From our Coordinator of Sacramental Preparation, Angel Koerkel…
What a strange time we are living in today. As I write this article on 3/12/20, my two college-age children are back home, computers at the ready for their classes to (hopefully) resume in an online format, not knowing what to expect about when they will be able to return to their campus housing, classrooms, and normal routines. Meanwhile, our local communities have been thrown into the surreal experience of troubled silence as event after event is cancelled; while at the same time there’s frenzied activity in stores as people stock up on whatever remains on the shelves. At our parish and parishes all around the diocese, indeed around the country and world, our priests attempt to minister to a variety of people. Some feel that this has all been blown out of proportion, and why can’t we shake/hold hands? Why can’t we offer the Chalice? Others think that we should remove all the Pew Missals so no one “accidentally” picks one up after someone else has touched it. It may be shocking to us, but our priests are not trained in the seminary on how to handle a pandemic disease moving through the world’s population. There’s no secret homiletics series that teaches them what to say at a time like this. There’s nothing in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal on how to offer the Mass during times of plague (aka: coronavirus pandemic). This is largely uncharted territory for us all. Or is it?
At the time of Jesus, leprosy was the great social distancer. The disease was believed to be very contagious and caused someone infected with it to be ritually unclean, meaning they couldn’t go to the Temple to worship. Not only could they not go to the Temple, but someone with leprosy could not be part of the community at all. They had to live apart, in a separate area, and if they came into the town for any reason they had to be covered and announce themselves as they moved around the streets so that no one would accidentally touch them. It was a lonely and disheartening life: unwanted by their community, unwelcome in their place of worship, unable to be close to their families. In other words, they were placed in quarantine, but not just for a few weeks. This was for the rest of their lives most of the time. In chapter 8 of the Gospel of Matthew we hear of the healing of a leper by Jesus. The man boldly approaches our Lord and kneels before Him and then invites Jesus to heal him if He wants to. Jesus does heal the man who then is sent on his way to rejoin his community.
Today, we have chosen to practice social distancing in order to slow the spread of a serious virus. There are entire countries “shut down” now; no doubt there will be more by the time this article is printed. We close ourselves off, retreat into our bubbles, cover ourselves in layers of sanitizers, all in an attempt to remain healthy. Am I suggesting we should ignore the common sense measures we can take to prevent sickness? Of course not. What I’m wondering about is our spiritual health. Are we, like so many lepers of ancient times, content in the belief that we deserve to feel this way? Is there bubble wrap around my heart? Am I closed off, covered in spiritual sanitizer? Or, do we, like the man in Matthew 8, approach the Lord in humility and invite Him to heal our diseased souls? I propose that the greater pandemic is not coronavirus or leprosy but separation from God. This separation has nothing to do with the temporary removal of the Chalice (remember, the full Body, Blood, Soul, & Divinity of Christ is in the consecrated Host) or sign of peace but has everything to do with my distancing my soul from Him, Him whom I should love above all things.
I invite you to invite Him in to heal you. The sacrament of Reconciliation is where we place ourselves at His feet, as the leper did, and reveal all of our scars to His face. He is there, waiting for us; we just have to go to Him. He is waiting for us to invite Him to heal our pasts, our hearts, our scars. If you haven’t been to Confession in a while, I get it. I was away from the Church for about 15 years. I don’t know exactly how long I went between Confessions, but it was at least that long, probably a few years more. If that’s you, it’s okay! You have lots of options for how to invite Him to heal you through the sacrament; everything from regional penance services to “regular” hours. Don’t know what to do? That’s okay, too. There are cheat cards in the confessional with the process and prayers on them and if you simply let the priest know that it’s been a long time, I absolutely promise that he will lovingly, joyfully walk you through it.
It’s been said that the phrase “Be not afraid” or some variation of it occurs in the Bible 365 times, once for every day of the year. I don’t know if that’s true, I’ve never counted, but even if it’s not, I like it. It’s a great reminder to me that God has spoken to my heart every single day and said to trust Him. He has said to give Him all my wounds, anxieties, and diseases. Every single day. He wants to heal me, if only I ask Him to, maybe not of the virus du jour (although possibly), but of the plagues that really matter, the ones that keep me apart from Him. So, be not afraid and go to Him in the confessional. Let Him love you. That’s all He really wants.
If you’re still worried about the virus, try going in prayer to these great saints that battled plagues in their times: St. Godeberta of Noyon (c.700); St. Roch (early 14th cent); St. Charles Borromeo (16th cent); St. Henry Morse (early 17th cent); St. Virginia Bracelli (early 17th cent); Bl Peter Donders (19th cent); St. Jose Brochero (1840-1914); St. Marianne Cope (1838-1918); and, of course, St. Damien of Molokai (1840-1889), also known as the leper priest for his work at the leper colony on the Hawaiian Kalaupapa Peninsula.