Communion, God’s Presence, and Death with “Dignity” amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic


In my last article in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, entitled “Benedict XVI on Self-‘Excommunication,’”1 I examined the value of the practice of voluntary Eucharistic fasting, which I called self-excommunication, and I demonstrated how it afforded Catholics the opportunity of expressing solidarity with those who for various reasons cannot receive sacramental communion and how it can be a practically beneficial practice for oneself, fellow members of the Church, and non-Catholics. Some of what I wrote in that previous article is applicable to the forced Eucharistic “fasting”2 that we as members of the Church are now subject during the current 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic and amidst the closing of our churches and the cancellations of public Masses. I will therefore re-present (almost verbatim) just a few of the applicable sections of that article here. In addition, in this brief article I will also examine the problem of suffering and dying alone that is now so prevalent in hospital rooms across the globe due to the infectiousness of this particular virus and its relatively high death rate. Finally, I will suggest that the current pandemic can hopefully impel our society to more fruitfully examine the moral legitimacy of so-called “death with dignity,” a euphemistically named practice that has been forcefully promoted in western European nations, the United States, and Canada for the last decade (although these euthanasia and assisted suicide movements have been around much longer and exist in other nations).

[Much of this first section can be found verbatim in my previous article, as noted above.] In his Encyclical Eccelsia De Eucharista, Saint John Paul II wrote that the celebration of the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.”3 Benedict XVI often wondered what we were to say and do about those Catholics who for various reasons were excluded from sacramental communion.4 Many in our Church are now attempting to answer this same question in light of the self-quarantining, mandatory quarantining, and social distancing measures currently being practiced in our society along with the cancellation of Masses amidst the current coronavirus pandemic. Although Benedict was addressing excommunication and other reasons why some Catholics were not able to receive the Eucharist, he offered solutions that can also help us during these troubling times when most of us cannot partake of the sacrament either.

Benedict said that those who cannot receive sacramental communion are not excluded from salvation and the ultimate partaking of the Lord’s Supper at the eternal wedding feast;5 this should give us comfort given that the eternal feast (our union with God) is the ultimate purpose for our existence. The Eucharist may be “the source and summit of the Christian life,” but it is does not possess the same effective salvific power as baptism, or even as the sacrament of reconciliation and penance. Benedict argued that we can take advantage of this time period when we are unable to receive the Eucharist to examine our fitness for the eternal feast and to better conform our lives to Christ so that we can eventually (and most importantly) enjoy the heavenly meal.6

Benedict also taught that those who are unable to receive the sacrament are not excluded from other forms of communion with Christ and the Church.7 This is important. We all remain united with Christ and one another in our shared faith and love, and by our baptism. Benedict relied on Bonaventure who said that “Christian communion, of its essence, exists through love; it is a fellowship of love.”8 Bonaventure declared that Christians can never be excluded from this communion of love,9 which applies equally to all of us as we endure this pandemic and cannot receive sacramental communion. In one sense, then, our forced Eucharistic “fasting” can be a gift which can help us conform our lives to Christ and prepare us to eventually receive sacramental communion and its spiritual gifts when we are able to do so. Benedict said that “the suffering of the excommunicate person [whose practical situation is now the same as ours as it pertains to access to the Eucharist], his stretching out for communion (the communion of the sacrament and of the living members of Christ) is the bond which unites him to the saving love of Christ.”10 We can now also form this bond and unite ourselves with Christ’s love by stretching out for communion. He further argued that “we can understand how, paradoxically, the impossibility of sacramental communion, experienced in a sense of remoteness from God, in the pain of yearning which fosters the growth of love, can lead to spiritual progress.”11 Citing Bonaventure, Benedict suggested that “it sometimes happens that an excommunicate person progresses further along the path of patience and humility than if he were able to receive communion.”12 Quite possibly then, we can spiritually progress similarly given our current situation and can learn patience and humility while we await either the time when we can receive the sacrament again or partake of the eternal, heavenly Eucharist.

Benedict also implored pastors to always remain close to their flocks, helping them to believe in Christ and his goodness [despite the suffering and death that we as a society are experiencing now] and to help them understand that they do not cease being loved by and united with Christ because Christ is always there for them even though they cannot receive him in sacramental communion.13 Many pastors are now using the internet and social media to stay close to their flocks, which is a wonderful thing.

