic, or to calmly accept this pandemic for what it is: God’s call to deep faith, hope, and charity. We believe in God, we hope in Him, and we love him. And loving him, we become capable of loving others, and loving ourselves. Let us trust Him, and rejoice. A blessed Laetare Sunday to all of you!