Whether or not one thinks that the episcopal decision in now most of the country (and elsewhere) to suspend public Masses is a wise one or not, we are now virtually all stuck with the new status quo. I have my opinions on the advisability of this modus operandi (boy do I!), but will forbear. Instead, I would like to take up the practical question of our response to it.
We have a crisis: no public Masses. To appreciate the extent of the crisis, at least in Latin Dioceses, see this map. My guess is that Eastern Eparchies will soon follow suit, either voluntarily or by legal compulsion. It is this spiritual crisis only that I address here, and no other real or perceived crisis of a medical, political, or economic kind.
The fact that Mass is unavailable to the faithful does not mean that our duty to adore, thank, and make reparation to God has ceased. Neither have we been dispensed from our need for grace, nor from our duty to love God and neighbor, nor from our obligation to undertake the daily task of growing in virtue or shouldering our Cross. And besides all that, Lent has not been called off, so prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are all still to be done. Be it noted that almsgiving, also called “almsdeeds,” is not limited to giving away money. As I explained in Are the Works of Mercy Ever Obligatory?, almsdeeds are identical to the works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual — see also, Are the Works of Mercy a Matter of Justice?.
We can view all these matters in a threefold light: privately, domestically, and communally. Our private obligations to exercise the virtue of religion, which entails the worship of God, can be easily fulfilled by lifting up our minds to the Holy Trinity throughout the day, by the practice of mental prayer, ejaculatory prayer, spiritual reading, or other private devotions — especially by praying the Rosary, which Sister Lucia said has been given a “new efficacy” in our times (see here for the fuller context of what she said). Frequent acts of contrition are recommended, especially if your access to the Sacrament of Penance is also limited.
In our interior lives, we should recall that God works on our souls by sending us both suffering and consolation. This is the doctrine of approved spiritual writers. God sends us suffering to help us to turn away from sin and towards Himself, the source of all good; He sends us consolation to join us more intimately with Him. Pain and pleasure each have their place in the cultivation of piety, which is none other than that union with God here in this life that will blossom into beatitude hereafter in the next. If being deprived of the Church’s sacred ceremonies causes you suffering (a good sign), then that is a Cross He wants you to embrace for love of Him. This is done by frequent acts of docility and abandonment to the will of God, of accepting suffering in expiation for your sins and those of your children, and also by mortifying your impulse to complain. In such circumstances, the Psalms take fresh meaning; read them.
Domestically, there is much that should be done. Fathers of families are the spiritual heads of the domestic Church. They must lead the family in prayers: in the Rosary, in some spiritual reading, in the recitation of acts of Faith, Hope, and Charity, etc.
What about Sundays? It is still a day of rest and of worship. The heads of the domestic churches should set aside a time for family prayers and arrange that everyone be present for them. These could include the above-mentioned prayers as well as the stations of the Cross, the reading of all the propers of the Mass from the traditional Missal. If you can make your domestic prayers last for the amount of time your family would normally be in Church on Sunday, so much the better.
Men, this is not the time — as if any is — for you to have the attitude that “my wife does that stuff,” stuff here being defined as taking charge of the family’s exercise of religion. That bit of effeminacy-cum-feminism is not allowed: Your children will pay the price for your sloth, and so will you! You are the priest, prophet, and king of your family.
If your circumstances are such that the father of the family is absent, either physically or morally, then Mom has to take up the load, though it would be reasonable for her to appoint the oldest son, if he is of age, to take up the task as the “man of the house.” (A quaint concept in our day, I know.)
But the Church is more than the family. It is a larger social body, even in this day when the bizarre verbal construction “social distancing” has been reluctantly admitted into our lexicons. Above, I referred to the Lenten observances of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Fasting is best attended to in the private and domestic spheres. Prayer, however, can be broadened to larger social bodies, especially the local community that would otherwise be assembled at Mass. Some families may consider hosting Stations of the Cross in their homes, if they have the space — keeping in mind that smaller crowds may be advisable. Your charity and ingenuity can manufacture other possibilities for social prayer.
It is spiritually counterintuitive to rid ourselves of the greatest remedy we have in any crisis, namely, recourse to God through the propitiatory and impetratory merits of the Sacrifice of the Mass. We must not forget, though, that even when we are physically absent from that august sacrifice, we can still unite ourselves to all the Masses that are being said all throughout the world. Though the non-ordained cannot offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, all the baptized have been deputized to co-offer the Mass with and under the offering priest. Moreover, we can — even when physically absent from It — offer the Eucharistic Victim to the Blessed Trinity. What makes me so bold as to say that is the prayer taught by the Angel to the Fatima children:
O Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore Thee profoundly. I offer Thee the most precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifferences by which He is offended. By the infinite merits of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg the conversion of poor sinners.
As for almsgiving, since it embraces the fourteen works of mercy, the field has now arguably been broadened by the crisis. We know from the statistics that COVID-19 is deadly to the elderly and those with certain underlying medical conditions. While these should take precautions, their fellow Catholics can now offer them more help: shopping for them, picking up their medications, or maybe just calling them up to see if they need anything at all. Elderly folk can sometimes get lonely, especially when they have no family members nearby. Just visiting or even talking to them on the phone can be a work of mercy. Being “checked on” can make a sad person feel loved, and that is a practical exercise of charity, is it not? Without charity, our Lenten program is nothing; without it, we are nothing.
Regardless of the extent of the actual public health threat from COVID-19, we are experiencing a spiritual crisis, an economic crisis, and likely other crises soon, e.g., social unrest, deeper political fragmentation, extreme governmental overreach, etc. Calamity comes. Concerning which, we used to have bishops that warned the faithful of the terrible effects of sin, which are subject not only to punishment in hell, but even — mercifully — in this life. It was not uncommon, in fact, for bishops to take the occasion of public calamities to remind people of God’s displeasure with sin, and of the fact that disasters should be seen as divine chastisements for it. Now, instead of denouncing sin and calling sinners to conversion amid such events, certain bishops instead denounce the priests who do so. We live in such enlightened times!
As a reality check, here is Saint Alphonsus Maria Ligouri speaking of the sin of impurity, which has only increased in the world since his day:
But you must know that the most horrible chastisements with which God has ever visited the earth have been drawn down by this vice. St. Jerome says that this is the only sin of which we read that it caused God to repent of having made man, for all flesh had become corrupted (Gen 6.6-12). And so it is, St. Jerome says, that there is no sin which God punishes so rigorously, even upon earth, as this. He once sent fire from Heaven upon five cities, and consumed all their inhabitants for this sin (Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 18-19). Principally on account of this sin did God destroy mankind, with the exception of eight persons, by the flood. It is a sin which God punishes, not only in the other life, but in this also. Because, says God, you have forgotten Me and turned your back upon Me, for a miserable pleasure of the flesh, I am resolved that even in this life you shall pay the price of your wickedness (Ezek 23.35).
But Jesus wouldn’t say such a thing, would He? He was never harsh or judgmental, was He? Oh, wait! It was He who said, speaking in terms of two disasters, “unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
For much more on this aspect of the crisis, see Roberto de Mattei’s typically informative “Is the Corona Virus a Divine Punishment?”
If such things inspire fear, let it be perfect fear, the filial fear that is also a gift of the Holy Ghost; but if it be servile fear, that is good enough to inspire in us that salutary penance that leads us to peace both in this life and in the next.