We must remember that the Eucharist does not exist by itself as a spiritual instrument created by the priest meant only for the individual members in his church at the present time, but that the Eucharist is a product of the entire Church (of yesterday, today, tomorrow, and in heaven) which comes to us as a gift from God through the ministerial priest and that it truly unites all of us with God even when there is no one else present in the physical church except for the priest, as is the case all over the world nowadays. We may not all be physically present in churches this Sunday (or any day a Mass is offered by the priest alone throughout the duration of this current pandemic) but we are there in mystery because every celebration of the Eucharist is the one, eternal celebration of the Eucharist that unites all of us with Christ who makes himself really present. If Christ is present, and we are his body, then we too (together) are present in mystery and we remain in communion with him always.

Speaking of Christ’s presence, we have all by now unfortunately heard that loved ones are dying alone in hospital rooms all over the world in great numbers after suffering terribly from the effects of COVID-19. This should make us terribly sad. This is the unfortunate consequence of the infectiousness of this particular coronavirus; hospital workers (we should be calling them hospital heroes) are in extreme danger and cannot always remain with their patients given both the infectious nature of this virus and the increasing number of patients they need to care for. Loved ones are not allowed to be with the ill and dying because of the probable risk of infection; if they become infected, because of the exponential nature of the rate of infection, it would harm significantly more people than just those who visit their loved ones in hospital rooms. And so it appears that tens of thousands (and probably many more) have died and will continue to die utterly alone. But appearances can be deceiving. A Christian cannot accept this; it does not comport with our faith.

Many people, including Christians and non-Christians, but especially agnostics and atheists, often ask why God would allow such suffering and death in our world. It is a very legitimate and important perennial question. They often argue that a good and loving God cannot be present in such a world. It has become a more frequently asked question over the last half-century when God himself has appeared to be absent from the world even in relatively peaceful, economically stable, and healthy times. Benedict acknowledged this problem often in his writings, stating that the biggest problems in society today (and, apparently, in the Church) are the absence of God and the denial of transcendence. He explained this absence in his letter in response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, entitled “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse,”14 which I examined in my article entitled “Benedict XVI and the Absence of God.”15 He has even called God “the great absent One.”16 It is thus not surprising that a society that already rejects God’s presence would find him noticeably absent during times of great suffering such as these that we are now experiencing.

This is not the space to offer an extensive theodicy and theology of suffering, or an exposition of freedom and love which makes suffering possible; I can only briefly offer a pastoral Christian response to this dilemma of God’s supposed absence. When confronted with this problem, I always recall a climactic moment in an extremely intense movie entitled Beyond the Gates (2005) — released under title Shooting Dogs outside of the United States — which starred Academy Award nominee John Hurt, Emmy award nominee Hugh Dancy, and Clare-Hope Ashitey. The movie is a pseudo-historical account of events that took place during the Rwandan genocide in 1994; it was filmed on location where many of the events took place, and many of its supporting actors were actual survivors of the genocide. It is a great, but underappreciated, Catholic film. In the movie, a large number of Tutsis had been given refuge and protection at the local Catholic school (the École Technique Officielle) run by an elderly, active English Catholic priest and his assistant, a young male teacher. They offered Mass, taught the faith and other subjects to children (and adults), and provided other material support to Rwandans no matter their ethnicity, or social class/caste (Tutsi or Hutu). Amidst the chaos, suffering, and death that ensued when the Hutus began their genocide of the Tutsis, the young teacher asked the elder priest where God could be found during such a terribly horrific time. The priest did not have an immediate, satisfactory answer. Later in the film, the United Nations (UN) had ordered all of their personnel and all journalists out of the country, including those taking refuge at the gated school. The UN order stated that they could not remove any Rwandans, even those who remained under UN protection at the school and who would soon be slaughtered by machete-wielding Hutus who stood outside the mission gates. Essentially, the order was “Just take the whites.” As the priest and his young assistant were about to board the transports, the priest refused to go. The young man passionately urged his mentor to get on to the truck, arguing that the priest could accomplish nothing by staying behind and that he would surely die. The priest recalled the question his young assistant posed to him earlier — where is God amidst this suffering and death? He told the young man that God was right here — right behind the gates with these people who were suffering and would soon die. He could not leave them either.

