We are in the midst of a world-changing pandemic, and many of our actions right now are governed by fear, for good reason.
On some level, each of us fears the painful death that can result from being infected by this virus. There are many people currently lying in crowded hospital wards, suffocating, alone except for masked nurses and doctors rushing around them. It’s easy, from the comfort of our enforced seclusion, to imagine that we would be brave in such a situation, but it is wise to be humble when facing the fear of death. The late Cardinal Martini, in a book written shortly before his own death, titled I Believe in Eternal Life, remarked:
The fear of death is an existential, brutal and in some sense irremovable fact; it guarantees life because it mobilises the instinct for self-conservation, of resistance, of vital aggressiveness.
You cannot fight the fear of death with reason because it escapes reason; it is invincible.
Reason by itself is helpless against the fear of death, and even those with strong faith must recognize its power. Jesus Himself felt this fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is worth noting that the cause of death for those dying of COVID-19 is similar to what is often put forward as the likely cause of Jesus’ death: an agonizing asphyxiation leading to organ failure. As death approaches, this asphyxiation undoubtedly causes states of instinctual panic and desperation about which little can be done; it is a type of crucifixion. The thought of dying this way alone, without being able to feel even the comforting touch of one’s spouse, child, or parent, is humanly terrifying.
As Catholics, however, we know that death does not have the last word, and that, in the words of Cardinal Martini, “Overcoming the fear of death is not accomplished with our human strength alone, but first of all by remaining close to Jesus and Mary who have conquered every fear.” We are Easter people and members of a Mystical Body that extends into Heaven. That being said, this aspect of our faith, which is a great comfort even in the face of death, gives rise to another infinitely more terrible fear: that of the second death, of dying in a state of separation from God, without access to the sacraments, and entering into the eternal suffocation that is Hell. All earthly suffering, no matter how long or torturous, is bearable in relation to a suffering that never ends.
For this reason, it is understandable that some Catholics, even in the face of the strict demands of public health authorities, are demanding that everything possible be done to provide access to the sacraments. They are willing to risk physical death. And faced with the prospect of Hell, who wouldn’t be? But as Easter people, we should not base all of our actions on fear—even the fear of Hell. Our positive actions should be based on hope. Fear of Hell can be spiritually healthy, but when it begins to suffocate our hope and our trust in God’s mercy it makes us frightened and desperate. We reach for the sacraments greedily, thinking only of ourselves and our own salvation, and lose sight of the physical and spiritual suffering of the rest of humanity—of our neighbors.
The COVID-19 restrictions, which have made the sacraments temporarily unavailable for many, are a test of our Christian hope. Will we think only of ourselves and the spiritual needs of Catholics, and recklessly forge ahead in pursuit of our own interests? Would such actions really save us from fires of Hell, if in doing so we would put many innocent people at grave risk? Imagine an Easter Sunday in which we fill the pews while also knowingly spreading pestilence. What a macabre celebration that would be.
The Church, in our modern world, is supposed to be “the soul of human society” (according to Gaudium et spes). How can the Church, seen in this light, be allowed to act as a selfish and destructive force? There is some talk of renegade priests offering underground masses and bringing people the sacraments in disobedience of their bishops. Such people, and those who help or encourage them, are acting only in the interest of Catholics—the rest of the world be damned. This is desperate and harmful, when it is not merely a delusional romantic fantasy of resistance to a hostile world and apostate Church.
Let us take Pope Francis’s advice and, if we have grave sins that we must confess, ask God directly for forgiveness in acts of perfect contrition, motivated primarily by Easter hope rather than the fear of Hell. Even if we are barred from the sacraments, which despite their absence remain the focal points of our Christian life, Jesus is still with us. To think otherwise would be to reject our status as Easter people and transform our religion, which binds us in one Body, into an idol.
Martini, Carlo Maria. I Believe in Eternal Life. Trans. Edmund C. Lane. London: St. Paul’s Publishing, 2013.
Detail from Josse Lieferinxe, Saint Sebastian Interceding for the Plague Stricken