Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues, a Dominican priest based in Toulouse, France, recently sent out the following circular letter to the “invisible faithful” who cannot attend church services during this period of quarantine. Fr. Gregory Casprini of the monastery of Saint Benedict of Palendriai, Lithuania, has translated it from French into English and kindly offered it for publication in Today’s American Catholic. We are grateful to Fr. Jean-Miguel and Fr. Gregory for making it available to us, as we know that its message will be helpful to many people at this time—Ed.
Dear faithful laypeople in Christ,
In France and in many other countries as well, lockdowns, social distancing, the suppression of public religious services, and the closing of many churches have caused you, the Lord’s faithful laypeople, to disappear from the house of God which is the church. You have suddenly become invisible and this causes immense pain and sorrow for the entire Body of Christ. You are the first to suffer, because you are now deprived—and who knows for how long?—of the sacraments and especially of the Eucharist, the sacrament par excellence, in which Christ gives himself to us in person, and which is therefore the very source of the life of the church. I am thinking in particular of those faithful who are victims of this pandemic, and who may be at risk of dying without the help of the last sacraments.
But please believe me when I say that it also causes great sorrow for those of us who are priests. Our ordination to the ministerial priesthood has placed us at the service of your sanctification through the Word of God and the sacraments. This sanctification constitutes the priesthood which is common to all of us who are Christ’s faithful people, whether we be laypersons or ordained ministers. Imagine how devastated we are in the Dominican Order at no longer being able to preach and celebrate the liturgy except in churches where the lay faithful are absent; imagine the devastation felt by your pastors and priests whose parish assemblies have become invisible. You have become invisible and largely unreachable, even for the reception of individual confession and the sacrament of the sick. An Italian bishop recently chose to stand out in front of a retirement home so that he could offer the residents over a loudspeaker, in the form of collective absolution, the forgiveness that his priests are no longer able to give in individual confession. Unfortunately, in France, where I live, such a public act at a distance would not be permitted because of the overly narrow way in which our nation’s authorities conceive secularism.
I can very well imagine how cruelly you must feel both the invisibility of the church and your own invisibility, at this time which must seem to you like a kind of Holy Saturday, the one day of the liturgical year when the churches are devoid of any sign of the presence of Christ. This is a strange Holy Saturday indeed, standing out as a kind of eschatological premonition. The churches are still inhabited by Christ’s sacramental presence, but it is you who are no longer able to occupy your places of worship. You are confined on the outside so that is impossible for a visible assembly of believers to congregate together. You are confined outside the churches which remain closed to you, while we priests are confined inside. This creates a painful separation which is profoundly abnormal within the Body of Christ.
You have thus become invisible in the sacramentality of the church. Invisible, yes, but in no way absent from the church as a communion of people in faith, hope, and charity. The other day as I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament in our convent church, the lamp glowing alongside the tabernacle suddenly seemed to symbolize your presence; I perceived it as the sign of your daily Christian life and your invisible prayer, which normally has its source in the reception of the Eucharist. I say “normally.” But, although by virtue of the Incarnation God has made the sacraments binding upon himself in a positive way so that when they are validly conferred, they always bring us his grace, he did not make them binding upon himself in a negative or restrictive way, because he has many other means for communicating his grace.
The grace that you normally receive through the sacramental life of the church, can, when necessary, be received by you from Christ directly in your hearts. If, through no fault of your own, you are unable to receive holy communion, you can still receive the grace of communion by adoring and desiring the Eucharist which continues to be present in the tabernacles of our churches. This is what we refer to as “spiritual communion.” Remember this the next time you go past a church on your way to or from the grocery store. Even if the church is closed, it still has a tabernacle where Christ dwells, it is still a place where priests continue to celebrate the Mass. By uniting yourselves to Jesus in thought and through a fervent prayer of the heart, you can reactivate within yourselves the communion of faith, hope, and charity that constitutes the church. Remember too that the church is never more real, never more herself, than in heaven. There, however, the sacraments no longer exist, because Christ is already “all and in all” (Col. 3:11). May this unusual period, when the sacramentality of the church is obscured, become an opportunity for us to discover the other aspect of the church, an aspect which is invisible but nevertheless very real: the communion of saints. May the charity of Christ open up our hearts to concern for our brothers and sisters who are in need. Let us do whatever we can to help them, never forgetting to pray for the sick, the dying, and all the heath care workers coming to their assistance.
