Listening to an Irish Christmas carol in Holy Week may seem odd. But not this carol, and not this Holy Week. This Is Our Christmass Day was published in 1684 by Luke Waddinge, the Catholic bishop of Ferns. It appeared (prudently in Ghent, not Ireland) in the wake of Oliver Cromwell’s murderous campaign of conquest in Ireland, and during the long, brutal English repression of the Irish and their Church that followed.
Tens of thousands of innocent Irish men, women, and children starved, died of disease, were killed or deported. Catholics were displaced, their property confiscated, Masses banned, altars stripped, churches destroyed or closed. Caitriona O’Leary’s modern performance of the Waddinge song (in Wexford Carols) is thus profoundly moving. It captures the longing of an entire people for the lost beauty of the Mass and sacraments.
We’re a long way from that time, place, and liturgical season. Easter is a very different celebration. It eclipses even Christmas in importance for believing Christians. Holy Week is the most sacred time of the year. For many American Catholics who’ve taken their Church for granted for much of the past century, COVID-19 is a sudden shock. Churches are closed. The sacraments are difficult or impossible to access. The mourning at the heart of the Irish carol isn’t quite so irrelevant or remote for the faithful this Triduum.
It’s a revealing moment for our current national character and the secular sacraments that sustain it. Abortion abattoirs and liquor stores are open in many states. Religious services are suspended. Watching the news is its own peculiar Way of the Cross: a riot of conflicting accusations, media bias, genuine fears and needs, exaggeration, and paranoia. Prudence is in short supply, and when it does show up, it comes with its own set of problems.
In a report on April 6, the Wall Street Journal noted that “Over the past month, Catholic dioceses across the [United States], as in most countries around the world, have stopped offering public Masses to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.” Most Catholics, including me and my family, have accepted the disruption as a temporary matter of public health policy. And many pastors have found ways to keep the faith alive to their people.
In my own parish, the church is open daily for private prayer. Adoration occurs every weekday in the church parking lot from noon until 3 p.m. Confessions are offered on Saturdays with proper health precautions. Sunday Mass is televised online from our pastor’s rectory chapel. And all Holy Week and Easter liturgies are being conducted and televised from the main altar of an empty parish church. The situation is far from ideal. Still, even under such burdensome circumstances, the Church is still present. Most people seeking to experience the beauty of the Triduum can do so.
As the Journal story also noted, though, many other Catholics are upset by the Church response. Bishops have taken different and confusing approaches to the crisis, “with some shutting churches entirely” and sharply restricting access to the sacraments. Others “have allowed innovations such as drive-through confessions.” This frustrates critics in the pews for two reasons. First, they argue, the churches are crippled precisely when people need them the most. And second, the crippling has been excessive and self-inflicted by bad leadership verging on cowardice. What bishops see as commonsense policies to protect their people and priests, many devoted laypeople see as exaggerated caution—or worse, kneeling to civil authority. The line dividing the virtue of prudence from the vice of weaseling can be thin. For faithful Catholics already angry at bishops—rightly or wrongly—for perceived mishandling of the abuse issue, a confused response to the COVID crisis can be the last straw.
The confusion could be fixed in the future by a sound pastoral policy (and the catechesis to explain it) for crises like COVID-19, shared commonly by all U.S. bishops. In the aftermath of the current pandemic, that should be a priority. Exactly such a sensible draft policy is now developing online in the form of new “Guidelines for Sacraments and Pastoral Care.” The guidelines are the work of sacramental theologians and infectious disease experts convened by Father Dominic Legge, OP, of the Thomistic Institute in Washington, D.C. They’ll be expanded and updated in an ongoing way.
As for our bishops as a group and their actions in this crisis, I’ll close with just a few personal observations, as someone who served in senior diocesan staff positions for twenty-seven years. In the words of one bishop friend, speaking about public criticism of the Church and her COVID-19 response, “It’s easy for those who don’t have to make the decisions to second-guess authority—very easy.”
Most bishops are doing their best, in a life that often feels like a fire drill. They’re heavily absorbed in, and assailed by, their local realities. That’s their job, of course, and it comes with its satisfactions. But if the privileges of a demanding ministry ever outweighed the burdens, those days are now long past. The challenges of leading a modern diocese are overwhelming—especially in a period of government and media pressure, and (with some regional exceptions) overall decline in sacramental practice and material resources. The diocesan problems people see from the outside are usually only the tip of the iceberg. Just managing the human issues of an aging and shrinking clergy is a full-time project. And this is only one area of a bishop’s many duties.
Most U.S. bishops—as one would expect—are well-educated, well-formed, morally good men. They’re genuinely devoted to their people. But they face constant criticism and pressure; they tend to dislike conflict; they’re wary of being used or manipulated; they’re protective of their local diocesan autonomy; many lack an inspiring leadership skill-set; and they’re too often not effective command personalities. By that, I mean the kind of leader who can attract, inspire, and empower good talent to assist him, but at the same time not lose his attention to detail and his personal control of the institutional machinery. Some bishops are exceptions. But they’re not the norm.
There is no cookie-cutter model for bishops. The people and pastoral circumstances they serve are too diverse. The right blend of courage, prudence, zeal, and ecclesial political sense is especially important for a bishop over the long haul. But again, this is a rare combination. The bureaucratic structures of U.S. Catholic life tend to favor men who are at least adequate managers. As a result, bishops can easily be perceived as removed from their people because of institutional demands on their time, focus, and decision-making—like right now.
Why is any of this relevant? Simply this: In the future, when we grumble about our bishops as mediocre or inadequate or fearful, we might profitably remember where they came from: They came from us. If our priests and bishops are “mediocre,” they’re only mirroring the tepid American reality of too many laypeople who believe in Jesus Christ . . . so long as it doesn’t cost too much. As leaders go, they’re certainly doing no worse, in the midst of a pandemic, than a self-absorbed president who tweets bombast and picks fights with reporters, and a Democratic Party leadership psychotically determined to undermine him and take power, no matter what the damage to the nation.
On Holy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and the founding of the priesthood at the Last Supper. One of the men at that meal betrayed Jesus. Of the rest, only one stood by him at the cross. And yet here we are, 2000 years later, led by men not too different from those at that first breaking of the bread, or in any past generation of the Church. God builds strong with weak clay: the weak clay in all of us.
There’s a line in the lyrics of Luke Waddinge’s old Irish carol that’s worth remembering, in and out of season:
[On this day,] to have no Mass
is our great discontent;
that without Mass, this day should pass,
doth cause us to lament.
Easter is the victory of life over death, our deliverance and liberation in the resurrection of God’s Son. But if our Easter joy this year is mixed with a taste of Good Friday’s myrrh and loss, and a hunger for the Eucharist we can’t satisfy, we should accept it as a gift. It’s a reminder of the precious things we too easily take for granted.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.