A priest celebrates Easter Mass via livestream from an empty church in San Giorgio Ionico, Italy, April 12, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. CNS photo Alessandro Garofalo, Reuters

Lenten Lessons from a Real Quarantine

Contemplating the negatives and positives of lockdown

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Just a year ago, we experienced one of the most grueling Lents imaginable. The unexpected attack of COVID-19 turned our lives upside down. As the virus took hold and spread with increasing rapidity and deadly effectiveness, causing thousands of deaths worldwide, the world came to a standstill. All dioceses in the United States canceled public Masses, and churches were closed.

While this was a challenging time for all of us, Pope Francis — himself under quarantine in the Vatican — reminded us that such an unfortunate experience afforded us a chance to examine our priorities in life and perhaps to consider some adjustments to our modern lifestyle. While we continue to suffer the effects of the pandemic, we can also take advantage of the lessons that can be learned from our experience last spring and beyond.

How Long, O Lord?

One of the frequent plaintive cries one finds in the Bible is the question, “How long, Lord?” It arose frequently in contexts of war, famine, persecution and suffering of all kinds. I think it was a question on everyone’s mind as our own days of confinement stretched into weeks and then into months.

The psalmist, for instance, cries out in a personal lament, “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? / How long will you hide your face from me? / How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, / grief in my heart day after day? / How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Ps 13:2-3). Even the eighth-century-B.C. prophet Isaiah posed the question when he found himself volunteering to become God’s mouthpiece. He inquired, “How long, O Lord?” The response was most disquieting: “Until the cities are desolate, / without inhabitants, / Houses, without people, / and the land is a desolate waste” (Is 6:11). Not the comforting words the prophet wanted to hear, I suspect.

Fortunately for us, the quarantine was eventually relaxed and some semblance of normal life returned, though with all kinds of changes to our daily routines. But amid our confinement, a regular question was how long it would last, how long we could endure, and how long this new virus would threaten human existence.

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POPE FRANCIS PRAYS FOR PRIESTS’ COURAGE

“We also pray to the Lord for our priests, that they have the courage to go out and go to the sick, bringing the strength of the Word of God and the Eucharist and accompanying the health workers and volunteers in this work they are doing.”

Prayer at papal Mass, March 10, 2020

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Significance of Forty

As is widely known, the notion of “quarantine” comes from an old French term for “forty.” The Latin term for “fortieth” (quadraginta) also gives us the modern terminology for the forty days of Lent in romance languages like French (Carême) and Spanish (Cuaresma).

The number 40 is a significant biblical number. Recall how frequently it is used in both Old and New Testaments: the number of days of the Great Flood (cf. Gn 7:4); the years Israel wandered in the wilderness (Ex 16:35); the days of the prophet Elijah’s journey (1 Kgs 19:8); Jesus’ days of temptation by the devil in the desert (Mt 4:2); and the days of Jesus’ sojourn on earth after the Resurrection and before the Ascension (Acts 1:3).

Why forty? It is a convenient round number, and in biblical times when life expectancy was relatively short, it represented the span of a generation. So it held important symbolic value that carried over into the modern conception of a “quarantine” — a sufficiently long period of time.

Our Lent, the forty days between Ash Wednesday and the start of the Triduum on Holy Thursday, is a symbolic period of “spiritual confinement” — a time to devote ourselves to some spiritual housecleaning to prepare for the joyful solemnity of Easter. Thus it is a traditional time of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Disruption of Spiritual Necessities

Last year’s Lenten experience gave new meaning to “quarantine.” Not only was the rhythm of daily life seriously disrupted, but the quarantine also upended our spiritual journey. Opportunities for repentance and for spiritual renewal had to be done at a distance. Regular spiritual direction was canceled. Pastoral counseling was reduced to phone calls or video-conference sessions. Penance services normally conducted before Easter could not be held. Daily and weekly Masses, as well as regular reception of Communion, were suspended because of the need to create social distance to prevent the propagation of a virus that was both virulent and extremely contagious.

MASSACHUSETTS EASTER MASS LIVESTREAMED
The Lando family of Carlisle, Massachusetts, participate in St. Mary’s Catholic Church livestreamed Easter Mass on April 12, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters

Just at the time when we Catholics needed most to be in touch with our sacramental identity — especially the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and funerals — we found ourselves prevented from access to these spiritual necessities! I still remember the haunting images of Pope Francis on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, virtually alone in St. Peter’s Square, performing the essential rites of those days without the physical presence of the faithful. It was impressive to see his outreach to the world by the modern medium of television, all without the physical presence of a community of faithful, except for a very few curial officials and technicians.

In a few rare instances, some independent-minded priests or bishops, and some insistent evangelical pastors, refused to cooperate with secular authorities in trying to block the virus’ advance by quarantine. They argued the supremacy of religious freedom over any other value. Some even naively expressed their conviction that God would protect them and their congregations from harm! One of them, an evangelical bishop, caught the virus and died after insisting that his services should be held and that God would protect him. Several of his family members caught the virus, too.

Let’s face it. Quarantine was and remains hard to tolerate. Our modern world has experienced some viral attacks (think Aids/HIV, Ebola, SARS, MERS, the latter two also coronaviruses) but nothing like this. The last such major worldwide pandemic was the Spanish influenza (1918), just over a century ago. With our new, stringent quarantine, we wondered when our deeper “forty-day experience” would end. When would life return to normal? How long, O Lord?

