Our First Priority

A priest wrote me recently: “I was in church with parishioners until 8:00 tonight, the official closing of all public Masses, devotions and gatherings in the diocese through at least April 1. Many people are distraught at the loss of the sacraments. It’s an eerie thing for a priest and pastor not to be a part of these graces in the lives of his people. One of our parishioners is in hospice and I’m prevented from visiting. Happily at least I brought him the last sacraments a few days ago, but still. . . .”

He goes on: “It’s funny. We’re completely shut down and I’m more swamped with calls, emails, and individual meetings, than ever. Let alone implementing ‘creative’ ways to stay in touch, support, pray with, and encourage parishioners. Both last night and in these last two days, I’ve noticed two general attitudes. The first is a beautiful, genuine  (and sad) upset at not having access to the sacraments. The second is a disturbing fear and anxiety over the virus and the unknown future. The former is good, the latter may be understandable, but it’s hard to deal with. And this only a few days in!”

Amid the wall-to-wall coverage of the Coronavirus pandemic and, in Catholic circles, discussions about what the Church’s response should be, this frustration among priests – the good priests – has gone all but unnoticed. Note: the frustration here is a wish to be with the people, but uncertainty how, precisely, to do that without doing harm.

Several priests have written me to say they want to get out there, boldly (at least ten priests have died from the virus in Italy). And in some places – my own parish, for example – priests are trying “creative” ways to hear Confessions that (we hope) won’t put parishioners or themselves at risk.

But public health officials have been right to warn priests that they could spread the virus, if they come into frequent contact with numbers of the sick.

Even casual contact can bring trouble. Our friend and colleague Fr. Gerald Murray is currently in self-quarantine. He explains on his Facebook page:

Dear friends,

I was informed this morning that one of our parishioners tested positive for coronavirus and is in an isolation unit at NYU Langone. She is an elderly woman. I visited her at her apartment on March 10th and sat at her dining room table.

As a precaution I am self-isolating at the rectory for the next two weeks. The rectory will be closed and the employees will not come into work.

I feel fine, except for being somewhat tired, which may be due to my sprained ankle (which is getting better) and the general strain of these days. I am not coughing, do not have a fever and have no breathing problems.

Please pray for my parishioner and for all the sick.

In these circumstances, we all have to be patient with misfires and outright failures. And for a certain amount of puzzlement, even among those who mean well. (The cowardly and corrupt, at a time like this, are beneath notice.)


One thing that must not happen, however, is for the Church to demote her saving truths about human life in the face of widespread sickness and death. Since all 7.5 billion people currently living on earth must die, sooner or later, that would be a spiritual pandemic far more deadly than the virus.

An astute woman who has written for The Catholic Thing just sent me this:

I don’t know if you read [Washington D.C.] Archbishop [Wilton] Gregory’s official statement in the coronavirus section of the archdiocesan website about suspending public Masses. I am bringing this to your attention (if you haven’t seen it) not because of the decision, which can be argued about either way, but because of the kind of slip of the mask which is all too tiresomely familiar with official statements from Catholic churchmen nowadays: [emphasis added]

“We are aware of the rapidly developing district and state guidelines regarding the coronavirus.  My number one priority as your Archbishop is to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services. Please know that this decision does not come lightly to close our schools or cancel Masses.”

Did you get his number one priority as Archbishop? And no one flagged that when he or someone else wrote it, or told him he should qualify that a bit and include something about care of souls and such. They don’t believe – they keep letting that out all the time.

She’s absolutely right. It’s precisely in times like these, when people are making large public statements, that their fundamental assumptions are revealed.

Two weeks ago, before the current fears about the virus – it seems like decades have passed since then – I wrote here about how calling safety “our number one priority” has become a sign of covert materialism and decadence. During a pandemic, safety should, of course, not be last. But we should be able to expect that our Catholic leaders will not speak of “our number one priority” as do the political heathens.

Our modern medical systems can do a great deal, given long experience with infectious diseases, to minimize human suffering and death.

The Church has long experience, too, millennia dealing with sin and redemption, life and death (even pandemics), this world and the world to come. One of the great fictional accounts of such experiences is Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, perhaps the greatest Catholic novel ever written, a kind of Catholic War and Peace.

Words matter. Actions also – like public prayers, processions, penitence, reparation (a word from Fatima).

Pope Francis did a great thing in making a pilgrimage to special places of prayer in Rome last week on behalf of all those suffering from the pandemic. He’s called upon people around the world to say a Rosary together this evening at 9 PM Rome time, 4 PM Eastern time (United States).

We should all imitate and carry this further. That is where our strengths lie. Let’s show, at every turn, that even amidst widespread uncertainty and death, our “first priority” is truth and eternal life.


*Image: St. Charles Borromeo Helps Victims of the Plague by Benedetto Luti, 1713 [Bavarian State Painting Collection, Munich]

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.