Wake-up call to repentance and intercession
I personally believe that the COVID-19 global pandemic is a wake-up call for all the peoples of the world to recognise their (and our) sins, to have “contrite heart and humbled spirit” before God, to “put our whole heart into following [God], into fearing [God] and seeking [God’s] face once more” (cf. Daniel 3:25,34-43, the first reading of today’s Mass: Lent Week 3 Tuesday).
God does not cause people to sin, but God can do many things that people consider evil/bad: disease, plague, calamities. Just look at the book of Exodus, for example. In the book of Job, Satan could send calamities to Job only because God gave Job into Satan’s hands in order to test him. Throughout the book, Job would attribute his predicament to God, never to Satan.
Have you read a small little book called Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence? It explains that God is in control of everything; there is no other god besides him who could do anything against his will. We have to surrender to God’s will because it is always for a good purpose and directed towards the ultimate good. Here are some biblical quotations cited in the book:
- Isaiah 45:6-7 RSV: “6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. 7 I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.
- Deuteronomy 32:39 RSV: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”
- 1Samuel 2:6-7 RSV: “6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts.”
- Amos 3:6 RSV: “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it?”
- Sirach 11:14 RSV: “Good things and bad, life and death, poverty and wealth, come from the Lord.”
While I do not deny the idea of divine chastisement/punishment, I find that kind of terminology unhelpful with most people because it makes people focus on God’s wrath rather than on the response expected from human beings. Cardinal Reinhard Marx said that seeing coronavirus as God’s punishment leads to a “very difficult and negative image of God”. He must have forgotten Hebrews 12:5-6 (see the text in the New Testament section below).
When people focus on divine punishment, they tend to think that God is being unreasonable or unmerciful; they think that human beings do not deserve such pandemic because we are innocent. They forgot that human beings are sinners, that grave sins have been committed and continue to be committed, that human beings are destroying the world and many other good things that God has been creating, including life itself (e.g. in Jan 2019 New York celebrated the promulgation of state law permitting abortion up to birth; years of clerical child abuse in Catholic Church and complicit bishops; idol worship during Amazon Synod and in many other forms throughout the world).
When people blame the devil for the global pandemic (because they think how can God send such evil thing), they unwittingly make God to be a passive and distant observer of the world who is summoned by the prayers of the people to help medical workers and scientists do the ‘firefighting’.
Instead, we should learn the correct response to any calamity from what the Bible reveals to us about how the prophets and other men and women of God responded to biblical calamities. Here are some examples from the Bible:
- David repented after conducting census of his people (cf. 2Samuel 24:1-25; a subset is read in Ordinary Time Year 2 Week 4 Wednesday)
- The prayer of Azariah in the furnace (cf. Daniel 3, Catholic Edition only; Lent Week 3 Tuesday)
- The prayer of Daniel (cf. Daniel 9:1-27; a subset is read in Lent Week 2 Monday)
- Public confession of the people of Israel, led by Nehemiah (cf. Nehemiah 9; never used in Mass)
- The martyrdom of the seven brothers (cf. 2Maccabees 7, especially v. 18, omitted from Ordinary Time Year 1 Week 33 Wednesday)
- The prayer of Esther (cf. Esther 4:17, Catholic Edition only; Lent Week 1 Thursday)
In the above examples:
- None of them believed that they or their people were innocent
- None of them blamed the devil for the calamities
- All of them recognised God as the ultimate source of the calamities.
Even in the case of exile, even though it was the Babylonians who invaded and destroyed Judah and Jerusalem, the elders of the Jews recognised that God was the ultimate cause: “But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia” (Ezra 5:12 RSV).
However, recognising God as the ultimate cause of calamities does not mean blaming God. Instead, all of the above responses consist of turning to God in repentance, acknowledging human sins, begging God’s mercy and committing to be faithful to God again in the context of covenant relationship. This is the correct response to any calamity.
Turning to the New Testament, we find the following examples:
- Luke 13:4-5 RSV: “Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?
5 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
- John 5:14 RSV: “Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.’”
- John 9:3 RSV: “Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him […]’.”
- Hebrews 12:5-11 RSV: “[…] ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’ [Prov 3:11-12] […] 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
From these examples, we can learn that disaster or suffering can be a call to repentance. It can also be an occasion for the works of God to be manifest or an opportunity for other people to exercise charity towards the afflicted persons. Finally, it can be the means by which the Lord disciplines us because He treats us as His children.
2Chronicles 36:20-21 and Leviticus 26:33-35 link the exile with Israel’s failure to keep the Sabbath.
- 2Chronicles 36:20-21 RSV: “He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword […] to fulfil the word of the LORD […] until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. […]”
- Leviticus 26:33-35 RSV: “I will scatter you among the nations […] Then the land shall enjoy its sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest which it had not in your sabbaths when you dwelt upon it.”
When we have a narrow perspective on global events and focus only on the effects such an event has on human health, freedom and financial position, then something like COVID-19 would be considered entirely evil. But if we consider also the environmental impact of COVID-19, it is actually very good: the whole world has cleaner air and water; birds and sea creatures can breathe more easily; even humans who were usually suffering from the effects of air and water pollution are having the benefits of cleaner environment. An article in Forbes on 11 Mar 2020 by a senior contributor Jeff McMahon says that coronavirus lockdown may save more lives by preventing pollution than by preventing infection.
