Christ’s Corona Is Our Corona

The COVID story pales in comparison to the infectious disease of faith which the Church is experiencing. While this disease of the faith seems to be widely known, it is not widely acknowledged; while it is widely recognized, it is not widely admitted. The Church in the United States is suffering and has suffered for multiple decades from a serious infection of her faith. Indeed, this most deadly infection has deeply sickened the faith of the Church’s members, even to the point of killing the faith in a far too large a portion of the population of the Church. So that when the current COVID-19 crisis emerged, the Church was already seriously ill and was most vulnerable to a further increase in infection, in the decline of faith. So, with the Church presenting herself to us, let’s take her temperature. What we immediately read is that the Church in the United States in 2020 is showing clearly recognizable symptoms of a deeply serious infection.

The first most serious manifestation of this faith virus is a feverish hemorrhage. The Church in the US is hemorrhaging Catholics at an alarming rate. To hemorrhage is to bleed from a broken blood vessel, from the flow of life. What’s broken? The number of marriages in the Church is bleeding catastrophically to the lowest total number of marriages over the period from 1950 to 2018 (328,000 to 143,000). A consequence of this low incidence of marriage is the lowest number of infant baptisms ever recorded over the same period. Relative to the total population, the Catholic population has been steadily declining from about 23% in 1960 to 21% in 2010. Thousands of parishes have closed since the peak year of 1990 with a trend that is continuing downward.

From 1950 to 2010, one can easily estimate the number of Catholics who have “died” from this faith virus, i.e., those who have ceased to live in the faith. If from the births into the faith by Baptism are subtracted those who have physically died and to which is then added the immigration of Catholics, about 15-20 million Catholics succumbed to the faith virus and were not seen again in their parishes. This is about 250,000–300,000 per year! This an extraordinarily high “death” rate.

What is the cause of this infection of the faith? While one may postulate many possible causes, e.g., clergy scandals or cultural sexual shifts, the principal reason can be identified as an infection of objective dogmatic truth (von Balthasar, Guardini). This infection has essentially muffled or even silenced the speaking of dogma in the Church. In fact, “dogma” is a term that is now infrequently used and avoided on the grounds of offending the dignity of certain sectors of the Catholic culture. To infect dogmatic announcements is to question, to doubt, to spread the droplets of irrationality and disbelief.

This infection of dogma has already been demonstrated as a virus that weakens one’s actions of faith to such an extent that “death” of belief and practice results. Thus, when the COVID lockdown of churches was followed by opening of some parishes, people by and large simply did not come back. Part of the reason for this absenteeism is the announcement that the Mass requirement is not obligatory during this time. By not speaking clearly and dogmatically, the protective gear of faith is lowered, and Sunday worship and marriage and Baptism become infected with irrelevancy.

For the Christian, there is a clear link between this virus of faith and COVID-19. The uncovering of this link begins with asking why all this is happening. Who is truly suffering in this time? Who is called to bear the burden of a widespread COVID of body and of faith? The central issue here is to recall that the human person suffers from a serious fear of ontological death, meaning a death of one’s nature. Christ pleads with us, “Do not be afraid!” This fear is a fear of not just one’s physical death but of the death of one’s hopes, projections, businesses, parents, friends, one’s certainties, successes, comforts, all of which can result in the fear of the illness and death of one’s faith. It is this fear of death that has surfaced in a most extraordinary way in this crisis. So, we should not just see “death” in this crisis as only those in the statistics labeled “death.” There is a far deeper death, more specifically the fear of death which is at the center of the human struggle. This fear of death results in the human person acting first for himself, his own protection, his own security. He then lives in a self-enclosed bubble of self-centeredness, a prisoner of his own projections, chained to his ideas of how his life should be and living in a state of deep inner anger, frustration overwhelmed by a fear.

The fear of the death of our being is common to both COVID-19 and the virus of faith. Also common is the belief that the fear lodged in both diseases can be overcome by human effort alone. But no vaccine, no social distancing, no masked isolation will conquer this fear which penetrates into the deepest recesses of the human person. Only a Being which transcends humanity has such a necessary power. That Being is Jesus Christ.

The fundamental mission of this God-man who lived at a time of history is to free the human person from this fear of death. Christ comes to free us from this fear, to be able to love – love that is ready, excited, joyful and happy to give one’s life for the other at all the levels of living that we experience. How does Jesus free us? Very simply, by taking on the Corona of our suffering, the Crown of our selfishness and fear.

The corona viruses were named because of the crown-like spikes that are observed under the microscope. A corona is a sign, an expression of beauty (as the corona that sometimes surrounds our sun), a symbol of royal authority. This naming of a living scourge with a sign of manifest royal beauty is surely one of the great contradictions of our time. And yet is it? Or is this naming, which occurred sometime before this current crisis, actually 2019, an identification inspired by the Spirit of God to reveal a much deeper meaning to what we are experiencing?