Negative and Positive Lessons

As we know, the quarantine as such ended, albeit with some ups and downs of restrictions. We have had to adapt new habits of human interaction to limit future outbreaks. I suggest, however, that even if our experience was difficult to endure, there are some lasting lessons for the Church as a whole and for priests. I divide them into negative and positive learnings.

Negatively, we saw that some Christians who define themselves as “pro-life” nevertheless played rather freely with people’s lives by insisting on their right to practice religion. So, some held public services with large groups in attendance. Some sponsored clandestine Masses for small groups of bold faithful to assemble on the notion that access to these services was far more important than following civil guidelines, established in accordance with scientific advice, intended to protect people from a potentially fatal infection. Such attitudes are not responsible.

Pronouncements of a willingness to die in order to be physically present to people in a time of pandemic are not the point. The risk is greater of endangering others by irresponsible actions, not just ourselves. In short, we saw some rather selfish behavior on the part of some in the exaggerated guise of religious freedom.

Positively, several learnings come to mind, captured in some images I recall during the quarantine. One is the widespread use of modern means of communication and social media to help maintain contact between priests and people. Although telephones have been used for decades, only recent modern developments like videoconferencing tools (Skype, Zoom, Webex, etc.) allowed for the livestreaming of Masses and other services. The broad availability of high-speed Internet access, unavailable even 20 years ago, greatly facilitated this.

One image struck me particularly. Several priests in Italy, a country hard hit by the virus and where, according to the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire on Jan. 6, more than 200 priests died of it, pasted pictures of their parishioners on pews in their empty churches! Even if their community could not be present, their images were there for the priest to recall as he presided at Mass for them and livestreamed the service.

This is not to suggest that TV Masses and livestreaming will or should replace live attendance. On the contrary, going back to gathering as a community of faithful was all the more important, even under social-distancing guidelines. But the experience showed that the notion of “presence” could be made more elastic, more adaptable.

Sadly, many elderly and single individuals, who lacked the warmth of human contact during the crisis, were overwhelmed in loneliness. Human contact is essential. But it can and must be done in a responsible way that does not endanger others.

Another positive outcome was the fact that families had no choice but to spend more time together. Those with children, in particular, found it challenging. But many learned new and creative ways to interact, eating real meals together and learning more inventive ways to spend long periods of quarantine in productive ways. Some creatively recorded humorous musical or theatrical “spectacles” and posted them on various Internet platforms. Many were extremely entertaining.

From Suffering to Resurrection

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from our quarantine of 2020 was the need to slow down and learn to prioritize our lives. Modern life has become extremely fast-paced.

Developments advance rapidly, and each of us can easily become sucked into the merry-go-round of life without further thought of where our true priorities should lie. For me, this time of having virtually no appointments, except occasional videoconferences, meant much more time for prayer, lectio divina, Scripture study, reading books I had long ignored and personal reflection without trying to rush things. I also learned to stop checking the Internet every half hour for news or new email! Once a day sufficed.

I would be the first to admit that I found quarantine difficult. In Paris, where I live, rules were particularly stringent. We were not allowed out of our houses from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., except for urgent business such as visiting a pharmacy or doctor or buying essential groceries. To make matters worse, the weather in March and April last year turned unusually warm and sunny while all parks and gardens were closed as if to mock our inability to go outside and appreciate spring as it should be experienced.

Maybe God has a sense of humor, though. The whole movement of Lent is one in which we make sacrifices to participate better in the Paschal Mystery of the Triduum and Easter. Perhaps we often take this forty-day journey too lightly. It is not merely about giving up desserts or alcohol or movies. It is supposed to be a time to grow closer to the Lord, to meditate on his life, death and resurrection, and to prepare for our own eventual death. It is about embracing the cross to experience the Resurrection. There was no way during our quarantine to avoid the message of the fragility of life. If this experience did not make us more conscious of that, likely nothing will. 

SULPICIAN FATHER RONALD D. WITHERUP is the superior general of the Society of Saint Sulpice. He is also author of “Galatians: Life in the New Creation – A Spiritual-Pastoral Reading” (Paulist Press, 2020) and “Rejoice and Be Glad 2021: Daily Reflections for Easter” (Liturgical Press, 2021).

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Diminution of Pollution During Quarantine

One of the unexpected positive consequences of the slowdown of human activity during the pandemic was the diminution of pollution. Skies cleared, pollution levels dropped significantly, birds returned whose songs had not been heard in decades, animals roamed areas normally occupied by humans.

All this reminded us of what Pope Francis had already expressed in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’. So many aspects of our modern lifestyle are doing direct harm to our “common home,” planet Earth. The pandemic cleared the air on this topic, so to speak. We need to examine carefully how we can reduce our carbon footprint in the world if we are to hand it over in good shape to succeeding generations.

Despite those who deny climate change, the experience of the quarantine demonstrated very clearly the human impact on the environment, which most scientists have been affirming for years. Thus it affords us a “wake-up call.” It is a chance to assess what steps can be taken to benefit from the temporary suspension of normal human activity to transit to more responsible ways of caring for our Sister Earth, to use Francis of Assisi’s term.

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