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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

The Love and Praise of the Church in Easter During Pandemic

Easter is the season of true love - a love that conquers death. It is a season of unvanquished hope and those who know this hope do not live by fear and can never be shamed into silence. Yet my heart is heavy. I have heard too many reports of priests burying those who died, not of the virus that we are told is so dangerous, but of despair. I have heard the grief of those who long to gather in worship and express their devotion to the Living God. Yet they feel confused, opposed and blamed. How to offer the praise eternal is owed puzzles many who will not be able to gather for worship - either because of their own health forbids it or because local laws and ordinances do not allow it. Praise for eternal love rings throughout the world with the wonders that God has done for us nonetheless. There is no other reason that can account for this than the fact that He does love us. In response to this love, through the centuries, Christians have always boldly proclaimed this mystery—even when it cost them dearly. Many a martyr would not have it any other way. And so it is today. My heroes include those members of women's religious communities who will not have it any other way either. So they love recklessly those who the world recklessly abandons or neglects. Several, as did the Missionaries of Charity in New York, in recent weeks, have lost their lives serving the poorest of the poor—but they would rather die by love than forsake the love of Christ disguised in sickness, poverty and loneliness. The world sees them as foolish. Yet, their foolishness speaks to me. These fearless women who put their lives on the line show us what love-filled praise of Christ actually is—by boldly going forward to those who are most forsaken, they reveal to us to very heart of the Church. The Church is the Bride of Christ and she lives for Her Bridegroom. He, for His part, considers her and all her members friends. True love for a friend does not turn back in the face of risk but instead sacrifices its own safety for the sake of another. Consecrated men and women show this love in the Church. When most of us were gripped with fear, they boldly went out to reveal the love of the Risen Lord—this is Christian worship par excellence. Real love cannot be contained in merely convenient exchanges but aches to give all until nothing is held back. Such love is never satisfied with what is merely appeasing before those who stand in its way. It will not allow itself to be defined by the desire to fit in or be accepted - but goes past this to implicate itself in the plight of another, undeterred by the awareness that most will not understand. Such love is never indifferent to loneliness but finds ways to throw a bridge to the neighbor and lift them to God. It pushes beyond the limits of fear. Christian worship is animated by this very same love—and that is why the faithful feel the need to gather for prayer again, even though there are risks. The Easter Season is about this love in the Church, a love that she has received from Christ, the Bridegroom. He Himself won it for her at great price. This love has the power to purify her and make her immaculate—and each of her members is meant to share in this virginal purity, this fruitful intensity of life. Those who are consecrated in religious life remind us of this truth. The Easter Season is a time when the Bride offers highest praise of her Divine Friend with all of her might, declaring what God has done for humanity to the very ends of the earth. So loud should be her "alleluias" that the world ought to shake under heaven's shadow. As I write this, however, I am aware that there are political leaders and experts who argue that we Christians should dare not gather or sing together lest we spread contagion. They perceive believers as a threat to stability and safety. Indeed, we are frightened into believing that if we gather to worship God, we will not only die a horrible death ourselves, but we might well be culpable for the death of others. Instead of praise, most of us hide in fear, bullied by the supposed science and shamed by what seems such a compelling argument. But not those beautiful women who serve those for whom no one else will care - these women may prudent measures take, but their prudence is measured by love and refuses to be contained by fear. Though it has never been the Christian way, some leader tell us that we should only worship when there is no risk. If anyone dares risk to pray, quick are the betrayers and the deniers. To heed such voices is to allow the One who suffered death for us not to be proclaimed for fear of death. Yes, there is prudence to be observed. There are legitimate precautions discerned by the Church. We should protect the most vulnerable. At the same time, is it possible to be too careful? Even though our lives are not our own, we have permitted fear to stifle praise in even very healthy communities at a time when the reason for our hope should be shouted from the rooftops. The results are not good. Despair is gripping the hearts of men and women. Humanity has always needed the word of hope Christians have to share. If even we might offer only muted praise, in the smallest gatherings, if we are healthy enough, we must nonetheless gather for their sakes and our own—for despair is a far worse killer than a virus can ever be. Above all, we must not be manipulated to the point that we fail, even if healthy, to approach the Bread of Life and Medicine of Immortality. Some, even in the Church, have said that such speech is