Love and Reverence in the Time of COVID-19

Love and Reverence in the Time of COVID-19 March 9, 2020

Last week I said that for all I knew, COVID-19 would just go away. I said that wasn’t likely, and I was right: it hasn’t gone away. It’s become so serious that public Masses in the diocese of Rome have been canceled for the next few weeks. Here in America, the cases and the death toll are piling up. The stock market is crashing. People are scared.

Dioceses and churches all over the country are reminding people that not only is your Sunday obligation waived if you’ve got cold or flu symptoms, but it’s actually an act of charity NOT to go to Mass until you get better. They’ve canceled the Kiss of Peace before Holy Communion, they’re distributing Communion under only one species, and they’ve asked people to refrain from receiving Communion on the tongue. Neither tongues nor hands are perfectly sanitary, but COVID-19 is spread more easily through saliva, apparently.

I don’t like that, personally. It makes receiving Holy Communion more difficult for me as a person with a very bad gluten sensitivity. I’m grateful that the parish I’m attending still has a celiac chalice at Sunday Masses or I don’t know what I’d do. I sincerely hope that, as more and more parishes start not having chalices available for the congregation, they keep consecrated low-gluten Hosts in the tabernacle in a separate pyx. These are widely available and licit for Catholic Mass; they’re made by nuns and everything. There’s no reason for parishes not to have a few of them on hand.

And I also empathize with people who don’t like this arrangement for Holy Communion even if they don’t have a gluten sensitivity. When I’m in a church that has low-gluten Hosts, I always prefer to receive Holy Communion on the tongue. It feels more reverent to me that way, and I have fewer scruples about accidentally dropping a crumb. So I can understand why people are upset.

But I have seen Catholic talking heads all over Twitter and Facebook weighing in on this, telling people that Communion in the Hand is irreverent and you ought to refrain from receiving Communion at all if you can’t stick your tongue out. It’s Communion on the tongue or nothing, for fear of being impious, even if your priest asks you not to so that you won’t make anyone sick by accident. And this is ridiculous. It’s placing your own preferred show of piety over what our bishops and pastors have said is perfectly fine. It’s making your personal aesthetic preferences more important than Christ Himself who loves you and wants to be with you when you go to Mass.

Meanwhile, people are hoarding supplies in case things go from bad to worse and we all have to stay in quarantine for two weeks.

I touched on this a bit last week, but it’s awfully cruel to tell someone who lives paycheck to paycheck to just stay home for two weeks. It’s useless to tell most of the people I know to stock up on all the groceries they’ll need that far in advance, to say nothing of prescriptions and every single household hygiene and cleaning product. People who live paycheck to paycheck shop week to week. People who can’t afford to even live paycheck to paycheck, shop more frequently because they have to. That’s one of the ways in which being poor is more expensive than being rich: it’s often much more economical to buy things in bulk less frequently, but if you only have a few dollars, you’re going to buy the smallest package and go back to the store again in a couple of days.

Still, those that have the wherewithal are stocking up. In fact, they’re hoarding. They’re taking far more than they need.

A friend of mine works for a charity that gives out gift cards so that poor people can run to the store and get a week’s groceries. She lives in a big city where people have a lot more reason to panic than they do out here in the boondocks where I live. And when her clients take their gift cards to the grocery store, they’re finding the shelves picked clean.

People are hoarding bottled water and toilet paper, for some reason. Toilet paper doesn’t kill germs and tap water isn’t how COVID-19 is spread, but that’s what they’re hoarding. They’re also apparently hoarding face masks, even though just walking around in a mask all day hasn’t been demonstrated to cut down on your risk at all, so people who actually need masks have to ration them.

And then there’s the run on hand sanitizer. This one baffles me because the CDC is saying that the best way to protect yourself is with plain old soap and water. All coronaviruses, including COVID-19, are encased in a thin layer of fat on the outside, so the chemicals that make soap soapy are what break up the layer and kill the virus. Scrub for about twenty seconds and don’t forget to wash your fingertips and wrists while you do. There are charts about the proper hand-washing technique, and following what they say is probably a lot more helpful than just standing there with water running all over your hands counting “One Mississippi two Mississippi” or singing “Happy Birthday.” But certain people have apparently decided that “scrub carefully with soap and water” means “go to the store and buy every bottle of hand sanitizer and canister of sanitizing wipes they have left.” I’ve heard from medical professionals who are very concerned, because they have patients at home with medical conditions and special equipment who actually do need to maintain a sterile environment, and they’re having trouble finding the Clorox wipes and other supplies they rely on. They can’t even get them delivered online anymore.

There’s no way the people hoarding Lysol and hand sanitizer could go through everything they’ve bought.

I can’t imagine what they’re planning to do with it.

Well, I’m afraid I can imagine a little. I hope they’re not planning to sell it to desperate people at a jacked up price.

And I hope to God that the people declining to receive Communion in the hand because it isn’t pious enough, aren’t the ones sitting at home on top of a pile of hand sanitizer and toilet paper and thinking it doesn’t matter. I hope those two circles on the Venn diagram don’t overlap at all, but I don’t suppose that’s the case.

Let me assure you, this matters.

Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, and you ought to be as reverent as you possibly can when you encounter Him there. Right now, at least in the Latin Rite, our bishops and pastors are saying that the most reverent way is to make a throne for your right hand with your left instead of receiving on the tongue, so you ought to have the humility to do as you’re told. But Christ is also present in your neighbor: your poor neighbor who can only afford to run to the store when they get paid every week, your chronically ill neighbor who actually needs sanitizing wipes, your neighbor who doesn’t have access to clean tap water and has to buy jugs of distilled. Christ is truly present in the person you’re depriving if you panic in the face of an epidemic and forget to watch out for your neighbor.

If you go to the grocery store on Saturday and stock your house up with far more water, toilet paper and Lysol wipes than you’ll ever need, leaving nothing at all for your neighbor, and then hold out those hands for the Eucharist on Sunday– maybe your hands aren’t as clean as you think. If your tongue has been saying “screw them, I’ve got mine,” or if it’s been neglecting to ask the other people in your community how you can help them, and then you stick it out for Holy Communion, you’re not being reverent.

Remember, we sin in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do. Sins of omission are sins. They can be grave sins. If you have the means to give somebody help but don’t do it because you’re afraid there won’t be enough for you, that’s a sin. If you withhold help from someone because, God forbid, you’re planning on profiting off of them later, that’s even worse. I hope you go to confession before you hold out your hand or stick out your tongue for Holy Communion, and when you get home from Mass I hope you drastically amend your life.

You might start by taking a case of that hand sanitizer you bought to your nearest homeless shelter or Catholic Worker house and giving it away, because the people worst hit by this are going to be people who don’t have safe housing to self-quarantine in, nor clean water to wash their hands with. Places with large populations of homeless people have already been seeing resurgences of Medieval-style plagues like leprosy in the past few years; they’re also the most vulnerable to COVID-19. And since they can’t get to a sink and wash their hands as often as you can at home, they’re the ones the hand sanitizer could do the most good. You have a sink and a brick of Ivory to keep the germs away, and they don’t. They’re in danger. They need your help.

We, as Catholics, are obligated to help our neighbors. That’s as serious an obligation as Sunday Mass. You’re not allowed to just look out for yourself and ignore or use the people who need your help.

You’re profaning the same Christ Who is present in the Eucharist if you do.

(image via Pixabay) 


Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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