Suspending public Masses and closing churches
Bishop Athanasius Schneider: “As long as supermarkets are open and accessible, and as long as people have access to public transportation, one cannot see a plausible reason for banning people from assisting at Holy Mass in a church. One can guarantee in churches the same and even better hygienic protective measures”. However, we must also take heed of what Fr Mike Schmitz said in a video “How Should Catholics Respond to the Coronavirus Pandemic?”:
- It’s a luxury to criticise other people’s decision when we don’t have the responsibility to make the decision.
- Our sphere of interest is always bigger than our sphere of influence. We need to do what we can do given the current circumstances.
- We should not lament the suspension of Masses. Instead, we can pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the official prayer of the Church.
Why is there suffering at all?
See Fr. Antonio Ducay, “A God Who Lets Things Happen? The Mystery of Evil and Suffering”, https://opusdei.org/en/document/a-god-who-lets-things-happen-mystery-of-evil-and-s/, 31 Mar 2020.
Evil stems from created freedom
In bringing us into existence God “puts us to the test,” entrusting us with the task of doing all the good we can. But often enough we don’t do so, or even do the opposite: we freely choose to do what is wrong. Humanity has done so right from the beginning, ever since that decision of our first parents [called original sin], which became the fountain head for all other evils. Everything evil in the world stems from a misguided use of freedom. Sin is the true evil we must fear. All the other evils in the world, in one way or another, stem from there.
Suffering as a trial or purification
But evil is not always the direct result of human guilt. When the good that should be present is lacking, evil appears. We suffer when we experience any absence of the good. In Sacred Scripture, the Book of Job shows us that the just and innocent suffer too. Job’s suffering represents a trial to test his faith, from which he emerges greatly strengthened. Sometimes God tests us, but He always gives us his grace to win out and find a way to grow in love, which is the ultimate meaning of good.
In Moses’ time, when the people were fickle and capricious. God purified them through a 40-year desert journey, guiding and teaching them until they were ready to enter the Promised Land. In our life, too, suffering can often lead to a change, a conversion, accompanied by an opening to others’ needs. Then suffering also becomes part of God’s ‘pedagogy’. He doesn’t want us to get lost on the way, wasting our time pursuing transient delights and worldly aims. God can turn this evil (suffering) into a means to attain our true good.
Suffering inscribed in nature
The fleeting nature of all creatures, who age and die; the lack of harmony in nature, seen in earthquakes and tsunamis that tear apart the very order of creation. These are sufferings that we cannot avoid or control; they are, as it were, inscribed in nature. Why does God permit disasters? One possible explanation is that, in God’s creative plan, the destruction involved in natural evils and disasters bears some relationship to our free will and our capacity to reject God, if only as an image of the harm that results when we separate ourselves from Him. With mankind, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (Rom 8:22), because creation too shares in God’s creative and redemptive plan. Creation too “cherishes the hope of being freed from corruption and enabled to participate in the glorious freedom of the children of God”(Rom 8:21).
The meaning of evil is fully illumined only by the Cross of Christ. And together with the Cross, the Resurrection. Christ’s Cross shows us that suffering can be the sign and proof of love. Moreover, it can be the path to destroy sin. For it was on Jesus’ Cross that God’s love washed away the sins of the world. Sin has no resistance against the love that lowers itself and humiliates itself for the good of the sinner. On the Cross, Jesus’ suffering is redemptive because his love for the Father and mankind does not recoil before human rejection and injustice. With his complete self-giving, He gave his life for sinners. Thus his Cross became the source of life for them. Our sufferings too can be redemptive, when they stem from love and are transformed by love. It is not suffering in itself that redeems, but the love that imbues it.
The trump card
Although evil is an evident reality in our life here on earth, God holds the “trump card;” his is the final move in all that refers to each person’s life. It is his all-powerful Love that is the world’s true hope—a Love made manifest also in Christ’s Resurrection. No matter how great and incomprehensible life’s tragedies may be, the creative and re-creative power of God is much greater. Life is a time of testing; when it is over, what is definitive begins.
How can we help those who are suffering?
Oftentimes we feel powerless when faced with the suffering of others and can only try to do what the good Samaritan did (cf. Lk 10:25-37). We can offer our affection, listen sympathetically, accompany; that is, we can refuse to “pass by on the other side” without showing any concern. But sometimes we too need to be healed because something has wounded us. Many people have felt God’s caress precisely in their most difficult moments. These are opportunities for love to expand forcefully if God’s grace is embraced, which restores dignity to even the most extreme situations.
 https://novenanews.com/bishops-insist-coronavirus-not-gods-punishment/ [3 Apr 2020]
His full reply in German can be found here: https://www.merkur.de/lokales/muenchen/stadt-muenchen/reinhard-marx-per40473/kardinal-reinhard-marx-corona-keine-strafe-gottes-13608760.html [21 Mar 2020]
A lecture response by Fr Dominic Legge OP: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqzZ55OV1ys [8 Apr 2020]
 https://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffmcmahon/2020/03/11/coronavirus-lockdown-may-save-more-lives-from-pollution-and-climate-than-from-virus [11 Mar 2020]
 https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/articles/item/4826-exclusive-interview-bishop-athanasius-schneider-on-church-s-handling-of-coronavirus [27 Mar 2020]
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RTP5P9PtYwA [18 Mar 2020]