By Charlie Johnston
“And so we go on, into the storm, through the storm”
-close of Winston Churchill’s radio address after the fall of Singapore
Some of my friends have taken me to task for not taking the Wuhan Virus more seriously. More have thanked me for not succumbing to the panic. I had a doctor friend tell me he is not terribly concerned about it, but he isn’t telling his patients that. I asked why and he replied that, if it does beat the odds and turns into a genuine pandemic and he had been dismissive of it, he will be regarded as callously indifferent. There is no upside in that. On the other hand, if it continues to be far less dangerous than an ordinary flu, he will merely be seen as prudently cautious – and there is no downside in that.
I know it is reported that it is a strain that humans have not previously encountered (though we routinely encounter coronaviruses). That sounds scary, until you find out that strains humans have never previously encountered pop up pretty regularly. The flu is a mutating virus, which is why we are never quite rid of it. I have seen no evidence, as yet. that the infection rate is substantially greater than the common cold. Even the most generous mortality rates say it is MUCH less dangerous than MERS, Ebola, or Sars. More sober reports have it in line with the mortality rates of a normal flu. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this one has been the cause of such raw panic. My best guess is that it actually was originally a Chinese-developed bioweapon that was (to them) disappointingly weak – and they simultaneously tried to cover it up and over-reacted when it got loose, causing the rest of the world to panic and the idiot media to see an opportunity to make this into “Trump’s Katrina.”
I certainly have had people whose judgment I value give me detailed reasons why they believe this to be particularly dangerous. On the other hand, after my panic over the Hong Kong flu when I was 13, I have been careful to read the literature, research and raw data on each potential pandemic (including the fears over Y2K two decades ago). The details I get from my trusted associates seem like variants on all the sincere details on why the previous pandemics were likely to be the big one. My guess on this one is that, in the end, it will turn out to be the weakest of all the potential pandemics touted in my lifetime.
While the physical consequences of the Wuhan Virus seem, so far, to be rather subdued, the economic consequences have been enormous. As I write this, the stock market is going through another huge tumble – after several weeks of the same. Many of our foreign supply chains are drying up, which means we will have to manufacture more here and find new foreign sources for our needs – and perhaps rethink the wisdom of being heavily dependent on any single foreign source for vital supplies. While that is creating a lot of short-term pain, I think the end result will be like pruning a fruit tree, paving the way for dramatic new and increased growth.
I have a dirty, little secret concerning the coronavirus. I am not vested at all in being proved right about it. The secret is that, at bottom, I really don’t care whether it turns into one of the very rare real pandemics or whether it passes on like so much smoke in a windstorm. I have been saying for some time that we have huge challenges ahead of us in the temporal realm – things that reflect the much larger disorders that have erupted in the spiritual realm. If it is to become a great pandemic, then it becomes an opening shot in the challenges I have been insisting all along we must face. If it passes away as just another iteration of the flu, we still have huge challenges ahead of us, many much bigger than what we are in a panic over right now. I just am not focused on what will be the catalyst for the larger crises; my focus is on how we must act when it inevitably comes.
Actually, I am kind of glad there has been such a panic. It is a gift from God, I think – allowing us a sort of dress rehearsal to develop a real assessment of how prepared we are to go forth and proclaim His Kingdom. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, some of our surviving ships made a series of naval sorties out to strategic islands in the western Pacific Ocean. All discovered that they were woefully ill-prepared for actual combat, even with the proper tools at hand. It was their minds and hearts that were not yet quite right. Thankfully, American hubris typically does not morph into impotent sulking after failure, but is transformed into American resolve to do whatever it takes to become competent. This little scare has revealed a lot of daylight between our profession of who we are as Christians and what we actually are. Time to do a little assessment.
I have never thought that the Storm that has been gathering around us could be avoided – and have never suggested that things written here would be helpful in stopping the Storm. Rather, I sought to encourage people in the habits of mind and action that would mitigate the worst effects of the crisis and help us all soldier through to a renewal of the values and virtues that sustain and nurture healthy families and societies. I have been gratified that many have girded their loins and resolved to confront whatever crosses might come their way in order to gain a bountiful harvest for the Lord. I am a little disappointed that in this dress rehearsal, so many committed Christians have panicked like Peter before the cock crowed, at the mere hint that there might actually be a real cross involved. Spoiler alert: before all is said and done, there will be. But Peter ultimately used his panicked failure as a launching pad for his later steely resolve and fidelity, even unto death. So, I have high hopes despite some disappointment.
The foundational rule by which we approach the world here is expressed simply in the maxim, Acknowledge God, Take the Next Right Step, and Be a Sign of Hope to Those Around You. Let us use this to assess how we have approached the Wujan Virus.
