Catholics around the world celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi on Sunday, but on Long Island and in the New York metro area, where cases of COVID-19 were among the highest in the world, many parishes will not yet be distributing Eucharist at Mass.
I applaud the church’s decision to proceed with caution to protect life. Catholics who are longing to receive Holy Communion might take solace in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest who found himself in the stark steppes of Asia, overwhelmed with a deep sense of the sacred and a strong desire to celebrate Eucharist. “Since once again, Lord ... I have neither bread, nor wine, nor altar, I will ... make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labours and sufferings of the world.”
I wonder how many first responders and front-line workers felt the same sense of sacredness in the labor and suffering that took place in an ambulance or an ICU, where staff labored through heartbreaking hours protected only by drab scrubs or plastic bags, the vestments of mercy worn when consecrating the body and blood of an infected patient with human compassion, and at times, the holy water of human tears.
The body and blood of Jesus laid on gurneys and stretchers and mats around the world, the makeshift altars of the coronavirus, unadorned by flowers and candles and stained glass windows, without the singing of psalms or hymns of praise, but perhaps the rhythm of ventilators pumping life into the lungs of humanity pushed us to a more potent prayer than the pedal of a pipe organ.
Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” There are so many who risked their lives for strangers of every creed and color. Their sacrifice is holy. Theirs is the work of human hands administering sacraments of love and healing on the altar of the entire earth.
The Eucharist has been restricted in churches, but the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus penetrated the suffering and death of George Floyd and the resurrection of peaceful protests that rose up around the dark tomb of a death without dignity. The gospel of inclusion was proclaimed from the nation’s streets, inspiring people around the world to cry out for the same justice for which Jesus died.
Their cries are the benediction that bless the gruesome death of a man who couldn’t breathe, words as hallowed as those whispered by the doctor, nurse or tech who became the last communion for a victim of COVID-19.
St. Augustine said of the body and blood of Christ, “Become what you have received.” New York City Police Chief of Department Terence Monahan fell to his knees among angry protestors, inspiring so many others to follow suit by embracing a perceived enemy. This is what the body of Christ looks like in the spring of 2020.
The tragic events of the past few months have sanctified our shared humanity with new insight into our vulnerability and the urgent need for “us and them” to be just “us,” living, laboring and loving as one, not just in crisis, but always.
Pat McDonough has been a Catholic educator on Long Island for 35 years.