Lent 2020 turned out to be something we never expected. With many of us living in quarantine, or under “shelter in place” and “safer at home” orders due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), while non-essential businesses are shut down or moved completely to working from home, we’re having to give up a lot of things we thought were part of everyday life: grocery shopping, visits with friends, and now, the ability to go to Mass.
What’s a Catholic to do in times like these? I talked to Msgr. John A. Esseff, a priest in the Diocese of Scranton who once served as a retreat director and confessor to Mother Teresa, about his best tips for staying calm and faithful.
Kris McGregor: The Church went from offering dispensations from our Sunday Mass obligations to suspending public Masses altogether. The health concern is serious, but this only amplifies the great danger that the whole world is facing.
Msgr. John A. Esseff: We Catholics had prided ourselves that the most important thing we do on the Sabbath is worship God, and our central act of worship is the Mass. But each priest, I feel pretty sure, will be offering Mass, maybe privately.
Today we can pray and center our acts of worship on God, our Father. The Church is your own home. Jesus says in the Scriptures that he’s going to tear down the temple that was built there. All of the churches all over the world are going to come down.
But the Church is the body of Christ, and this same Church continues to exist. When Jesus said, “I will tear down this temple,” that was the one in front of him that took hundreds of years to build. But he said, “I will raise it up in three days,” meaning the temple of his body. And that’s what the Mass is, but that’s also what you have been baptized into — the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Slow down and take charge of what that life of Jesus is inside of yourself. Who am I? I am Jesus in the world today, not out there in that building that I go to on Sundays.
McGregor: It seems interesting that this particular virus affects the old, and those who are weak, and those who are strong and young are not as badly affected, and yet it’s going to have to be their sacrifice to protect the elders and the afflicted. The government is telling them to stand down, they need to protect others, they need to stay apart.
Many of the people in this country are going to be laid off, so there's suffering that’s not just physical, it’s material, economic. Natural disasters happen like a boom, and then we go in and fix it. But in this particular case, this is something very different, isn’t it?
Msgr. Esseff: This pandemic is uniting us in a way that nothing ever has, and I don’t know, for a long time — maybe since the flood — when we have all stopped and said, “This is a passing world.”
The body of Christ is held together by love. It’s the spirit of love that unites the whole body. What a great opportunity the young have for service to the elderly.
Do I immediately only think of my income, my needs, my cares? Or do I think of those of others? If you’re young, you’re going to be caring for your family, for your children. But everyone also has the obligation of caring for their parents and their grandparents. Right now, we can’t visit older people, but we can call them, see that their needs are taken care of.
McGregor: The reality is that God has allowed this. How do we look at this crisis, knowing that it’s not a punishment from God?
Msgr. Esseff: This is a tremendous opportunity for us to serve each other, and to look out for each other, and care for one another. That’s God’s commandment: Love one another as I have loved you. The love that he has given to us, he wants us to manifest to one another. And it’s amazing that people will step up.
McGregor: This is really an opportunity if you’re searching for God, too.
Msgr. Esseff: How do you get a madly extroverted world to introvert? How do you get people to slow down, and reflect, and think and pray? We have such a great gift here, when life just stops and there’s all this time on our hands, and we can turn this into the opportunity to serve, even if we’re not going to work, or to church, today.
Mother Teresa used to have a way of offering the sign of peace: May the Christ in me bless the Christ in you and greet the Christ in you.
Were a man to look at his wife, and a wife at her husband, and see that today. Recognize who you are to one another, see the children that you took down to baptize — you are really images of Jesus in your home. What a tremendous opportunity we have to slow down and care for one another, so that we can love one another.