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Suffering and Joy in Bleak and Dangerous Times

If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

—2 Corinthians 1:6–7

I sat at my desk in my office, watching the text cursor on my email draft slowly blink in and out of existence. I was preparing to send an email to a priest.

It had been three weeks since I had received the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion. It was March 30, 2020, and the world seemed to have become a very different place from a mere month or so prior.

In the first couple days of January 2020, I remember seeing various internet memes referring to a “new plague” in China. That was the extent of my knowledge on the subject, and truly the extent of my interest. It was reminiscent of the many of the alleged “plagues” I had heard about throughout my life — Swine Flu, West Nile Virus, Ebola, Bird Flu — sicknesses that seemed to cause headlines for a short period of time before disappearing from society’s view, forgotten as a mere inconvenience rather than a tangible threat. If people were hurt, they were far away, and the looming fear of widespread infection never really materialized.

I didn’t pay the issue too much mind; I had more important things to concern myself with.

My fiancée, Caitlyn, had recently moved into my parents’ rental home, which was to become our marital home in June. So the early days of 2020 were spent toiling away as an associate attorney at my law firm in the hopes that I could save enough money to fund our honeymoon, while my evenings were spent undertaking renovation projects on Caitlyn’s new house. We finished the bulk of the renovations in January. However, there was always something that needed done, both inside and outside of the house. In addition to picking out our wedding food and meeting with our priest for our pre-marital classes, I spent my free time as I always did: reading about Catholic theology, playing videogames, watching sports, and helping my dad with the farm chores. Caitlyn, meanwhile, occupied herself with various crafts, with working the night shifts as a nurse, and with making the numerous wedding preparations. Life was, for all intents and purposes, normal.

Near the end of February, per family tradition, I traveled to West Virginia with my cousin and brothers in order to ensure that nary a trout in the whole state went uncaught. That first weekend trip of the year was icy cold. I recall standing in the stream in the heart of Appalachia, a blizzard pounding down on me as I netted a strong, beautiful rainbow trout. Just as I always did when I caught the first trout of the year, I looked up to the icy-gray sky, trout-filled net in one hand, rod in the other — and thanked God for that exact moment.

That was mere months ago. It seems like a lifetime.

Once I returned from that trout fishing expedition, things started to get really weird, really fast. In early March, I began to hear more about the “Coronavirus.” It had now arrived in the United States, and it was “getting bad” in Italy, whatever that meant. One day, I bumped into a high school friend’s mom at court who told me her son — my former classmate — might have to cancel a trip to Milan that he had been planning for some time. Unfortunate, I had said. Hopefully it clears up soon.

I still am not sure whether he ended up going. I hope not.

The news channels were split; those that dislike President Trump said he was already blowing it, while those that support him said he had everything under control. Several elderly people had died in a nursing home in Washington, and a few others in New York. Skeptics said this was just a new flu — an illness which, in its normal iteration, killed thousands of people per year. This wasn’t anything different from what we have seen before. I wondered how long it would be before this coronavirus scare blew over. I had work to do. I had clients to see. I had a wedding to plan. I had a life to live.

Then, seemingly overnight, all hell broke loose.

The coronavirus spreads from Washington and New York. Cleveland has a case. Now three. Schools closed on a week-by-week basis. Big events canceled. Just precautionary. Court is in session, still packed with lawyers and criminals and judges. Visits to nursing homes limited to one person per resident per day. A state of emergency is declared, but nobody really knows what that means. School canceled for a month. March Madness postponed. No, canceled. Ohio has four cases. Social distancing. What is social distancing? Bars and restaurants close. You can’t buy hand sanitizer anymore. You can’t buy toilet paper anymore? Made my own hand sanitizer. Dad laughs. Says it’s a conspiracy to make Trump look bad. Fifty cases in Ohio. School canceled indefinitely. Elections canceled. Everyone’s afraid. My brother, a doctor, says it’s just the flu. The United States has two deaths. The United States has a thousand deaths. Ohio has its first death. Ohio has twelve deaths. I clean all my guns. Non-essential personnel ordered to stay home from work. Avoid going out at all costs. Don’t touch your face; don’t touch surfaces. Work from home. Caitlyn’s bridal shower is canceled, she cries. Celebrities sing a communist song. Everyone laughs. Celebrities die. Nobody laughs. My brother, a doctor, no longer says it’s just the flu. Ohio has fifty deaths. Flatten the curve. America is not working. Businesses go under. Businesses get bailed out. The United States has four thousand deaths. Congress gives two trillion dollars. Baseball is canceled. Everyone seems to forget about Joe Biden. Everyone should wear a mask. Nobody should wear a mask. Supplies are scarce. Doctors in Italy choose who lives and who dies. Bodies carried out of Italian cities in a convoy of military trucks. Piles of bodies lifted by forklift in New York. This is war. Hospitals are now “the front lines.” Forty thousand deaths worldwide. The economy is going to collapse. United States has ten thousand deaths. It’s getting better, right? Is it getting better?

