Pandemic and Penance

Hello friends,

It’s been awhile. I recently shared on my personal Facebook the tweet from Bishop Strickland of Tyler which stated:

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Following this quote, I expounded upon it stating that:

I believe wholeheartedly that this pandemic is being allowed by God to remind us of our ultimate need for Him; we who have ignored, denied, or turned against Him, or simply taken Him for granted. God loves each of us personally and desires us to know His love and care, even in the midst of the threat of death and illness. Although God does allow suffering as a natural consequence for sin, He hates that it has to happen and suffers with those who are suffering. I have experienced the consolation of God’s love in the midst of suffering time and time again, and cannot imagine going through life without knowing I am infinitely loved and cared for by God the Father. I want this for everyone, but I also know that time is short and we cannot guarantee what tomorrow will bring. If you’ve been asking for a sign, here it is.

This garnered the attention of friends who appeared to experience a more visceral reaction and made their comments known. Statements of “I don’t believe God would be so cruel” and questions of “So… Why now? What line have we crossed? And what about all the other catastrophes that aren’t global? Were those people sinning more than the rest of us? If we do repent, will the virus go away?” As I began to pray and write a response, I realized that my response was going to become bigger than a Facebook post, so I let them know I would be making it into a blog post. I hope this response helps to clarify my position and will encourage reflection and self examination. Here it is:

I believe there is a need here for clarification, as it appears my words are misunderstood. Allow me a moment to provide a more robust theological answer. I am not stating for certain that God is chastising the world through the Coronavirus (although, I think it completely possible as Scripture, Tradition, and history has shown us. It has happened and will happen again). To simply reduce the current crisis to a punishment would, however, be incredibly insufficient, as Bishop Barron recently noted, as God is doing a nearly infinite number of things through this particular moment in time. Nevertheless, while I cannot say with any certainty or authority that this modern day plague is His just punishment, I cannot deny that He has allowed it. As Catholic Christians, we believe that God has an Indicative or Perfect Will and a Permissive Will. Fr. John Bartunek explains this well:

“Here is where the distinction between God’s indicative and permissive will comes in. God did not desire or command (Indicative Will) Adam and Eve to rebel against his plan, but he did permit them to do so (Permissive Will); he gave them a certain degree of freedom that made disobedience to his indicative will (moral evil) possible. Likewise, throughout human history, God does not will evil to happen, but he does permit it.”

To what end? Why does God allow large and small scale sufferings? I cannot reduce the situation specifically and say as many have, for example that this plague is due to the Pachamama incident in Rome. I do know, however, what the Church teaches with regards to evil. St. Augustine makes it clear that evil is permitted solely that a greater good may come from it. God’s Permissive Will is not senseless, nor is God helpless before it (although He is completely respectful of our free will). God sees the scope of every moment and the impact of every action throughout time and space. St. Paul tells us that, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). St. Therese reminds us “Everything is a grace, everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love – difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs – everything, because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift.” They say it is the devil, but I think God is the one in the details, working silently to draw all creation to Himself, in particular His Church.

Now to the question of God’s just punishments. Does God allow plagues and pestilence, epidemics, wars, large scale sufferings of all sorts as a means to awaken our souls of our need for Him? Yes – He can and He has (see Exodus 32:25; Numbers 11:33; 2 Sam 24:15 etc). To deny this fact as a Christian would be to deny the God of Sacred Scripture. Any reading of the Old Testament or the Book of Revelation makes this clear. Even in our own times, as Catholics we know that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared and warned the world to repent or greater calamity would befall them. At Fatima, the world was warned to pray and sacrifice to end the war and bring peace to their country. The world didn’t repent and did not heed the warning to pray the rosary. “The war to end all wars” continued and the death toll rose. Then in 1939 another war, bigger than the first, began. Did God desire these wars? No, but He knew that the trajectory the world was on could only be stopped by serious prayer and penance done by all. There is significant power in prayer that we do not fully grasp. God, however, sees all the details and knows the great impact of sin in the temporal world. We don’t see it with our finite minds, but God who is eternal sees it and knows it’s devastating impact on ourselves and on others.

