As the COVID-19 pandemic continues deep into May, the majority of Catholics in Western society are still without public Masses. Some Catholics are without any sacraments at all, depending on the diocese. On May 14, the Pope Francis called all Catholics to a day of fasting and prayer to end the coronavirus. Surely, this is a prayer all Catholics can get behind. Additionally, Catholics could look at this news and be excited that the pope was highlighting the need for the faithful to do some real penance — an aspect of our religion that is neglected in the modern world. When it comes to fasting and acts of asceticism, the modern Church certainly has room for improvement, so it should normally be celebrated when it appears that Church leadership calls for more of it. But upon closer inspection, Catholics should have some reservations about this particular call to prayer and fasting.
Unfortunately, the problem with the Holy Father’s call to prayer and fasting on May 14 was that it was made not as a truly Christian call to repentance, but through an ecumenical group including Muslim and Jewish leaders called “The Higher Committee of Human Fraternity”.
The Holy Father even anticipated criticism, saying:
Maybe there will be someone who will say, “This is religious relativism and it cannot be done.” But how can we not pray to the father of us all? Each one prays as they know how, as they are able to. We are not praying one against the other, one tradition against another … [but] as brothers.
Now, if the Holy Father means by this that ultimately, the goal of the Catholic Church is to bring all souls to Christ, then yes, it could be seen as appropriate. However, it is hard to believe that this is what is going on. Does anyone really think that droves (or even a small number) of Muslims and Jews are going to now convert to Catholicism because the pope has asked them to pray and fast with us, especially while Muslims around the world are already in the thick of Ramadan — praying and fasting every day? There may be a time and place in history for this type of ecumenism if it is meant to draw others into the Faith. Now is not that time. Right now, the Catholic Church would be better served re-evangelizing its own lost faithful.
Western society has embraced the lie that there are truths in all religions and that, basically, we all desire the same thing: to be with God in Heaven when we die. The usual train of thought then follows that if we all share the same basic beliefs, and we’re all people of good will, one can believe anything and be saved. In this time of crisis, the Catholic hierarchy needs to convince its own people that it represents the One True Faith brought to us by Jesus Christ. And they can do this and pray for the end of coronavirus as the Holy Father asks by embracing traditions that have been all but forgotten.
The irony of asking Catholics to participate in an interfaith day of fasting and prayer to end a pandemic is rich when, unbeknownst to most Catholics, we are just beginning what used to be the Rogation Days. According to the Angelus Press Roman Missal of 1962, the Rogation Days started in 5th-century France. They were used as days of penance after the diocese of Vienne had suffered “earthquakes and other calamities.” By the 9th century, Pope Leo XIII had introduced the Rogation Days into the whole Roman Catholic Church, making them an almost mini-Lent prior to the Feast of the Ascension . Our Catholic tradition is rich with periods of fasting and prayer like Rogation and Ember Days that have been lost, particularly since the new calendar of Pope Paul VI was instituted.
Pope Francis should ask all Catholics to bring back the Rogation Days and offer up prayers and fasting for the sins of the world and pray for the obliteration of the coronavirus, which is the result of a fallen and sinful world.
Catholics, leaders and laity alike, need to ask themselves: does one day of prayer and fasting with those from other faith backgrounds really do us good in this time and place? Does it strengthen our Catholic identity, or does it bring us closer to a Masonic “Higher Committee of Human Fraternity”? Will it bring the “Christmas and Easter” Catholics back to the pews every Sunday? Will it convince the two thirds of Catholics who do not believe in the Real Presence that Jesus Christ our Savior is with us in body and spirit in the sacrifice of the Mass? Will it convince the more than 50% of Catholics in the United States who support Roe v. Wade of the evils of legal abortion? Will it help the 90% of Catholics who use contraception discern that they are in grave violation of God’s Natural Law?
By engaging in these falsely ecumenical acts and dialogues at this time of crisis in the Catholic Church, Catholic leadership further obfuscates the truth. It only confirms for the casual observer that “Catholicism isn’t very different from Islam or Judaism. I can believe basically whatever I want if it has some ‘common ground’ with Christianity. As long as I’m a ‘good person,’ I will make it to Heaven.” This is a grave mistake, and it endangers the salvation of souls currently on this Earth. We would be wise to instead offer our prayers and penance up to Jesus Christ Himself using Catholic traditions, and in the process strengthen our Catholic identity.
I beg our church leaders and the Holy Father to go back to our roots. As Fr. John Zuhlsdorf often says on his blog, “We are our rites.” I would urge our Church leaders to use the rich traditions and spiritual tools of the holy Catholic Church that have existed for centuries and have largely been abandoned. The Rogation Days are a perfect example of something Catholics can do, right now, to pray for the end of the coronavirus and are based in traditional Catholic teaching: asking God for mercy during earthly trials and tribulations.
While the Vatican is at it, it would be wise to ask modern Catholics to more consistently take up acts of penitence and asceticism. Abstain from meat and fast every Friday, not just during Lent. By challenging Catholics to be more Catholic, Church leaders will inspire a deeper belief.
The faithful will respond to holy challenges that call on them to grow closer to Jesus Christ Our Lord. However, empty calls to false ecumenism that at their heart compare Catholicism as an equal to Islam and Judaism will not inspire. Ultimately, these acts gain us nothing, because they are not calling mankind to offer up these petitions to Jesus Christ, but instead to a God of a more nebulous “shared” faith.
 Roman Catholic Daily Missal. Angelus Press. Eighth Printing 2019. pp 645.
Born and raised in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Brendan Buckley currently lives in San Diego, Calif. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, majoring in history and Spanish. He and his wife, Tessa, are expecting their first child in 2020. The views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (DoD).