To Acknowledge God is to recognize that He is the Author of History and the Master of all storms. Our hope is in Him – and not ourselves. We know that when we truly serve Him and His people, all things that happen to us, whether they seem good or ill from a temporal perspective, He uses for our good. Thus, we can approach all trials with a serene confidence that God will draw great fruit from them, both for our good and for that of others, when we hold fast to our confidence in Him. This does not mean that we will not suffer and, perhaps, even physically die. Many of the early Apostles, including Sts. Peter and Paul, were killed for their faith. All men die. But HOW they live and die determine whether they are just meaningless fodder for the murderous appetites of barbaric hordes or whether they become (ahem) viral carriers of the hope that is in Christ. We do not know whether the centurion at the foot of the Cross knew anything about how Jesus lived. But he was witness to how the Master died – and that was sufficient for him to exclaim, in stunned wonder, that “surely this was the Son of God.” If your life were to be suddenly forfeit, would your behavior cause any of those who were witness to it confess that, “surely this was a friend of God!”? Does the way you live reveal to those around you the imprint of the living Christ in you and bear effective witness to Him? These are things that must concern us. God has a place in heaven prepared for you. Do not worry so much about those things that can only kill the body. Rather, zealously protect your place in heaven. You do that by living steadfast resolve in the service of God by living stalwartly in the service of His people. Your one goal is to bring Him a bountiful harvest. That is how we acknowledge God.
Recognizing that God does not interfere with our free will, we are called to be His hands and feet on earth. That leads us to endeavor to Take the Next Right Step. This is complicated because of our frailty. Our limited capacity to reason rightly causes us often, with the best intentions, to take the wrong step. Even so, we are called to take the initiative anyway, trusting to God to correct our many errors. Because of original sin, we are weak and will often stumble along our way. It has been well said that the most authentic mark of a Christian is not that he does not fall, but how relentless he is in getting up and starting anew. Thus, even knowing that we will often fail – both with good intentions and of our own fault, God demands that we press forward anyway, to use all our mind, heart and spirit to do the most right thing we can think of in each situation. I think the most important quality to develop is that of acknowledging it candidly and immediately when we see we have been wrong, abandoning the wrong step we took, and getting back on our path under God with humility. If we do that, always acknowledging Him, He will use those periods of error to give us deep guidance and draw great fruit even from those errors. Ah, but how we must prune ourselves! We love to justify our errors and tell ourselves it was no error at all. How many times have you called your own cowardice, prudence? And how many times have you called your malicious willfulness, courage? With each self-justification, we wound a piece of our soul, while the opportunistic demons egg and cheer us on – to our own destruction. Yet we must make each decision with confidence, abandon each error with humility, all while knowing we cannot quit the field, even when we are not certain what the most right thing actually is. No burying our talent in a field for us.
When I am not certain what the best and truest path is in a situation, I pray in this manner: “Lord, you know I love you. I am not certain what is the most right step here, but I am going to take this action, praying that if it is the wrong step, You will show me and help me to correct course to what is pleasing to You.” Then I act with confidence, knowing that even with uncertainty, no one answers the call of the uncertain trumpet. I leave it to God to correct me, and to my own reliance on Him to fully renounce error as soon as I understand it to be so. Surprisingly, perhaps, I credit the credibility so many attribute to me because I act boldly – and then renounce any error with equally bold candor. Most of my fellows know that I cannot be pressured into changing my course, but will change course quickly if one shows me truly that I have erred.
Take counsel. I have the good fortune to have more than a few people around me who both honor me AND are gutsy enough to correct me candidly when they think I have acted wrongly. I am fortunate, too, that both the Priests and the Bishops who have directed me have taken their task seriously. If I think they are wrong, I will argue with them – and have, at times, persuaded them to rethink a directive. In the end, though, I always obey the lawful authority that is set over me when it is lawfully exercised. My first spiritual director worried briefly that I was too quick to obey. I told him that I knew very well that, in Christianity, obedience is not a matter of the subjection of the lesser to the greater: if it were so, how would it have been possible for Jesus to have been obedient to His parents after the temple? Rather, in the faith, obedience is a means of opening channels of grace. The director has the responsibility to take his duty seriously and give carefully considered direction while the pilgrim under his direction is called to obey his lawful direction. If error on either side is made, nothing is lost in God’s economy. We can revisit the subject later, with even greater confidence and affection for each other because of our honest effort to live our respective duties well. Always, before visiting one in authority over me, I pray intensely that our visit be an encounter with the living Christ for both of us. Thankfully, that has almost always been the case. During a conversation once, one of my director Priests told me, with amusement, that he was never quite sure who was directing who when we met, but that ours were among the most fruitful visits he had with anyone. It was a great compliment to us both – and reflected the deep affection and regard we had come to hold each other in BECAUSE of our commitment to God, our duty to each other, and our open-heartedness. Take counsel and cherish it, praying that it become an encounter with the living Christ for all involved.