Sin is like a cancer upon the Mystical Body of Christ. It’s lethal effects have spread to every corner of this mystical body, and I believe the Divine Physician is at this moment in time working to bring healing to that body, but there’s some significant surgery occurring. And yes – surgery tends to be painful. In North America, not one single public Mass is offered. In many dioceses, many are refused the Sacraments unless they are on point of death, and then some priests are denying giving Last Rites for fear of their own potential infection. The collective hunger for the Bread of Eternal Life increases by the day, as the Faithful sit in front of their TVs and watch their priests say Masses (many of them facing the empty pews). Many Traditionalists like myself, breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the amount of Eucharistic sacrilege occurring because of Communion in the Hand has been nearly wiped out across North America. While the sole reason for this Pandemic remains unknown, I believe that God is using this moment to give the Faithful a deeper love and appreciation for the Most Blessed Sacrament. This collective Eucharistic Fast may in fact be a reparation for the sin of sacrilege committed by priests and faithful alike. Our collective indolent approach to the Liturgy and the Sacraments, to the mistreatment of Holy Orders, and the ignorance of the sacredness of our temples is certainly worthy of just punishment or at least a Divine Interdict, and it seems the latter is what we have received.

St. Cyprian of Cathage who was a Bishop during the pandemic of the third century writes, “If the cause of disaster is recognized, there is at once found a remedy for the wound. The Lord has desired His family to be proved; and because a long peace had corrupted the discipline that had been divinely delivered to us, the heavenly rebuke has aroused our faith, which was giving way, and I had almost said slumbering; and although we deserved more for our sins, yet the most merciful Lord has so moderated all things, that all which has happened has rather seemed a trial than a persecution.” (De lapsis, 5)

Did God intend directly to plague the people? He never said so, but we know that He did allow it. St. Cyprian shows here that God brought about a greater good through the pandemic – namely the revival of the faith of the people. He does imply that the sins of the people did incur a “heavenly rebuke”, but that the fruit of this rebuke was a greater faith of the people. I believe this is what is occurring in our own time.

Will prayer and penance end the plague? It certainly has the power to do so. Prayer is extremely powerful. Will God choose to lift this Divine Interdict because of prayer? Maybe. This is why Pope Francis asked for everyone to collectively pray the rosary and why he has asked everyone in the world to pray the Our Father on March 25 at 12pm. If we didn’t believe God could save us by means of prayer, we would not dare ask His assistance. God speaks in 2 Chronicles and says, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14).

Reflecting on the awesome mystery of God does not make for easy sountbites. While God is a God of justice and could be exacting justice, He remains a God of mercy and clemency. He is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”. God can simultaneously allow the world to experience a pandemic, and still remain incredibly close to each of us and pour out His love on us. God does not shut the doors of His Sacred Heart on us, but this does not imply that He does not will our sacrifices, penances, and mortifications.

The question posited of “what have we done” to deserve His just punishments can only be answered with another question, “what haven’t we done?”. I will not go into a laundry list because it is fairly obvious. Reading “the signs of the times”, we know that the world has largely abandoned God and His commandments and it is His right to exact justice or to at least allow the natural consequences of sin to run its course, and as St. Paul tells us that the “wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). I repeat, however, that God’s chastisements are not simply allowed for senseless reasons. When we experience any calamity or suffering, whether personal, ecclesial, national, global, etc, one of the many things God desires to do with it is to help us see our helpless state, turn to Him for protection and salvation and seek with renewed fervor our ultimate end and happiness which is found in Him alone. “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

So what’s a person to do with this long and most likely weak treatise? Currently, the powers that be are encouraging all people during this Coronavirus outbreak to stay home, practice social distancing, wash your hands, and “act like you have it”. I think these principles apply to our current spiritual state.

