COVID, Sunday Mass, and Sins of Omission

COVID, Sunday Mass, and Sins of Omission May 10, 2020

We’ve all been struggling with the COVID pandemic for months now. People are, understandably, restless. It’s far from over but we want it to be over. Parts of the country are beginning to open non-essential services and public spaces back up, either judiciously or too fast.

Some churches have opened already, in a limited capacity. Some churches will open at the end of this month but with certain social distancing restrictions. Here in Steubenville, we just got the word that we’re going to open the churches for daily Masses with strict social distancing on the eighteenth and for Sunday Masses with strict social distancing on Pentecost, but nobody knows exactly how that’s going to work yet.

In the meanwhile, more people than I can enumerate are publicly boasting that they’re going to go to Mass as they always have, restrictions or no, hold hands at the Our Father or hug people at the Kiss of Peace, and receive Holy Communion, perhaps even on the tongue. Indeed, I’ve seen people boasting that they’ve gone to clandestine Masses and received Holy Communion already. And they all use the same excuse: they are not afraid to die for Jesus.

I can understand where the’re coming from. I also hope that I would die for Jesus. I don’t want to presume I would on Holy Thursday night and make a fool of myself on Good Friday morning like dear Saint Peter, but I pray that, if the situation required it, I would lay down my life for the sake of the Gospel and die for Jesus.

There is one thing I won’t do, however: I refuse to kill anybody, thinking I’m doing it for Jesus.

And neither should you, because God forbids killing. We have failed to keep that commandment as a Church in any number of ways over the years, and for that we ought to be truly ashamed, but our failures don’t change the fact that there is a whole commandment in the Decalogue reminding us that killing is not allowed. We as Catholics are not allowed to directly kill people, which is a sin of commission, and we’re not allowed to not care whether we kill somebody by accident when we’re doing just as we please either– a sin of omission. Sins of omission are not trivial things. They’re serious.

Let’s say that one afternoon, you decided you’d like to practice archery in your backyard. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you purposely neglect to set up the target in a responsible place and end up shooting an arrow through the picket fence right into your neighbor’s heel, and your neighbor never again gets to cross the wine-dark sea but dies tragically: you killed your neighbor. You might not have meant to, but you decided to do something potentially lethal anyway and now poor Achilles is dead and it’s your fault.

If,  one sunny Saturday morning, you decide you’d like to go to the park and do some modern dance performance art with sharp katanas for exercise– that’s neat. Maybe I’ll go with you next time. But if, through sheer carelessness, you don’t look around to make sure you’ve got a nice clear space to dance in, you don’t watch what you’re doing, and end up slicing off a nearby sunbather’s head: you killed that person. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t mean to kill them and were just trying to do a dance. You killed them by doing a dangerous thing without taking the necessary care.

If, on the fourth of July, you decide you’d like to surprise your friends with an evening fireworks display: cool! That could be a good deed to bring joy and fun to everybody. But you’d better actually learn about fireworks and scrupulously obey all the safety rules. Otherwise, you’re going to barbecue the people you meant to entertain and that will be your fault.

If, after your fireworks display, you decided to treat us all to a sushi dinner and a nice traditional Japanese Fugu— that sounds yummy. Feeding the hungry is a work of mercy. But you’d better actually know what you’re doing and work very carefully, or we’ll die. If we die, it will be  your sin of omission, failing to be careful and informed when doing a dangerous thing, that killed us.

These examples are deliberately  crass and silly, but they serve to prove a point: it’s a sin of omission to not be careful not to hurt someone when you do a dangerous thing, even if you do the dangerous thing for a good reason. That’s not remarkable. Everybody know that. We begin Mass by confessing that we have sinned through our own fault, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done AND in what we have failed to do. You sin when you fail to look out for your neighbor’s safety.

Now, let’s say you really want to go to Mass. That’s awesome. That’s a holy desire. I want to go too. But let’s say we’re in the middle of a dangerous pandemic that’s already killed eighty thousand people in our country alone– because, we are. Let’s say the pandemic seems to spread most quickly in crowds,  especially crowds where people are singing and touching one another. Well then, you’d better be careful. You had better listen to the advice of competent scientists, and if the scientists seem to disagree, you’d better not just be listening to the ones who say what you want to hear. You have a responsibility to research whether a single scientist alleging that this is all a conspiracy is really who she seems to be or whether she’s a quack. You ought to at minimum obey what your local ordinary is demanding about closing the churches to public worship, but if you have reason to believe they’ve opened the churches too soon, you’re going to have to think for yourself and make a careful choice.

Because, if you’re not careful, you just might end up killing people. Not yourself, perhaps. But you could spread the virus to your parish priest and condemn him to a slow, painful death on a ventilator with nobody to comfort him. You could spread it to the nice old church lady in the mantilla who always sits in the front row, who could unwittingly give it to her pregnant granddaughter before she dies. You could spread it to a child who looks healthy but has a bad case of asthma and the next thing you know, he’s fallen over dead– but not before spreading COVID to his grieving parents who will have to suffer the illness and their grief in isolation for weeks.

It’s not about you. It’s about what you might do to somebody else.

It’s a sin not to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation if you have no excuse. That hasn’t changed. The Liturgy is an indescribably beautiful gift and we should be thankful beyond measure for that grace.  But it’s also a sin to go to Mass if you think you could make your neighbor get sick or die by doing so. No, you can’t be sure of every risk. Nobody can plan for everything. No, you can’t always know exactly how you actions could hurt everyone else. But you can take reasonable precautions– indeed, it’s gravely wrong not to.

I don’t know exactly what those precautions should be, in every region of the country. We’re all going to have to think carefully, and we might not all come to the same conclusions. Some places are taking a huge gamble by opening the churches and some are not. Some churches will be opened with strict, careful rules and sanitizing procedures between liturgies, and that might work fine.

Every bishop I’ve seen who is reopening public Masses in any form this month, is encouraging and basically begging us to be careful. They ask that anyone especially vulnerable to COVID-19, anyone who isn’t feeling well, and anyone who fears for their family’s safety to go ahead and stay home.

Personally, I think at this point that I’m going to take their advice and stay home a little longer.  Not because I’m afraid to die for Jesus, but because I refuse to kill.


Image via Pixabay

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

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