When we greet another person, you and I often will ask, “How are you?” or “How are you feeling?” These days such questions have a heightened significance because of the coronavirus that is affecting much of the world community. I admit that I just flew back from a meeting in Baltimore and one of the first things I did upon getting back to the Bishop’s Residence was take a shower and then change my clothes. I noticed also that even Pope Francis having a cold is a news story these days.
Truthfully, none of us likes being sick and I believe the questions I began this column with illustrate that point. We want our family, friends, and even acquaintances not to be burdened with ill health. Yet we know in a most personal way that illness is part of the human condition. Some of us might even be aware that we are not very good patients when ill, or at least, we know we have little patience for being ill.
Unfortunately, I am one of those persons I just spoke about. I am not very tolerant when I have even the common cold, much less easygoing in the face of illness. At the end of January, when I had to cancel some school visits and other meetings on my calendar because of illness, I was none too happy! However, I knew that I couldn’t do much about being sick (except trying to rest, taking liquids and some nourishment, and practicing proper hygiene), but I could do two things for the sake of others: (1) not infect others and so stay away from the office and public events; and (2) unite myself spiritually closer to Christ, the Suffering Servant.
So, let’s start with the practical side of being ill and some things I think all of us need to be aware of when flu viruses are so rampant. I am going to share with you some guidelines I have asked to be disseminated throughout the Diocese of Syracuse:
• Mass attendance is not obligatory for those who are ill (Code of Canon Law 1983, c. 898; Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2181). Those who are ill not only can but should remain at home and participate — as they are able — by watching a broadcast of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on TV or YouTube and by making a spiritual communion.
• Those at Mass concerned they may be getting ill are encouraged to: (1) refrain from extending hands at the Sign of Peace and use some other appropriate gesture instead like a smile or nod of the head; (2) receive Holy Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue; and (3) refrain from receiving the Precious Blood from the chalice.
• Those who distribute Holy Communion (i.e., priest, deacon, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion) are to practice good hygiene, particularly by washing their hands before and after the distribution of Holy Communion. They should also take care not to touch the hand or tongue of any communicant.
• The pastor of a parish may decide to suspend the distribution of the Precious Blood from the chalice. It is important to remember that the whole Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul, and divinity, under each of the species of bread and wine (CCC, 1390). Pastors may also decide to suspend the Sign of Peace and/or the use of holy water fonts.
• Holy water fonts should be cleaned, and the water changed on a regular basis.
[Editor’s note: See page 6 of this issue for the guidance offered by the diocese.]
Some practices, such as a renewed use of Communion in the hand, began at the time of plagues in Europe as an attempt to stop their spread. Interestingly, one bishop who did so was St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan in northern Italy, and it just so happens that this same area is rampant with the coronavirus today. We note also that in some countries, counting Italy, public gatherings have been suspended, including Public Masses.
This leads us to our second area of spirituality in illness. Often when ill, you and I might not feel like praying very much, but I have learned through the years that it is in such moments that I can more readily focus on my need for God as well as others’ need for God. This challenges me first and foremost to give that which is beyond my control over to God. I might not be able to read because of a splitting headache, but even with eyes closed, can I connect with God in the moment? I consider also how I treat others around me when I am sick. How do I speak to them? Do I snap or do I try to be patient? Can the face of Christ be seen in me even if I am not feeling well?
A few practices that serve us well when we are sick are: (1) making a spiritual communion even if we cannot physically receive Holy Communion. An example of such a communion would be this prayer of St. Alphonsus Liguori:
My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the most Blessed Sacrament. I love You above all things and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot now receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there, and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.
(2) praying part of the Rosary; or (3) receiving Communion of the Sick from an Ordinary or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.
Finally, I would like to mention the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. This healing sacrament is often forgotten or thought of as only celebrated as a precursor to dying. This is not the case at all. As stated in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults:
“In the Church’s Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, through the ministry of the priest, it is Jesus who touches the sick to heal them from sin — and sometimes even from physical ailment. His cures were signs of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. The core message of his healing tells us of his plan to conquer sin and death by his dying and rising.
“The Rite of Anointing tells us there is no need to wait until a person is at the point of death to receive the Sacrament. A careful judgment about the serious nature of the illness is sufficient.
“When the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick is given, the hoped-for effect is that, if it be God’s will, the person be physically healed of illness. But even if there is no physical healing, the primary effect of the Sacrament is a spiritual healing by which the sick person receives the Holy Spirit’s gift of peace and courage to deal with the difficulties that accompany serious illness or the frailty of old age.”
An important note is that due to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and the confidentiality involved in health care services, it is important for the sick person or their family to notify the parish priest or the priest chaplain of the need for a pastoral visit and/or for the Anointing of the Sick. This will ensure that such a meeting takes place in a timely manner.
Let me conclude this week with a prayer for the sick:
who went about doing good and healing all,
we ask you to bless your friends who are sick.
Give them strength in body, courage in spirit, and patience with pain.
Let them recover their health,
so that, restored to the Christian community,
they may joyfully praise your name,
for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.