Catholics lacking the sacraments: weathering the storm

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Photo courtesy of the Diocese of Knoxville

This Lent was unlike any other. Ash Wednesday marked the first day of quarantine for myself and my classmates on the Due Santi campus as the Italian government banned all “unnecessary” travel earlier that week. I embraced this as an opportunity to enter into Lent with a spirit of trust and surrender.

I began to pray the Litany of Trust each night before bed, offering the joys and sufferings of each day and the uncertainties of the next to the Lord with the simple words, “Jesus, I trust in you.” 

Little did I know that this quarantine would extend for all of Lent, through Easter and for what remains an indefinite period of time. I never could have imagined that the rest of the world would soon shut down, that schools and businesses across the country would close, that millions of workers would lose their jobs and that millions of people would contract this virus. 

The world is in shock, uncertain of what each new day will bring, scattered and isolated in our own homes, fearful of spreading disease and inclined to lose hope. I sometimes find that these are the only words I can manage: “Jesus, I trust in you.”

After spending six weeks in Rome, walking into a different church on each street corner and looking forward to the celebration of Holy Week in the Vatican, I was shocked by the closing of churches around the world. The last thing I ever expected was to celebrate Holy Week via live stream videos, to have millions of Catechumens unable to enter the Church this year and to be unable to receive the sacraments for weeks on end. 

This time has felt like a prolonged and intensified Lent as we remain in a period of waiting and separation. Holy Week has come and gone, and we celebrated Christ’s victory over death and sin — and still, we wait. We wait for the doors of churches to be reopened. We wait for the glorious day when new members will be welcomed into the Church. We wait for the Mass to be celebrated in our communities. We wait to return to Jesus in the confessional and to receive His precious Body and Blood again in the Eucharist. 

As I studied the Gospel of John during Lent, I often found myself in a similar position to the followers of Jesus who struggle to understand His words and to trust in His providence. 

In John 6:9, when the Apostles are asked to gather food to feed a crowd, they give Jesus all they can find, “five barley loaves and two fish,” but they wonder, “What good are these for so many?”  These are the Apostles that have already witnessed many miracles and have left everything to follow Jesus — and still, they doubt. 

How often do I doubt that Jesus can multiply my little offerings and provide beyond my understanding?

Further in this chapter of John, in response to Jesus’ teaching on His True Presence in the Eucharist, many of His disciples said, “This saying is hard, who can accept it?” and then some “returned to their former way of life.” 

How often do we abandon Him when His teachings are hard to accept? How often do I wonder if the Lord is truly present to His Church, especially now when we are kept from the sacraments?

When Jesus insists that the stone of Lazarus’ tomb be rolled away in John 11:39, Martha tells Him that “there will be a stench, for he has been dead for four days,” failing to understand that Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. 

How often do I feel overwhelmed by the “stench” and overcome with grief as I worry for those who are ill or deceased, forgetting that Jesus is Lord of both life and death?

On the third day after Jesus’ death, Mary Magdalene visits His tomb to anoint the body and is astonished to find the empty tomb. 

Have I too forgotten Jesus’ promise in John 2:20 that “in three days [he] will raise up” the temple of His body? 

Finally, after Jesus had appeared to them many times in His risen and glorified body, the disciples return to their former ways of fishing. They were unable to catch anything on their own until Jesus appeared to them in John 21:6, commanding that they “cast the net over the right side of the boat,”. Only then did they fill the net with so many fish that they could not pull it in. 

By this sign, they recognized that it was the Lord. I too am a friend of Jesus who has witnessed many wonders of God and who believes in His glorious Resurrection from the dead. Yet, I still return to my former way of life, often failing in my many attempts to do things on my own.

In my reading of the Gospel, I heard Christ’s gentle voice call out to me: “My beloved, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ in John 9:35; ‘Do you realize what I have done for you?’ in John 13:12; ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ in John 20:15.”

I am reminded that Jesus is the Lord of life and death, that His promises are true and that He has never abandoned His flock. I am reassured that, while we are separated from our Church communities and the sacraments, we are never separated from the Lord.   

Saint Thomas Aquinas writes in Article 7 of his “Summa Theologica” that “God did not bind His power to the sacraments, so as to be unable to bestow the sacramental effect without conferring the sacrament.” This is supported in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in section 1257, which states that “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.” 

We serve a God whose ability to bestow grace upon His children is beyond our understanding. As we long to be with Him in the sacraments, may our hearts be inflamed with a burning hunger for the Lord.

Let us embrace this time as an opportunity to surrender fully to Him with the simple words, “Jesus, I trust in you.” Let us truly unite our own sufferings to the Cross and offer them in a special way for those of the whole world. Let us make time for prayer, to dive into Scripture, to serve our families and to encourage one another in Christian charity. Let us be an Easter people—rejoicing in the Resurrection of the Lord, proclaiming all that He has done for us and trusting in the guidance of His Spirit. 

On my last day in the “Eternal City,” I climbed the dome of Saint Peter’s and looked out at the breathtaking view of the city from above, marked by Bernini’s colonnade, which surrounds the piazza and resembles the arms of the Church. I was sad to be leaving and uncertain of what was to come, but I found great comfort in this image of the Church as the Body of Christ, reaching out to embrace the world — a world which Christ Himself has conquered and welcomes into His heart. In that moment, I remembered the promise of Christ in John 16:20-24 and 16:28-33, which I had read earlier that very morning and which He gave to His disciples on the night before His death:

“You will grieve, but your grief will become joy … So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you … Behold, the hour is coming when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you this so that you may have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, for I have conquered the world.”

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