Stay Home: Remain firmly rooted in God through mental prayer and do not get sucked up into the hype and fear. Stay locked into the Immaculate Heart through the Rosary, and do not stray away from the Church or God and give way to temptations, especially with limited access to the Sacrament of Penance.

Practice Social Distance: Distance yourself from those things and people in your life that cause you great spiritual harm. Now is a great time to analyze whether our relationships are truly helping us. This also includes distancing from those things/habits/addictions which distract us from our primary duties.

Wash Your Dang Hands: Try your very best, more than ever before to keep your baptismal garment clean. Make frequent Examinations of Conscience and pray fervently the Act of Contrition. And seriously, wash your hands.

Act as if you have it: Take ownership of our sinfulness and tepidity and make reparations for those sins by means of prayer, fasting, and other mortification. Amend your life, repent, and follow Christ more ardently than ever before. I believe David gives a great example for us:

In those days: The Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel, from the morning unto the time appointed, and there died of the people from Dan to Bersabee seventy thousand men. And when the Angel of the Lord had stretched out his hand over Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord had pity on the affliction, and said to the Angel that slew the people: It is enough: now hold thy hand. And the Angel of the Lord was by the thrashing-floor of Areuna the Jebusite. And David said to the Lord, when he saw the Angel striking the people: It is I, I am he that have sinned, I have done wickedly: these that are the sheep, what have they done? Let Thy hand, I beseech Thee, be turned against me, and against my father’s house. And the Prophet Gad came to David that day, and said: Go up, and build an altar to the Lord in the thrashing-floor of Areuna the Jebusite. And David went up according to the word of Gad which the Lord had commanded him: and he built there an altar to the Lord, and offered holocausts and peace-offerings: and the Lord became merciful to the land, and the plague was stayed from Israel.
(II Kings 24 : 15– 19; 25)

I do not believe that God is vengefully punishing the world. But, I do believe He is allowing this suffering to occur. It can be scary to think that God who would allow suffering in the world. I posit, however, that it is far more scary to think we have a God who simply allows senseless suffering without a purpose and without bringing good out of it. Whether it be economic or marital hardship, physical or emotional suffering, or plague and pestilence, God can allow these things to bring about greater good, chiefly among those goods is the salvation of souls. This is the mystery of our own redemption and our role in it through redemptive suffering (Col 1:24). There is a great and mysterious value in our suffering. Yet, while we understand the redemptive nature of suffering in union with Christ, we still recognize suffering as an evil; an evil which God permits. Thus the Church, just like the blind beggar in Luke’s Gospel, cries out to our Blessed Lord, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”.  The Church cries out to her Divine Spouse, begging Him, who has power over all things, to save us and those who suffer. The Church created a Votive Mass for the Deliverance From Death in Time of Pestilence (only to be removed by the Conciliar Reformers in the 60s, who thought it no longer necessary as plagues do not happen anymore, yet here we are in the midst of a modern day plague). In the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite or Traditional Latin Mass, we still offer this Votive Mass, and many priests are currently offering it daily to pray for an end to this scourge. The sentiments held within the prayers and readings of that Mass are what have greatly informed my reflections and response. I simply wish to end this treatise with the Collect prayer that the Church has prayed in this particular Mass for centuries:

“O God, who willest not the death of the sinner but that he should repent: welcome
with pardon Thy people’s return to Thee: and so long as they are faithful in Thy service, do  Thou in Thy clemency withdraw the scourge  of Thy wrath. Through our Lord Jesus
Christ, Thy Son…”

In closing, I repeat the words of St. Teresa of Jesus, that in this work:

I submit to what our Mother the Holy Roman Church holds. If there should be anything contrary to that, it will be due to my not understanding the matter. And so I beg the learned men who will see this work to look it over carefully and to correct any mistake there may be as to what the Church holds, as well as any other mistakes in other matters. If there should be anything good in this work, may it be for the honor and glory of God and the service of His most Blessed Mother, our Lady and Patroness, whose habit I wear despite my being very unworthy to do so.

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