God is paradoxically present exactly where he appears to be most absent. God is omnipresent, but there are gradations of divine presence in the world; for instance, we know that God is supremely present in the Eucharist. God is everywhere, yes, but he was also uniquely present behind the school gates in Rwanda. And yes, God is present with loved ones suffering and dying within four walls of isolated hospital rooms throughout the world who are victims of a terrifying microscopic killer. Benedict argued that a person could only ever be utterly alone if they separated themselves from God (God would never separate himself) and that this self-induced isolation and loneliness would only be experienced in what he called the eternal “abyss of loneliness,” which was one’s eternal separation from God “beyond the gates” of death — what Christians call hell.17 On this side of death, however, is the omnipresent life of God.

Benedict often asked the question: if Christ did not establish a utopian paradise on earth, and if he did not bring an end to suffering and death, then what did he bring? He brought God! Christ is not a God who has eliminated suffering and death; in fact, he himself was a suffering God who endured an excruciating death upon the cross of salvation. As Thomas Aquinas and other theologians have argued, Christ experienced the greatest amount of suffering possible and therefore suffered more than any other human being had suffered or could suffer.18 Our God is the one who took unsurpassable suffering upon himself and voluntarily endured his terrifying death when he could have avoided it by his divine power. He did not take away our suffering; instead he united himself with us in our suffering to transform it, and in dying he gave us access to his eternal presence.19 Christ’s presence among us is a fact of our faith, and Christ is exceedingly present with those who suffer and die “alone.” The facts of Christ’s salvific cross and eternal omnipresence should make a great difference for all us, yet they do not mean that those who suffer and die without being able to be with their loves ones should not be sad — of course they should be, and terribly so, along with their loved ones. Christ did not come to alleviate our sadness; he came into the world to experience and transform our sadness, and to let us know that he is with us when we are most sad even if his presence may not be apparent. Christ is always giving us his omnipresent, unconditional, and salvific love, and he gives us hope through his resurrection that suffering and death will not have the final say.

Finally, as result of this current pandemic, hopefully we as a society can begin to acknowledge the value of the lives of the elderly among us. Unfortunately, these are the same beautiful people that many in our society believe should be allowed to end their own lives through assisted suicide or euthanasia because of the supposed burden they place on their families, friends, or healthcare systems, or because of their suffering. It makes me sad to know that it is possible in some countries for a doctor to risk his own life in one hospital room to save the life of his elderly patient suffering from COVID-19, and for that same doctor to then walk down the hall to another hospital room to kill his other elderly patient. If the first patient were to die, he would be the only one of the two to have really experienced “death with dignity” despite his suffering and sadness having died “alone.”

Fortunately, U.S. federal, state, and local governments (informed by the scientific and medical communities) have urged people to either isolate themselves if they are symptomatic or practice social distancing if they are asymptomatic to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus especially among the elderly in our communities who are most at risk of death if they are diagnosed with COVID-19. These guidelines are being especially emphasized to the young and the millennials who unfortunately, according to some reports, had been ignoring such advice either out of ignorance or because the virus does not affect them as severely as the elderly and only in rare cases will cause their deaths (which is statistically true). Thankfully, due mainly to social media marketing campaigns and further outreach by federal governmental officials and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the young among us seemed to have received the message and are acting accordingly to save the lives of our greatest generation. I often wonder how our society (especially the young and millennials among it) would have reacted initially to this outbreak and the subsequent guidelines had our young children been the group most at risk of death. I imagine things would have been different and that everyone would have followed the guidelines immediately and that state and local governments would have been quicker to issue stay-at-home orders. This should make us think about how our society really views our elderly neighbors. Benedict said that “the quality of a society, I mean of a civilization, is also judged by how it treats elderly people and by the place it gives them in community life.”20 How will we be judged? I am here reminded of what Pope Francis has frequently called our current throw-away culture which discards those people it finds to be useless or a burden, both our youngest (our unborn children) and our oldest. He said:

