I think it very sad that, in the New York City lockdown last March, Churches were shuttered and considered “nonessential”. While they were definitely meeting places and potentially dangerous seedbeds of infection, government officials essentially took the position that prayer was not considered an important part of the solution.
This was so different than at the time of the plagues of the past. In Palermo during the 16th Century, there was a terrible outbreak of the Bubonic plague. In response, the people held processions in honor of St. Rocco (who was the patron saint of plague victims in the Middle Ages) and the remains of the martyr St. Rosalia were unearthed and placed in an honored place in a Church for prayer and comfort. Even today she is credited as having rescued Palermo from extinction!
Of course, Palermo in the 16th Century was very different than New York in the 21st Century; but I am struck by the fact that prayer was not considered to be part of the solution.
To the credit of our Catholic Churches, they were never fully cut down. With the literal flip-of-a-switch, Masses were streamed; Priests offered Confessions outdoors; and the Anointing of the Sick continued with cotton balls and masks. Every Catholic Church continued to reach out and was still a center of prayer and comfort for the people, albeit in the new digital form so prevalent in today’s secular society!
But the official attitude toward Religion was one of benign neglect. Religion was suddenly more on the peripheries than usual. Healthcare workers (very rightly) were applauded, but one heard nothing about the heroic hospital and prison Chaplains who continued to minister in very dangerous situations. I think also of our own Sr. Peggy McCabe who continues to serve those in Rikers Island!
Why has Faith been banished from our culture, even when it could be doing so much good? One might respond that we have freedom of religion and you can be of any faith or no faith. This is a great and precious freedom. But what I am speaking about is not the law and the Constitution, but the values espoused in a million different ways by our media, our politicians and, more than anything, on what is not said by the utter vacuum on news programs or TV shows or cable series of any mention of religion in a positive sense. Sure, if the killer in a crime show might characterized as religiously perverted— then we see holy pictures on his or the walls of his apartment!
For most of the talkers (those in the arts and politics and the news who dominate the public square) in our society, religion is, at best, a private concern that is not to be mentioned in polite conversation. At worst, it is an irrelevant part of our past that is better to be left on the ash heap of history.
Sure, we can believe in God, but not a God Who matters. “Go to Church! Just don’t bring it up. God has no place here. Your religion does not matter”. Even other faiths are not taken seriously as religions. They are seen as part of the beautiful mosaic of diversity, only don’t take the God-talk seriously.
You see the results of this even in our homes. If you were to enter a typical Catholic home 50 years ago, you would see a picture of the Sacred Heart on the wall, a statue of Mary, maybe a picture of the Pope. Today, on the other hand, even our homes are scrubbed clean of the Faith. Children’s rooms are papered over by sports heroes and recording stars, but hardly ever a picture of Jesus or Mary.
How did this happen to a nation that used to pride itself in Faith in God?
One hopes that we are not on the trajectory that burned through Europe. Europe is one of the richest cultural areas of the world. So much of the culture was shaped and sustained by Christianity; but that is all gone. Sure, the beautiful buildings are there; you can enter them for a fee and learn all about the artists whose works are found there; you can listen to the automated guides that tell you what to look for and how to appreciate it. But they have ceased being places of prayer, of Faith.
On a recent parish pilgrimage, I was wandering on my own in the Cathedral of Florence. It was jam-packed with tourists! So, after I asked a few workers if there was a place that I could pray, they pointed to a corner chapel. I went in and was overjoyed to find the Blessed Sacrament! Moreover, and to my point, I was alone. That is, until a group of tourists found this out-of-the-way chapel. They began to take pictures until one of the workers chased them away. “This is only for people to pray.” No one stayed but me.
On another extreme, many of the churches in Prague are no longer active churches, but have become concert halls! Such a beautiful city filled with testaments in stone to Faith; now, only the shell remains.
It is beyond me what we are to do. Other than a rebirth of Faith, all else will fail.
But the Faith of the original Apostles changed the world. So, I prefer to hope and to say my Rosary. We must rebuild a new a vibrant Faith in a God Who matters: not just to us, but to the whole world.
For the sake of His Sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. – Chaplet of Divine Mercy