Many completely invert how we are called to relate to our fellows. We are called to be rigorous with ourselves and charitable to others, not vice versa. We are to act with prudence, charity and rigor, understanding at each moment that our judgment in all things save revealed truth may be erroneous – never changing course out of fear or anger, nor failing to change course out of pride when error is revealed.
We are called to act to build each other up, to comfort those who are fearful, to boldly proclaim the Kingdom with power, conviction and clarity that inspires those around us to new hope and new resolve. This is how we become a Sign of Hope to those around us. You cannot convince people that the Lord loves them with your face contorted in rage. You cannot convince people that the Lord is Master of the Storm while panicking, yourself, or tearfully cowering in fear. I speak not just of the extraordinary measures of going forth to strangers, but of the effect you have on your own circle of family and friends. Have you added to their panic or have you been a bridge over troubled waters for those around you, a safe haven for them?
To be either a doomsayer (“we’re all gonna die”) or a Pollyanna, ignoring prudent precaution, is to forfeit credibility and, thus, the ability to comfort those around you. Do you lash out in anger at what you consider the mistakes of others while neglecting your own duty before God? Do you recall others to their duty before God as you also live yours faithfully?
I have been disappointed to hear some outraged at reasonable precautions that some Bishops and Priests have temporarily adopted, such as restricting communion to the hand, allowing it only under the species of the bread, and removing holy water. I, personally, do not agree with these steps, but they are not unreasonable – and may even comfort the more timid among the flock. So long as they are temporary until the panic passes, I accept the decision of those charged with making such decisions as a disciplinary matter. I know that, until 1890, people only received Communion at all a handful of times a year. That was when the Decree Quaemadmodum was issued by the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars for all religious institutions. In 1905 Pope Pius X promulgated it for the laity with his decree, Sacra Tridentina. Before that, at most Masses, the laity participated in worship and spiritual desire, but not actually in reception of the Eucharist. While lay members of the early Church usually received as often as the Mass was said, by the middle of the first millennium, reception by any but the Priests was rare, so rare that the Fourth Lateran Council had to decree that the faithful receive at least once a year. So it remained until 1905. It sometimes amuses me that those who think all things traditional are superior never seem to clamor for the return of this restriction of Eucharistic communion. But most traditionalists are only hearkening back to what they remember from their own childhood or heard from their parents, without reference to or much knowledge of the actual 2,000-year history of the Church. Thanks be to God that, two years prior to his formal proclamation, Pope Pius X prayed publicly that frequent, even daily reception, would be encouraged by the clergy and adopted by the laity. He would be astonished, though, to know that some would object strenuously to minor restrictions during times of panic or emergency. On this matter, if you want to appeal to the tradition of the Church, at least a millennium and a half refute you.
On the other hand, I am absolutely horrified that the Italian Bishops Conference (NOT the Vatican) has eliminated all Masses and public religious observances until after the panic (or crisis) is past – and this during Lent, no less, when our resolve and trust should be increased. Times of crisis are when the Church must act most boldly to minister to the flock entrusted to her by Christ – and whether it is a mere panic or a real emergency, either constitutes a crisis in confidence. That is when the Church must step into the breach. My stars, I tremble at the very thought of standing before Christ as a cleric and telling Him that when danger reared its ugly head I protected my sinecure and my own hide. How can you imagine Him saying anything other than, “Depart from Me – I never knew you.” To suspend the Mass altogether is a betrayal of Christ and an abandonment of His people. May God have mercy on the souls of those poor simpering cowards who betray their sacred vow to Him.
Early last week, I was chatting with a Priest in some authority. Though he is heartened by how many conversions he is personally seeing, he is disheartened by the indifference and cowardice of so many in the clergy. He observed that, during the plague years of the middle ages, it was largely the Catholic clergy and religious who ministered to and cared for the sick and dying as public officials were paralyzed by panic and fear. “I don’t think that is going to be the case this time unless a lot of my brother Priests turn back to God,” he added.
After His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was disappointed to find the Apostles fast asleep. “Could you not watch one hour with me?” He asked them. Yet His initial irritation seemed to turn to affectionate confidence that, when their time came, the disciples would rise to the occasion. I do not think we Christians have responded well as servants of Our Lord as this potential pandemic has unfolded. But if we adopt an examination of conscience based on the dictum to acknowledge God, take the next right step, and be a sign of hope, I am confident that we, too, will rise to the occasion as the storm around us rises to greater fury. Christ is the light of the world – and He has entrusted that light to those of us who will deny ourselves and bring it to a battered, bleeding world on His behalf.
When you are tempted to fear, to panic, to unwonted anger remember that Jesus is there beside you, asking placidly, “Do you love me more than these?” The answer you give by your actions determines whether you are fit for the Master’s service.
Contrary to modern popular imagination, serious Christianity is NOT for wimps.