Nope. It’s still getting worse. We’re just used to it now.

The most surreal part of it all is how utterly insane the lives we had a mere sixty days ago now seemed. Sitting down in a restaurant? Hugging your friend? Shaking hands with a new client? Watching sports? Not using hand sanitizer? We took all of it so very much for granted — to go to a ballgame, to go to a bar, to go to Mass…

Mass. That’s what hurts the most. That’s what hurts more than anything.

The first major step that took place in the Church was that certain dioceses decided to give dispensations to the faithful from their Sunday obligations. My diocese, the Diocese of Cleveland, was one of the first ones to do so. I planned on going to Mass despite the dispensation, but that Sunday happened to fall on the weekend I went on my second trout fishing trip of the year. So, for the first time in two years, I did not go to Mass on Sunday.

I still don’t know how to feel about that. On one hand, I’m glad I didn’t go and potentially bring back a virus that could kill me or my family. On the other hand, I feel ashamed because all Masses in Ohio were outright canceled the following week. Soon, all church gatherings were canceled nationwide. Could I have contracted the coronavirus at that Mass? Perhaps. But it may have been the last time I could have received the Eucharist for a very long time…or, as the parable of the ten virgins taught me, it could have been the last time I received the Eucharist ever.

So, on March 30, 2020, as I sat in my office being unproductive, I decided to email a local priest, whom I had never seen for confession before, and ask if he would meet with me.

By that time, all court had been canceled, and I was admittedly distracted by the seemingly inescapable plague that was — and still is — dominating every aspect of life. But, more than that, I was distracted by the fact that I was now in a state of mortal sin, and confessions had been suspended until further notice. Before all of this, I went to confession at least every other week. That’s normally how long I could go before I fell out of grace and found myself knowing that, should I die before reaching confession, eternal damnation awaited.

I hate that.

I don’t hate that dying outside a state of grace results in damnation. That is just. What I hate is that a mere two weeks is as long as I usually go before tossing Christ’s sacrifice right back into His face by committing mortal sin. But He will forgive me, so long as I express true contrition through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But what was I to do now? Everyone was so terrified to leave their homes. Even without a pandemic causing worldwide fear, it was sometimes difficult to schedule a confession. One priest told me I didn’t need to confess because missing Sunday Mass isn’t a mortal sin. Some priests told me they were too busy and recommended a different parish. One priest simply moaned, “You’ve got to be kidding me” and rolled his eyes before begrudgingly agreeing to meet me for a quick confession. He was a bad priest.

I sat at my desk wondering whether the priest would even respond to my email, but I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. I was pleasantly surprised when the priest responded within a matter of minutes.

“Please let me know what time works for you. Here’s my cell number. PAX!”

Man, I thought. Thank God.

So, during my lunch break, I drove to the church and waited in the eerily vacant parking lot. I felt that sort of satisfaction I always felt when I finally arrived at church for confession. I’m here, I would think. I’ve made it.

After waiting a few minutes, I saw a thin man in a black jacket, with a small white square peeking out of the collar, who waved me over to the rectory, an amiable smile on his face. I put on a surgical mask and exited my car.

“Thank you so much, Father,” I said as I approached him.

“I’m glad to do it.” He said it dismissively, but not dismissively as though my request were unimportant. Rather, he was dismissive as if to say, This is my job, and this is a great thing you are here for, and I am glad to do it. He was a kind priest, about fifty years old. I had been to this church on numerous occasions, and I enjoyed going to his Masses. Some priests are so kind to the point of seeming not genuine, or tell so many jokes during the homily that you fear you may be receiving the sacraments from a man who doesn’t take his vocation seriously. I prefer priests who carry out their duties with a more solemn tone; such priests convey the appropriate importance of the sacraments, in my view. However, this priest was perhaps the best middle ground one could find. When he gave Mass, he not only emphasized the gravity of Christ’s great sacrifice, but also radiated Christ’s joy, so much so that you could not help but join him in that joy. He was a good priest.

