Super-essential Work amid COVID-19


Has anyone else been a bit taken aback in realizing that you are not an “essential worker”? Of course, we Jesuits are supposed to pray for, and in fact are all in dire need of, humility. So perhaps this should be the Lenten lesson my brothers and I need. Nurses and doctors, men gifted with the practical use of their hands, police and fire personnel, EMTs and first responders have all been rightly deemed essential workers. But the teacher, the artist, the daily Mass-goer along with their priests have all been relegated to world of virtual reality. We are non-essential! But when I hear from critics that the Faith is not rational or that celibacy is not natural, I always respond, “True. The truths of Christianity are not rational, they’re super-rational; celibacy is not natural, it is supernatural,” and so on. So, if we are not “essential,” could it be said that the daily communicant, the weekly penitent, the religious, the priest, and all the Christian faithful are “super-essential”? Perhaps. There is precedent!

Back in the fourth century, when St. Jerome went to put the Our Father into everyday Latin, he took the very Greek word for “super-essential” (epiousios) and rendered it as quotidian, daily. To be fair, he first translated this fairly unique term in Matthew’s version of the Our Father literally as supersubstantialem — super-substantial, or super-essential, and then he rendered Luke’s account of Jesus’s telling his followers how to pray as quotidianum — quotidian, or daily. Both translations are valid, but it is the latter the Church was inspired to incorporate into her sacred liturgy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church accordingly informs us that:

“Daily” (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. Taken in a temporal sense, this word is a pedagogical repetition of “this day,” to confirm us in trust “without reservation.” Taken in the qualitative sense, it signifies what is necessary for life, and more broadly every good thing sufficient for subsistence. Taken literally (epi-ousios: “super-essential”), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the “medicine of immortality,” without which we have no life within us. Finally in this connection, its heavenly meaning is evident: “this day” is the Day of the Lord, the day of the feast of the kingdom, anticipated in the Eucharist that is already the foretaste of the kingdom to come. For this reason it is fitting for the Eucharistic liturgy to be celebrated each day. (CCC §2837)

As such, these more silent and stiller days can allow us to dwell on what is in fact “necessary for life,” what is the subsistence on which we live, by which we value ourselves, and for which we get out of bed each day.

The Church would have us think that this all-encompassing reality is the Bread of Life, the Most Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist is not just one devotion among others; the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ continued throughout space and time. The Eucharist is the Way, the way our God-made-flesh keeps his promises of never leaving us orphans (Jn 14:18) and being with us until the end of the world (Mt 28:20). This is what has been so sad and scandalous about all of this social distancing, the cancelation of public Masses, and the locking of many of our Church doors. Perhaps we clerics owe the faithful an apology in not thinking creatively enough on how to keep Christ’s sacraments accessible. Some priests have been heroic enough to hear confessions from cars (what I call the “Shrive Through”) or hold Eucharistic Adoration in parking lots. Could we have been more clever in devising ways to offer Holy Communion — 20 Masses per day with only 10 people each? For social distancing is not absolute: we still go for walks, we still make it to the store, to the pharmacy, and to the doctor. What does the closing of our Churches then say about what we prioritize? Perhaps we are non-essential after all.

But it is standard Christian doctrine that God allows evil only in order to bring a greater good out of it. Don’t we all feel that the Lord is in fact working something great? The hunger he is enlarging in the hearts of his faithful is mightier than any virus, the longing for communion I see is greater than any distancing. This endemic will be gone and we should not look back thinking we wasted the unique graces the Father offers his faithful during such times. At one level, isn’t this the Lent we all wanted when Ash Wednesday came? Now we have actually been led into the desert to face the more meaningful realities of our lives, our “daily” means of existence and our more quotidian ways of passing the days God grants us while on this earth — a gift the fragility of which is becoming more and more obvious each day.

We were offered a glimpse of our Holy Father’s heroic solitude in his Urbi et Orbi at the end of March. Recalling Christ asleep in the boat (Mk 4:35–41), Pope Francis walked alone in St. Peter’s carrying the Cross for all of us, trying to calm the Barque in which we all “live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Like all of us right now, the photos of the Holy Father walking in utter isolation, denuded of the crowds which he loves so much, stripped of the fanfare and excitement which is a papal audience, remind us that life is fragile and that we must all walk before the Lord with trust and the hope that only the graces of Baptism can bring, that supernatural hope that is essentially different than optimism. It is a hope that does not ignore the storms but knows that Christ is more intimately present in the tempest and in the tumult than he is in the calm and the cosmetic, or as Pope Francis told us:

The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.

Lent is the season of confrontation. It is a time to face honestly, and probably contritely, the ways we have failed to trust the Lord amidst the storms of our lives. But the supernatural virtue of hope, that superessential trust in God’s Lordship, is stronger than any repentance or sorrow. Hope empowers us to face reality as it truly is, knowing that while the storms and the viruses are inevitable in this fallen world, the Cross is the means by which we not only survive but are brought to the eternal glory of Easter.

May the Crucified Yet Risen Christ bless you and your loved ones, and even your enemies, during this time. May he keep you safe in this time of illness, and hopeful in these days of uncertainty. Know that I offer a Mass each and every month for anyone who spends time on these pages, for your growth in holiness and joy in eternity. Please pray for me.

Blessings,
Fr. Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.

Comments

  1. Avatar Mary Jane Strong says:

    Thank you for taking what is a “daily” prayer and giving it the three-fold meanings “lost in translation.” A loss in meaning is perhaps necessary whenever one is distanced from the original, and here we have a distance of millenia, as well. Also, I never thought of the parallel between the sacrifices we connect with Lent and the unprecedented separation from the Eucharist. Cliches are usually based on some essential truth: we never appreciate something so well as when we’ve lost it.

  2. Avatar Deacon Michael Sowers says:

    Thank you for your insightful words Father!
    May you be additionally blessed during this Holy Week.
    I long for the time when God’s Church can assemble again to celebrate Mass and physically participate in receiving The Eucharist!

  3. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr Meconi, thank you for offering Mass every day for us your readers. I need your prayers for sure.
    I have been thinking during the past three weeks of lockdown. Yes, our church doors are closed. We have almost no contact with our parish and parishioner friends. We are in Lent, abstaining from Eucharist and communal gatherings. We are also experiencing what millions of Catholics experience on a regular basis. Catholics in the Amazon, in China, in Africa and in so many other parts of the world. Places where there are no priests, where the Eucharist is not celebrated weekly. In fact, in so many places, it may not be celebrated annually. We seldom hear about the experience of these millions. We do hear a lot of opposition when there are suggestions that married men ordained priests would privide the summit and source of our life in Chist on a weekly basis. Let our Lent allow us to be in solidarity with those in most need of Eucharist and the necessities of life.

  4. Avatar Joanne Baker says:

    Super-essential. Love it!! What a beautiful insight, Fr. Meconi. Thank u for your prayers. Praying for u 2.

  5. Avatar Jean John says:

    The Episcopal church near me makes space available for eleven Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week. As soon as the quarantine started, they assured us that we could continue to meet on their site. They set guidelines: the first 10 people would meet in the regular room; the second ten would meet outside on the patio; the third ten would meet at the picnic tables at the far end of the parking garage. And so on. You are so correct to suggest multiple celebrations of Mass with limited number of attendees. I am very disappointed that priests – You Have One Job – have made no effort to be creative. The coronavirus was a God-given opportunity to stand up and be strong men, countering the last 20 years of sordid scandal.

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