We need to pray for one another, asking the Lord to “increase our faith” (Lk. 17:5) so that we can bravely confront this pandemic, which in its cruelty and absurdity is going to attack above all the poorest and most vulnerable populations. So great a tragedy could easily become a stumbling block for our faith. Therefore we need to say: “I do believe, O Lord, but help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). One of the women from our parish recently shared with me a question which, quite understandably, has been tormenting her: “The idea that this could be a punishment willed by God is repulsive to me. Even admitting that we perhaps earned this result due to things like our frantic race towards globalization, how can I imagine that it is the Lord who is sending us so severe a penance at the very moment when we are more than ever in need of his love?”
Before directly answering, let me say right away that the compassion of charity “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:18), founded on Christ, who “loved his own to the very end” (Jn. 13:1), is the only language that can adequately express the Word of God to those who are coming up against the full brunt of misfortune, suffering, and evil. Let us never forget Mother Saint Teresa of Calcutta who reminded us that charity, the most universal language, is in some cases the only language that those who are afflicted can hear. To those of you who are living in less immediately stressful circumstances, I would like to offer the following meditation as a response to the question posed above, hoping that it can nourish your faith in the Word of God.
“God did not invent death, and when living creatures die, it gives him no pleasure. He created everything so that it might continue to exist, and everything he created is wholesome and good. There is no deadly poison in them.” This is what is written at the end of the Old Testament, in the book of Wisdom (1:13–14). It reveals to us that God, “the One Who Is” (Ex. 3:14), created all things so that they could exist and grow according to their nature, and not in order to destroy them. Now all bodily creatures are mortal in nature. However, with regard to man, who is simultaneously a corporeal and spiritual being, the book of Wisdom adds: “God created man incorruptible, to the image of his own likeness he made him. But by the envy of the devil, death came into the world” (Wis. 2:23–24). In other words, God created man with the intention of leading him into his own incorruptible life without him having to go through death or the corruption of the tomb. In view of this, God created man “in his image” (Gen. 1:26), with a spiritual soul capable of receiving his divine life.
However, precisely because of the richness with which he has been endowed by God, man is a complex being, and this complexity involves a certain amount of fragility. Man is mortal in virtue of his body, immortal in virtue of his spiritual soul, and he can only harmonize his composite nature by freely and actively welcoming the “likeness” (Gen. 1:26) to which God called him by inviting him to participate through grace in his divine life. Because man ruptured, through his own fault, the covenant of grace between God and himself, the harmony between his soul and his body has been wounded. This rupture took place at the origins of humanity. It is what we call original sin. This is the spiritual death that brings about in us bodily death: “sin entered the world and through sin, death; and thus death passed into all humanity” (Rom. 5:12).
The fact that we are subject to dying is not a punitive form of justice due to this or that fault that we may have committed. It is instead an immanent form of justice, resulting from the way things are, from the condition into which humanity has fallen. Our death befalls us like the obverse side of the coin of the divine greatness to which we have been called but which we have refused through sin. We have thus become mortal. Henceforth it is only by sharing in the Passover of God’s Son, in his death and resurrection, that we can enter into our divine inheritance. In this perspective, it matters little whether our death is caused by the coronavirus or by something else: for the believer, death always involves the same passage with Christ from mortal life to the life of God, whatever its immediate cause. After all, we are only “pilgrims and travelers on this earth” (Gen. 23:4; Heb. 11:13). “Let us,” therefore, resolve to “bear one another’s burdens” in Christ (Gal. 6:2) so that we can enter all together into his Passover, “passing from this world to his Father” (Jn. 13:1).
United with you all in love and in prayer,
Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues, OP
Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues is the author of 20 books on theology and spirituality as well as numerous articles. Recently he published a book along with a French Jesuit in defense of Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. He collaborated on the preparation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and helped prepare the act of repentance made by St. John Paul II on behalf of the church in the year 2000. Jean-Miguel belongs to the Dominican province of Toulouse, where for many years he has taught dogmatic theology and where he continues to give seminars and retreats.
Fr. Gregory Casprini has translated from French into English various articles on liturgy, theology, and Gregorian chant, as well as several books and articles of Fr. Jean-Miguel Garrigues in close collaboration with the author. He is presently the porter at the monastery of Saint Benedict in Palendriai, Lithuania, where he plays the organ and directs the Gregorian chant schola.