I followed Father to the corner of the rectory, where the parking lot abutted the building. As we turned the corner, I saw the door that would lead us up to his office. I always found the priests’ offices interesting. I think that, for laypeople whose only interactions with men of the cloth are weekly Mass and the occasional confession, a priest’s life appears to consist solely of saying Mass, baptizing babies, and praying the rosary. However, it’s easy to forget priests are men, like you and me. So, their offices are usually just like any other person’s office: cluttered desks adorned with paper, checks, letters, and the like. Some have golf mugs and pictures of their mothers; others may have a cat running around. My pastor growing up had model trains all over the place. He also really loved roller coasters. He was a good priest.

So I saw the door that undoubtedly led to an office that perhaps smelled like cats, or maybe had a set of golf clubs in the corner. But he did not open it. Instead, the priest turned his back to the door as he faced me.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, the smile never leaving his face. “We’re going to do confession here in the parking lot.”

I nodded in understanding, folded my hands, and bowed my head.

I made a good confession.

* * *

“So,” Father said once we were done, “It’s gotten pretty crazy around here, hasn’t it? Around everywhere, really.” It was weird to see someone constantly smiling, yet never for a second giving off the impression that the smile was anything but genuine.

“It sure has, Father,” I replied, slightly muffled under my mask. “How have you been holding up?”

“Not bad,” he began, relaxing his posture a bit. “I’m just trying by best to do what I can for everyone, now that I’m able to. I had taken a trip to Italy a few weeks ago, you see…”

My eyes got wide. He noticed. “Don’t worry,” he said with a slight laugh. “I’ve ‘self-quarantined’ for three weeks now. No symptoms, so the doctors tell me I’m good.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Father.”

“Thank you,” he said, continuing to smile. “Now I’m just trying to do what I can. We obviously are still working out how to do confessions and how to best serve everybody. These are difficult times for everyone.”

“I understand, Father.” I paused. “It’s been hard not being able to receive the sacraments.”

“Hmm,” he said, his smile finally giving way in favor of an inquisitive look. He turned and looked at the rectory window above his head, two stories up. “Well, that window right there” — he nodded toward the window — “is our rectory chapel.”

He turned back to look at me and said, “Why don’t you wait here, and I’ll go get the Lord for you?”

I knew what he meant right away, and it struck me like a bolt of lightning. I was overcome with a multitude of emotions. Relief. Excitement. Elation. Sorrow. Gratitude. They all hit me so hard that I nearly forgot to answer.

“Yes…yes, Father. Thank you,” I replied.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, smiling as he walked to the door.

As the door shut behind him, I slowly raised my hand to my face, removing my mask by slipping  the elastic band off of one ear, then the other. I stuffed it into my pocket, and slowly folded my hands, clenching my teeth and squeezing my eyes shut. I struggled to hold back tears.

Father returned a few moments later. He opened the door with his right hand; his left hand was adorned with a surgical glove, and between his thumb and pointer finger he held up the Blessed Sacrament. I immediately dropped to my knees and bowed my head, my hands folded. I had not received the Blessed Sacrament while standing in quite some time.

So there, kneeling on the asphalt of a vacant church parking lot, on a gray, windy spring day, I received the Eucharist.

Images I had never seen began to tiptoe between the recesses of my conscious and unconscious mind. The image of early Christians, in the dark and damp catacombs of Rome, celebrating the Mass atop the tomb of a martyr. A Catholic family in Ireland during the Penal Years, traveling in the dark for hours, meeting deep in the woods so that they might receive the Eucharist in a secret moonlight Mass. A medieval priest anointing the sick and distributing Communion to those dying of the black plague, despite the fact that this meant he would surely succumb to the pestilence himself.

I thought of these things, these times where it seemed all was lost, these times where it appeared as though no institution, no country, no life could survive — and I received the most Blessed Sacrament as the world seemed to crumble away around me.

I thanked the priest with tears in my eyes, got up, and walked to my car. Once there, I wept. I wept for the sins I had committed; I wept for the worldwide chastisement we were going through; I wept for offense of my sins against God; I wept for every single Catholic in the world who could not receive the immense blessing that I just had.

But, more than anything, I wept for joy.

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