An eighth corporal work of mercy: Staying home so that others might live

(Karl Frederickson |

There are strange gifts wrapped in this terrible pandemic.

Its horrors are known, even if they were not appreciated early enough by many. Yet this stealth virus has held up a mirror to us all, showing us what we value, what we hold dear, what we are able to sacrifice.

During a trying Lent of lockdowns and quarantines that is stretching past Easter, almost all of us have found ourselves abstaining from the sacraments. Our eucharistic fast has stretched on for weeks. This has been disconcerting for many. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have gone to my parish several times since public Masses were banned. Even sitting in the darkened nave illuminated only by the light passing through the stained glass windows showing the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy, I felt an invisible communion of souls bonded by our shared deprivation of the Mass.

In this unprecedented time of restraint, it is as if there is an eighth corporal work of mercy. We cannot visit the sick or the imprisoned, but we are being asked to give up something as dear as reception of the Eucharist for a little while for the sake of our fellows.

The confounding truth of the COVID-19 virus is that someone who is infected has no symptoms, whether for a little while before the fever comes, or perhaps never any discernable sign of illness. Yet that person remains contagious. With the ongoing lack of adequate testing, almost none of us knows with certainty whether we are contagious or not.

Which means that any of us could be the unwitting cause of another’s death. If I am infected but asymptomatic, I may feel free to spend time with you.

You then become, at least at first, asymptomatic. And you go visit your parents. Or your friend with hypertension. Or your spouse battling lupus. And suddenly my decision to spend time with you has endangered the lives of four others.

John Milton’s great line in his Sonnet 19, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” takes on special meaning now. For this is a moment we serve in our isolation. We offer up our eucharistic hunger to save others. We stay in place to save lives.

Such a sacrifice conforms to Catholic morality and Catholic social principles. We are willing to sacrifice this good for a little while out of respect for the lives of others.

There are some who have had their Caiaphas moment, viewing individuals as expendable for the sake of the economy, calculating the likely risk to the elderly or the infirm so that, to paraphrase the Gospel, the whole nation’s economy may not perish. It is a profoundly unjust and anti-life calculus.

Our sacrifice for the sake of others is a small imitation of our Savior’s sacrifice for us. This will soon pass, but there are lessons here for us, lessons for our children as well. For the sake of the defenseless, we abstain. For the sake of the weak, we fast. How we respond will be our measure.

And those other works of mercy? Those that can be done are needed now: By supporting Catholic Charities and other aid organizations, we can feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. We can clothe the naked and shelter the homeless.

And whether sitting in a silent church or our own living room, we can pray for the living and the dead, and ask God in his mercy to bring an end to this terrible plague.

Though deprived of the bread of life and cup of salvation, this is a most Catholic moment.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].