“I cannot believe this is happening,” the man said to me, wiping away tears. “I don’t know how I’ll survive without receiving the Eucharist.”
We were standing in the parking lot of a Northeast Philadelphia parish, moments after a daily Mass that would be the final liturgy for an unknown stretch of time. Like a specter, the coronavirus had cloaked us all in a chilling gloom. Stores and schools have closed, and now even our churches won’t host Masses.
In a matter of weeks, our world — our very bodies — had become mysteriously contaminated.
Our hands were raw from constant washing with soap and alcohol; our elbows pushed clumsily at door handles and touch screens. We stood farther and farther apart, while every cough and sneeze became an omen.
The media grimly tracked the death and infection toll on the hour, as world leaders gave an endless stream of press conferences. When I closed my eyes, I could see still see the news image of the hateful little molecule that had brought the world to a halt.
My eyes filled as I looked at the weeping man; my voice was raspy.
“I know,” I said.
Like him, I’d been attending daily Mass for years, even though I’d once been a highly unlikely candidate for such a practice. Mornings weren’t exactly my best time: I hit the snooze button incessantly or slept through alarms entirely.
And during a long period of rebellion, Mass wasn’t a priority for me at all. I used to joke that I belonged to the church of Harley-Davidson, revving my motorcycle on Sundays instead of raising my voice in praise and thanksgiving to God.
But all that changed several years ago when I took a job working for a formidable boss. The hours were long, the demands were strict, and no less than seven previous employees had been in the position for varying lengths of time. In fact, one of my coworkers had actually kept a list. I knew that if I didn’t seek the Lord’s help, my name would quickly be added to that tally.
By that point, I’d come around to regular Sunday Masses, but I began attending before work — at first, somewhat bleary-eyed, but gradually with greater and greater eagerness. Soon I realized that my morning encounter with the eucharistic Christ was, for me, indispensable.
Now, like the man before me, I felt lost as I contemplated the days, weeks, even months that stretched ahead without sight or taste of the Bread of Life.
As we stood there, uncertain, a woman who’d also been at the Mass walked over.
“You know,” she said quietly, “I’ve been going to daily Mass for 20 years. But I think that only now am I really appreciating the Eucharist. And maybe this is a gift.”
Seeing our disbelief, she explained.
“Think of our persecuted brothers and sisters, whose churches are banned and bombed,” she said. “I’ve always prayed for them, but I don’t think I ever really understood what they endure. At least now I can share in that suffering.”
We looked at her in silence.
“Think of the Catholics in Syria, in China,” she continued. “And think of the ones in places — so many places — where there aren’t enough priests.”
I suddenly remembered a documentary I’d seen on Catholicism in Japan, which had survived more than 200 years without a single priest due to relentless persecution that saw even children murdered for the faith.
Centuries earlier, Scripture tells us, three young men found themselves captive in an alien kingdom, “with no prince, prophet, or leader, no burnt offering, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,” and “no place … to find favor” with the God they loved (Daniel 3:38).
Hurled into a furnace by an enraged despot, the youth neither cowered nor cursed. Instead, and against impossible odds, “they walked about in the flames, singing to God and blessing the Lord” (Daniel 3:24).
Unable to lift their bound hands, they instead presented a more perfect sacrifice to the Most High: “With contrite heart and humble spirit, let us be received” (Daniel 3:39).
And in return, they themselves received, as their utterly astonished tyrant himself declared: “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? … But I see four men unbound and unhurt, and the fourth looks like a son of God” (Daniel 3:91, 92).
The flames of this current trial are indeed searing. But we do not stand in them alone, nor shall we be consumed by them. He who created fire well knows how to employ it for his greater glory, and he assures us that when we have been tested, we shall “come forth like gold” (Job 23:10).
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