From beneath His Crown of Thorns, His Corona, Christ weeps as He beholds our suffering of the loss of faith which exacerbates our fear of death made so clearly visible in COVID-19. Christ frees us through his death on the Cross, the ultimate sign of True Love of the other. But that death is then overcome by the release of Jesus from the tomb of death through the Resurrection. The question is “Do you believe this?” (Augustine says: “Believe first and then you will understand.” We like it the other way around: “I’ll only believe what I understand.”)

If we believe that death is not to be feared, that Christ continues to live today, then we can announce to this generation, to our children and grandchildren: “Do not be afraid! Do what you need to do — make the decisions with the unmasked love of the other in front of you, rejoice in the realization that in the final analysis, we cannot predict our future with the level of certainty that our fearful self desires. All of this crisis has the meaning of Love, a meaning we cannot determine or fully comprehend now but will be revealed in the time to come.”

The mission of the Christian is then revealed in Christ’s Corona, which is offered to us as our corona. We are called to be transformed into the nature of Christ which as a central focus includes suffering for the other; suffering for those who have been infected with the virus of faith, suffering for those who carry the fear of COVID infection. We are called to weep as Christ weeps; a soulful sobbing at the pain endured by those whose faith has decayed and have entered into the loneliness of loss of meaning, of hope and succumbed to despair and anxiety. As Christians, we suffer with those so consumed with the fear of infection in their COVID battle. This Corona of Christ rests on our global head with many piercing “thorns” of suffering; in some places, a fatal virus of faith, piercing to a dismembering of marriage, in other situations to a corona virus of illness or death, at other times and places puncturing to deaths of projections, sufferings of loss of vision, weeping at loss of consolation from consuming the very flesh of God in the Eucharist.

This points towards the meaning of this COVID crisis at this time in the history of the virus of faith — a total global revelation of the inability of humanity to project and control its future and destiny. This is exactly the root of the virus of faith; the human desire to have one’s own will dominate and to place the will of God, if even recognized, at a level of irrelevance. The human COVID corona crisis then reveals the total precariousness of humanity, much to the frustration and inner anger of the human person who wants to be in control. The faith/COVID crisis reveals the depth and dimension of the mission of the Christian-to let the thorns of the Corona of Christ be our thorns.

Christianity then gives the answer to the COVID crisis. God took on the human form to call the human person to Himself. The mission of the Christian is to live in Christ, to become united in Him. To live in Christ is to desire to take on His Nature, the nature that wants to love the other with one’s life. This is why the Cross of Christ with His Corona is the sign of true love. That Corona of Christ is the visible sign of a willingness to take on the suffering of the whole human race. We are not capable of doing that – we are not God – but Christ invites us to live in him and with His grace to take on the Corona of this crisis and suffer for all those who are so terrified, so sick, so depressed, so fearful, a condition of the virus of faith which increases greatly the fears of the current COVID crisis.

This is our mission as Christians, to take on the Corona of Christ as our Corona and look out at the people who are caught up in this monstrous global net of fear of death. In that glance of a Corona-Christ, who sees us all, over the ages and eons, even to these days — in that look is our mission: to live in Christ with Corona and be certain of the freedom from death that has been revealed to us through the Love of God for the whole human race.

Robert V. Thomann, DMin, PhD About Robert V. Thomann, DMin, PhD

Robert V. Thomann, DMin, PhD, is a married permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ. He and his wife, Joan, minister in the parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, NJ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Fordham University, a Master’s in Systematic Theology from Seton Hall University, a PhD in Oceanography from New York University, a Master’s in Civil (Environmental) Engineering from NYU, and a Bachelor’s in Civil Engineering from Manhattan College (1956).

He was Assistant Director of Administration for the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Newark and has taught in the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Guam and in the diaconate programs of the Dioceses of Newark and Paterson, New Jersey. Previous assignments include Director of RCIA for his parish for almost two decades. He previously held a position of Associate Director for Deacon Formation for the Archdiocese for seven years. As an environmental engineer and scientist, he taught for thirty years at Manhattan College, where he is currently Professor Emeritus of Environmental Engineering and Science. He was widely published in the field, including a best-selling textbook on Water Quality Modeling. He is an emeritus member of the National Academy of Engineering.

His recent publications include the book A Hemorrhaging Church, Evangelization and the Neocatechumenal Way (Amazon) and papers in Crisis Magazine and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A new book entitled Environmental Fear or Christian Environmental Love, the Great Environmental Decision is to be released (Amazon) in March 2019.

Comments

  1. Avatar James Roddy says:

    Thank you Robert for your great analysis of the Church’s own Corona issues. Only God can save us from this eternal spiritual death that awaits mankind. This can only happen if we have the humility and strength to surrender our wilt the will of God. While the outlook is bleak, remember that with God nothing is impossible. Go for it and “Do not be afraid”

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