Attention to the elderly makes the difference in a civilization. . . . Is there room for the elderly? . . . In a civilization in which there is no room for the elderly or where they are thrown away because they create problems, this society carries with it the virus of death. . . . In short . . . they are thrown away. It’s brutal to see how the elderly are thrown away, it is a brutal thing, it is a sin! No one dares to say it openly, but it’s done! There is something vile in this adherence to the throw-away culture.21

While we now together battle the coronavirus plaguing our communities, we remain somewhat unaware of this “virus of death” that has been plaguing our communities for quite some time now and has been attacking and killing the elderly among us. Nevertheless, I am now more hopeful for our civilization; the measures we have enacted as a country (and others around the world) and the sacrifices we as a society have made to protect the lives of our most vulnerable, aged family members, friends, and neighbors have demonstrated the great love that is possible in our society. Hopefully these efforts will have a continued effect when we move beyond this crisis and can recognize anew the value of all human beings, especially those same elderly persons that we have taken great, sacrificial measures to protect during this current health crisis; and maybe more of us can reach out more frequently to our beloved elders (mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, etc.) who frequently do not have family or friends nearby who can visit with them regularly, and we can show them the love of Christ and that they are immeasurably valued members of our society.

We cannot deny that many of our loves ones will die sad, but we can be confident that the suffering and crucified Christian God does not let them die alone. We can pray that a positive consequence of this terribly tragic pandemic will include a newfound respect for the dignity and sanctity of the lives of our oldest and greatest generation, and that after the coronavirus is defeated, we can defeat the throwaway culture — what Pope Francis called the “virus of death.” Finally, we can hope that after the suffering and dying is done, there will be a resurgence of belief in the real presence of the suffering and loving God of Jesus Christ. Let us never forget the powerful words of Christ himself: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

  1. Joel R. Gallagher, “Benedict XVI on Self-‘Excommunication,’” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (January 26, 2020).
  2. I placed the word fasting within quotation marks to indicate that I do not believe that we can properly call it fasting, in the strict sense, if it is forced by our circumstances. However, I believe that we can use this time to treat it as fast by appropriating it as a sacrifice and offering up our various prayers to God.
  3. Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia De Eucharista, 1. See also Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 11; see also Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 73, a. 3.
  4. Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to a Spiritual Christology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 94. The chapter from which these pages are cited was also published in Benedict XVI, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 60-89. Citations of works by Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI will only contain the papal name regardless of the year of publication.
  5. Benedict XVI, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, An Interview with Peter Seewald (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 206-07.
  6. Benedict XVI, Salt of the Earth, 207.
  7. See Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 95-96; see Benedict XVI and Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 132-133.
  8. Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 95. As cited by Benedict XVI, see also Bonaventure IV Sent d 18 p 2 a un q 1 contr. 1.
  9. Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 96. As cited by Benedict XVI, see also Bonaventure IV Sent d 18 p 2 a un q 1 ad. 1.
  10. Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 96.
  11. Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 96.
  12. Benedict XVI, Behold the Pierced One, 95. See also Bonaventure, De Sacramento Ordinis 12 (Venice 1591), 519 a-c.
  13. Benedict VXI, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 144-45.
  14. See Benedict XVI, trans.by Anian Christoph Wimmer “Full text of Benedict XVI essay: ‘The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse,’” Catholic News Agency (April 10, 2019).
  15. See Joel R. Gallagher, “Benedict XVI and the Absence of God,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review (April 30, 2019).
  16. Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 23, 2013.
  17. Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity. Trans. by J. R. Foster (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 298-301.
  18. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 46, aa. 5-7; Joel R. Gallagher, “The Gethsemane Event According to Thomas Aquinas,” Angelicum vol. 94, no. 4 (2017): 673-708.
  19. See John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris for an explanation of salvific suffering.
  20. Benedict XVI, Speech delivered to the community of Sant’egido’s Home for the Elderly (November 12, 2012).
  21. Pope Francis, General Audience (March 4, 2015).
Joel R. Gallagher About Joel R. Gallagher

Joel R. Gallagher is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He taught courses at the Catholic University of America and Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, MD. He is currently working on a series of articles on the mysteries of the life of Christ according to the theology of Thomas Aquinas. His most recent articles are “The Gethsemane Event According to Thomas Aquinas” (Angelicum) and “Christus Victor Motifs and Christ’s Temptations in the Soteriology of Thomas Aquinas” (New Blackfriars). He is married and has two daughters.

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