Churches shuttered amid COVID-19 pandemic, many hunger for spiritual comfort
Though uncertainty is rising right along with the number of U.S. coronavirus cases, home has become a sanctuary, and spiritual encouragement is reaching us right there.
Our numbers rise. As of Sunday, the United States surpassed Spain, Germany and Iran to become the third worst hit nation by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our isolation grows. As of Sunday, residents in five states, about one in every four Americans — Illinois included — are now living under a “shelter in place” order.
And the headlines on how America ended up behind the eightball on a foretold pandemic are increasingly disheartening.
U.S. intelligence agencies were issuing ominous, classified warnings in January and February of a pandemic that would grip the globe, with no action taken, the Washington Post reported over the weekend.
In times like these, we’d flock to our places of worship, hungering for spiritual comfort.
Those places are shuttered.
But they’re available online, so I tuned in Sunday.
At the Archdiocese of Chicago, it was Cardinal Blase Cupich himself who presided over the weekly online Mass this Sunday, the fourth week of Lent. This would ordinarily be a bustling period of worship for many, in anticipation of Easter, a time of great joy.
But here was the leader of the nation’s third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in an empty Holy Name Cathedral, grasping for the words to comfort a flock of 2.2 million Catholics in Cook and Lake Counties in Northeastern Illinois.
It was a weekend in which the U.S. (with 31,057 COVID-19 cases) had just surpassed Spain (28,603), Germany (23,974), and Iran (21,638), now third, behind China (81,397) and Italy (59,138), according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker.
Globally, the pandemic has surpassed 300,000 cases and 13,000 deaths.
In Illinois — which joined California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York in a “stay-at-home” order in effect here through April 7 — we’re at 1,049 cases and nine deaths.
What could a clergyman say to soothe my troubled spirit?
“I greet all of those who are caring for the sick but also those who are suffering from various illnesses, especially from the virus. We’re with you in prayer today,” Cupich began.
“As well, we want to let all the first responders and those in essential services and those who make decisions for our city as leaders, know that we’re with you in this moment.”
His homily came after the Gospel of John, chapter 9, verses 1-41, in which Jesus heals a man blind since birth.
“We use terms like being blindsided, having a blind spot, or flying blind, to express that experience in our lives when we feel as though there is a reality beyond our grasp, that there is something going on we really aren’t aware of, that we don’t know the next step in our lives,” Cupich said. “That’s the experience of this blind man in the gospel today.”
We are all this blind man today, amid a pandemic, awaiting healing, the clergyman said.
“We’re in an altogether new situation, a totally different kind of universe, a situation in which we are not sure about the future, or the next step ahead, and we’re fearful, or anxious. So let’s look at what Jesus does,” he said.
“The Lord today is telling us that in this moment of anxiety, in this moment of fear, he wants us to know that God has not abandoned us,” Cupich said.
“But that image also reminds us that ... we are all people with clay feet. We all suffer the same vulnerability and mortality. Surely, that is so much apparent to us this day, as we realize that no one is exempt from this virus.
“We need that reminder, for as we see in the gospel, we often become divided in our ideologies, as people argue back and forth about whether or not Jesus should do this on the Sabbath, or who Jesus is really healing, because this man is unknown to them, and even his parents seem to throw the man born blind under the bus,” Cupich continued.
“We easily lose sight of our common humanity and become divided. And so the healing that the Lord wants to bring to us must, yes — begin with that act of faith that the Lord is close to us,” the clergyman said.
“But it’s also important for us to take up that healing that will follow this moment of difficulty, that kind of healing that will draw us together.”
So, yes, Chicago, it’s easy to allow fear, uncertainty and isolation to amplify our feelings of aloneness, as we all hunker down in our homes. But the spiritual tells us alone, we are not.
There are to be found — if we seek them — signs of hope, both in our world and close by.
As the world steps up its war against the coronavirus, new cases fall in China, where no new domestic infections were reported for the first time since the outbreak began in December in the central city of Wuhan.
The virus appears to have been impacted there by strict measures that have included a complete quarantine since January.
Here at home, individuals and community groups across Chicago have stepped up to help vulnerable neighbors combat the isolation we’re all weathering together — joining many across the globe and our nation in giving of themselves when and where possible.
So let’s hold on. Spiritual sustenance is online. We may be isolated in our homes, but we are not alone.