Hippocrates, the father of medicine, said he would rather know what sort of person has a disease than what sort of disease has a person. If the “sort of disease that has a person” is COVID-19, we’re painfully aware that more than six million people worldwide—and counting—have contracted it while scientists work tirelessly to develop a vaccine.
But “what sort of person has a disease?” While almost anyone may potentially carry this virus and not even know it, all of us are already ill from it, figuratively speaking. This blunt statement isn’t intended to diminish the suffering of those who contracted COVID-19. Rather, it’s a diagnosis of what ails the human soul when our need to assemble as a people of God is compromised by a contagion.
The Church, as a fundamental sacrament, is where Christ becomes present to an assembly gathered in his name: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). According to Pope Francis, our relationship with Christ “is intimate, it is personal, but it is in community.” During the pandemic, he said, people are living “this familiarity with the Lord” apart from each other in order to “get out of the tunnel, not to stay in it.” It is dangerous, he added, if people live their relationship with God “for just myself, detached from the people of God” and without the sacraments.
Nevertheless, until a vaccine is developed and ready for use, it will be a challenge for people to gather to worship as we did in the past, especially the elderly and medically vulnerable. Ironically, those people are the most reliable Mass-goers.
Churches are implementing reasonable precautions to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus and the justifiable fear of contamination among worshipers. These include outdoor Masses with social distancing, protective masks and gloves at Mass, and Communion given exclusively in the hand. Plus, some liturgical actions and gestures are being modified to ensure further safety and confidence. For example, earlier this year, many dioceses emptied the communal water font in churches and suspended the customary tactile exchange at the rite of peace at Mass.
Anthony Fauci, MD, a respected doctor of infectious diseases on the White House coronavirus task force, suggested that Americans should never shake hands again. “Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country,” the doctor advised. Perhaps a reverent and courteous bow of the head at Mass may become more acceptable to prevent an awkward exchange of peace between those who freely extend their hand to others who cautiously withhold their own. A bow at the sign of peace is also a consistent gesture: everyone already bows before receiving Communion, and so does the presider at several key moments in the liturgy.
Yet despite safety measures, lingering in church may be unhealthy. On the other hand, a prolonged absence from our Divine Physician in the Eucharist is affecting our well-being, too. This paradoxical pain is the disease from which the people of God cannot escape discomfort. It’s the “sort of disease that has a person” in a dilemma: “ill if I do, ill if I don’t.”