History does not repeat itself. Although we too have suffered during the Coronavirus pandemic, we do not live in Milan, Siena, or Rome. We are not residents of the late medieval and early modern period. The stunning fact that the United States went over a hundred years between major pandemics is evidence of how little we share with our forebears. It took us nearly three hundred years to discover the cause of the bubonic plague. We were able to analyze COVID-19 and develop a vaccine within a year.
Nonetheless, because of these significant differences, it should surprise us to discover how much the COVID-19 pandemic has in common with the plague. Like our forebears, weddings and funerals were taken away from us during the pandemic. Our relatives and friends died without anyone at their bedside. Many of us went at least six weeks without access to Mass.
Further, just like the bubonic plague, the Coronavirus pandemic has revealed social, economic, and racial disparities. The wealthy could work from home, practicing social distancing with almost religious devotion. The poor stayed behind, feeding us, delivering our packages, and continuing to keep the supply chain functioning. At the end of the crisis, it’s clear that the rich got richer. And the poor got poorer. Our common awakening as a society to the plague of racial injustice is just beginning. As we advocate for an end to racism, we should keep in mind that Black and Latino/a residents of the United States have borne the brunt of COVID-19 deaths.
Politically, the United States has spent the last eighteen months in conflict. Violent protests and gun violence on city streets have become part of the daily news cycle. Masks and vaccines have become weapons in the unending war between left and right playing out on cable news. Go to CNN right now, and you will surely discover three or four headlines intended to foster fear in readership that gun-toting conservatives refuse to wear masks, get vaccines, and therefore are ruining the country. Fox News intends to elicit the same fear. But the purpose there is “owning” the libs who refuse to take off their masks when outside.
Social distancing, in the end, only exacerbated the loneliness that so many Americans experience. During eighteen months, we became habituated in treating one another not as friends or companions but as a potential source for disease. We avoided one another. We did not touch.
In the Church, we did not universally respond to the pandemic well. Our solution to the problem was live-streaming Masses. Lacking the liturgical-sacramental culture of our medieval and early modern forebears, we could not imagine another way than tuning into televised Masses. At the same time, our parishes have been ripped apart by political polarization. We fight over wearing masks and getting vaccines. We complained about our bishops “denying” us the Eucharist.
Concurrently, the Church endured yet more scandal. In November of 2020, the McCarrick report was released. Reading the over 400 pages of the report, it was clear that the Church herself is suffering from a disease. It is not COVID-19, but a clerical culture that at times is more concerned about avoiding scandal than seeking holiness. The report was almost boring, a series of mistakes and foibles along the way by a cast of characters waiting to be judged by the Dante of our age.
What is the Church to do after COVID-19? The temptation will be twofold. Either we will seek to return to the “old normal.” We’ll pretend that COVID-19 never happened. There is partial wisdom here. We do need to return to the normal cycle of feasts and seasons. People need a bit of stability in their lives. But at the same time, COVID-19 has exacerbated several trends in the Church. Not a few dioceses are in financial free-fall, laying off many of their lay staff. Many of those who were barely affiliated with the Church before COVID-19 might never come back. The world is suffering, and the Church has a vocation to respond to the “new normal.” Especially when certain dimensions of that normalcy are detrimental to human flourishing.
The other temptation is to pursue the path of bureaucracy. We will hire more consultants, attempting to woo people back to Church. We will work to develop strategic plans, trying to adopt business practices for evangelization. In this, we will fall prey to the ecclesial heresy of the NGO.
Even if history does not repeat itself, paying attention to the response of our forebears to the Black Death may be salutary. What we see as the healing medicine to the plague in late medieval and early modern Catholicism is a renewed attention to presence. The presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. The presence of Christ in history in the lives of the saints. The presence of Christ to one another, especially to those on the margins.
Right now, we are in a space where reform and renewal are possible in the Church and society alike. Returning to the old normal should not be an option, at least not for those who are pursuing holiness. There are certain aspects of pre-plague life that was unhealthy. Our addiction to frenetic travel, the separation of work and life, and our mistreatment of men and women on the margins of social life. Post-COVID, we must follow the example of St. Charles. Yes, we must have gratitude that the pandemic is ending. But part of that gratitude is a renewed commitment to the basics of Christian practice: fasting, almsgiving, celebrating the feasts of the Church, receiving (as often as possible) the Eucharistic presence of Jesus, spending time before the Blessed Sacrament, praying together as families.
The reality is that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic that strikes us. As we continue to destroy the natural environment, there will be a steep cost. Diseases hidden in dark jungles or caves will begin to circulate among human beings. The next one(s) may be even more deadly than COVID-19. There may be a bubonic plague awaiting us.
For this reason, COVID-19 should teach us something that perhaps late modern man has forgotten. We will not live forever. Not one of us. Masks, vaccines, none of these very excellent precautions will enable us to permanently escape death. Rather than run away from this, escaping inward, fighting with one another, maybe it is time to turn to one another in the renewed solidarity of Eucharistic love. We share with every member of the human family the plight of contingency. We will not live forever.
And yet, we are made for something more. We are made for a communion that contradicts the social derangement that has become normal in American (and not only!) life. The path toward renewal will be to turn to the holy men and women of ages past, who have taught Catholics in every generation to become the presence of Christ anew. The only possible response to COVID-19 is for the Church—including her leaders—to seek anew the virtue of holiness. This holiness is not a private affair but a public commitment to live out the Eucharistic logic of the Church. We are made for communion. We are made for solidarity. We are made to be present to holy God and to one another in communion.
St. Charles, St. Alyosius, St. Catherine and St. Brigid, St. Sebastian, St. Michael the Archangel, and Mary, the Mother of God, pray for us.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the third part of the a three-part series on the Black Plague. Parts one and two are linked on our homepage and you can find a link to part two at the bottom of this page below the author bio.