irresponsible. These same voices charge that only bad citizens or those with ulterior motives would ever make such declarations. Or else, sneer that such an attitude is fideistic—some sort of magical thinking. Yet, these very charges are what are always leveled against Christians when they are suppressed and persecuted - and we live at a time when more believers have been put to death than at any other point of the history of humanity. So I say it is irresponsible not to question—that it is a dereliction of our duty as human beings to subordinate the worship of God to the myth of a completely risk-free therapeutic existence. Concern for human life and safety are very important, and this dangerous virus does require pre-caution and great prudence. There are however some facts we must face. We allowed governments to take away the religious safety net when it was needed most. Have we kept track of the mortality rate of those suffering for their faith and being put to death in present persecutions as much as we have this virus? Do we track how many of the most vulnerable have died, not from the virus, but from despair? If preserving human life is really the driving concern of those who forbid religious worship in even healthy communities among the healthy—why is it that we should be so anxious about a virus that has killed only hundreds of thousands when abortion, over the same period of time, has killed tens of millions? Still, our leaders are not ashamed to fund the efforts to murder and commercialize the body parts of the most vulnerable. Too many experts have proven utterly indifferent to the effects of loneliness, poverty and despair in our communities, and their anti-religious policy recommendations caused these things, not the virus. When we begin to consider such difficult truths, we begin to find a true vocabulary and a courage to offer praise boldly—for praise issues from hearts that have submitted themselves to the truth and who refuse to believe the myths of fear that the politically powerful use to oppress and control. Voices of oppression wrap themselves in science—but limit themselves to scientific truths about the number of infected, how the disease is transmitted and its death rate - and this is a very narrow slice of the truth, one they are manipulating because they too are afraid. Indeed, everyone knows that the prejudice that one brings to the facts colors the way the facts are seen. A fearful prejudice is killing millions more than the infection ever has—killing, not only bodily life, but spiritual life as well. Religious leaders, not government officials, are the most qualified to apply the advice of experts on best practices around the worship of God. The government is able to advise and martial resources, but not able to dictate the worship of God's people. The failure of our society to heed the voices of religious leaders has left the suffering vulnerable to despair. Sometimes there are circumstances when sheltering-in-place is not really the most loving thing that we owe our neighbor or God. No cultural or political power ought to stand in the way of what is the most human and good thing to do. Shamelessly, among some who are in places of power and trust, there is even a conscious effort to make people of faith the scapegoats of failed policy. Studies focussing on worship but not commercial behavior sometimes are offered as justification for a very insidious form of prejudice. There seems to be something driving this conversation, but to say it is only public health and safety is not compelling. Religious leaders sometimes feel pressure to take politically correct precautions around public worship that go beyond safety even at the expense of the piety. This kind of manipulation is not new—governments have always attempted to make absolute claims over people. Piety needs to be protected from this tendency—for it is not a private, but a public good. The convictions shared in this post are considered by many well meaning people, including those in the Church, to be reckless. Perhaps they are. Indeed, the great women religious who have suffered death rather than neglect the poor during this pandemic also have been considered reckless. Christians who are faithful though they suffer the loss of all things are also considered reckless. Experts tell us that people who gather to sing and pray recklessly endanger their whole community. Holy Communion is also considered a risk. Receiving the Antidote for Death is indeed a great risk—and hygienic concerns should be the least of our worries. Perhaps, the praise that Christians offer is indeed dangerous, but the danger it poses goes beyond disease control. Faith in the Risen Lord is a threat to those who otherwise want to have absolute control over the things of the heart. Yet, our God has loved us to the point of folly and so must we praise at great risk, even to the point of folly. Our faith never has been satisfied with appeasing political powers or staying within the comfortable limits that experts dictate are appropriate. Today, no less than in any other age, we live at a time when cultural and social powers have dared to dictate to the Church where, when and how she should love Christ. They have not merely offered prudent guidelines to be followed in the face of grave danger. No. These governmental leaders, news outlets and experts have frightened, belittled, and shamed the Church into silence. We cower under threatening punishments, lawsuits and derision. Yet such earthly powers only extend to fear of death, and the Bride of Christ, beholding the Risen Lord as do so many consecrated women, does not know this fear.

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