When Lent began, I had an inkling of what it would look like—the typical penances, spiritual reading, and whatnot to prepare for Passiontide and Easter. After all, it is a time to enter the desert with Jesus. This year, however, the desert around me transformed itself into something entirely unfamiliar. On St. Patrick’s Day, my home diocese of Lansing, MI, announced that all public Masses would be suspended until April 8. The suspension has since been extended all the way through April 30. The first reading at Mass on that first sorrowful day when it was announced was from the Book of Daniel and included this passage, in the words of Azariah:
For we are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation,
brought low everywhere in the world this day
because of our sins.
We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader,
no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.
But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received.
No sacrifice, oblation, or incense—chilling, really. This is a cross I would never have chosen. Indeed, I have rarely felt so gutted as I did then, knowing that for the rest of Lent, for the Triduum, for Easter Sunday itself, and beyond there would be no public worship, and no reception of Holy Communion.
Although I have never before experienced this kind of dramatic withdrawal of the public Mass, it is not the first time in history that Catholics have been asked to remain faithful, despite being parched for the sacraments. Immediately, I thought of the Japanese Catholics.
When St. Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549, he was the first to preach the Gospel there. It fell on fertile soil, and many tens of thousands of Japanese responded zealously to the Catholic faith over the next 30 years. However, in 1580, the Japanese emperor, fearing Western encroachment, began an attack on Christianity which included mass martyrdoms, dreadful persecution, and—for the Jesuit missionaries—expulsion from Japan. In 1640, the Japanese anti-Catholic government finally succeeded in driving out every last Catholic priest.
The remaining faithful Catholics were left without the Sacraments to sustain them. On top of that, they still faced persecution. So they went underground, and continued to fortify their faith as best they could through prayer, sacramentals, baptisms, marriages, and handing on the Faith orally. For over 200 years they persevered. It was not until the mid-1860’s that priests returned to Japan, the first being the Frenchman, Father Petitjean, who was utterly confounded to learn that Japanese lay people had kept the Faith during their sacramental drought.
Clearly, the situation those great-souled Japanese Catholics faced was far more dire than our own. While we cannot attend Mass, our priests are still offering Mass on our behalf. Many are still hearing socially-distanced confessions, God bless them. Still, we can learn from the Japanese how to fortify ourselves during these strange, barren days.
They did not throw up their hands and despair of spiritual growth. Rather, they faced the battle before them with the weapons they still had. Like them, we should take stock of what we have, and we should put our spiritual weapons into action:
They maintained a prayer life, and so can we. The rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Stations of the Cross, acts of spiritual communion, and so many more can be said anywhere.
They kept the liturgical year as best they could. We, too, should have continued to practice Lenten resolutions, remembering fasts and feasts. We can even follow daily Mass readings, which are available at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website.
We can unite in prayer with our priests as they offer Mass, and many are livestreaming their Masses. We may not be able to receive Jesus sacramentally, but we can still make an act of faith in His real presence in all the tabernacles of the world, and in the hands of our priests, in addition to making a Spiritual Communion.
We can obtain plenary indulgences for ourselves or the faithful departed in various ways. Indeed, due to the coronavirus, the Apostolic Penitentiary has granted special indulgences for many of the above devotions and more.
These suggestions aren’t exhaustive. The Catholic arsenal, however, is inxhaustable.
Like the Japanese saints, we should not allow despair or discouragement to take hold in our souls simply because this desert is miserable, or our situation harder than we’d choose. A dear friend sent me this reminder (after I confessed that I was very crabby about all things coronavirus), from the 2017 March Magnificat Meditation, by Father Tadeusz Dajczer: “The desert is not a dwelling place; it is only a path, a road on which one comes to know the merciful love of God. Everyone who seeks God must pass through it since the experience of the desert is closely related to the deepening of our faith in his mercy.” Even miserable deserts have a place in God’s plan for us, hard as that is to see when we are feeling parched and disconsolate.
In fact, we can take heart by recognizing that suffering (in all its guises) is, in a way, our superpower in this life, because of Christ’s suffering, with which we can unite. Who knows what graces flow through our offering up the very desire to receive Jesus, the desire for the sacraments, and the longing to assist in person at Mass. I cannot but believe that God is pouring out rivers of grace through different channels, as we awkwardly proceed along unknown paths. I am reminded of The Screwtape Letters, in which C.S. Lewis puts this thought into his imagined demon’s advice:
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
Our response to God’s grace in these times may prove more fruitful even than all those days when we strolled carelessly into Mass, or received Jesus into our bodies without thanks or great love. Sometimes thirst is good, and withdrawal may bring gratitude for what we’ve been given.
Lastly, we Catholics remain united in the Mystical Body of Christ. As I watched our dear parish priest livestream Sunday Mass, knowing how many fellow parishioners were also following from their homes, I was moved to tears. We all wanted to be there, with Jesus, and with one another in person. That has been withdrawn from us, along with many tangible consolations, but the real bond is still present, because Jesus is still present and will be with us until the end of the world.
Therefore, let us be great souls even as the Japanese were during their spiritual desert. Let us pray for one another, for the world, for our country, and for our Church. Let us not forget to pray for our priests who are faithfully offering up the perfect Sacrifice for us. And with “contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received.”
Image: Saint Anthony Abbot Tempted by a Heap of Gold by the Master of the Osservanza Triptych