Spiritual life during a pandemic
23 October 2021
by Fr Serafino M. Lanzetta
The following talk was given at Voice of the Family’s conference “Health of the sick and salvation of souls – Church and society in this dark hour of history”, held in Rome on 23 October 2021.
I have divided this talk into two sections: I will first reflect on the importance of nourishing the spiritual life in a situation of calamity, that is, when it is more difficult to decipher the presence of God and therefore a more solid faith and hope are required, and then I will try to offer an interpretation of the present epidemic-pandemic situation caused by COVID-19, highlighting the causes of the markedly inadequate theological-spiritual response to the phenomenon.
1. The spiritual life of the Christian
Let us begin this analysis by defining what “spiritual life” is. This is life in the Holy Spirit, who, by virtue of His presence in us through sanctifying grace, produces the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity in the soul. This life infused within us by the Spirit of God, by His eternal Charity, is of a supernatural order and makes man a partaker in the very life of God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit thus live in the soul. The life of the One-in-Three: the generation of the Son and the breath of love that is the Holy Spirit are poured into the soul of man, so that he becomes a son in the Son and loves the Father with the same love as the Father and the Son: the Holy Spirit. This divine life in us, which through grace allows God to give himself to us as father, friend, sanctifier, and helper, is developed by growing in obedience to Christ and letting Him grow in us, with his “wisdom, stature, and grace” (Lk 2:52). Spiritual life is therefore living Christ, loving Christ and conforming oneself to Him. In short: being Christ; another Christ, but Christ himself.
We can also define this life in the Spirit as “participation in the life of God through the merits of Jesus Christ”, or as “the life of God in us or the life of Jesus in us”. Father Adolphe Tanqueray specifies that,
“These expressions are correct, if one takes care to explain them well in order to avoid any hint of pantheism. We in fact do not have a life identical to that of God or of Our Lord, but a likeness of this life, a finite, albeit real, participation in this life. We can therefore define it as a participation in the divine life, conferred by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, which we must cultivate against the tendencies that oppose it.”
Spiritual life, then, is the elevation of man with respect to material life, nourished by the external and internal senses, transcending all in order to establish himself in the only All, God, by virtue of the soul – through intellect and will – made capable of this by sanctifying grace, a supernatural quality that elevates and perfects. The spiritual life is therefore the life of the soul in the state of grace that participates in the Spirit of God, in the life of God which is love in us. In fact, grace and charity always go together, to the point that where there is one there is also the other. Let us now see how grace interacts with the theological virtues, in particular with faith.
2. Faith and prayer for nourishing the life of grace
One cannot be truly Christian only by having received Baptism and with it sanctifying grace, without taking care to nourish this supernatural life sown in us. As the seed cast upon the ground does not bear fruit if it is not cared for, so it is with the divine life in man. We are in fact shoots grafted onto the vine: we do not bear fruit unless we remain united with the vine, with Jesus (cf. Jn 15:1-8). Grace gives us faith – “gratia facit fidem” – and with it the gift of hope and charity. The three theological virtues together with all the other moral virtues, emanating from the four cardinal virtues, are infused in us by grace. The Christian’s life is therefore a supernatural organism nourished by the divine life of grace. Mortal sin kills charity and extinguishes grace, while faith, even if imperfect and shapeless, remains as a spur for and capacity of man to return to God. Faith, without which one cannot please God (cf. Heb. 11:6), therefore marks the beginning of life in the Spirit and must be constantly nourished with prayer so that it may not fail. It is faith that keeps the presence of God awakened within us. It makes us aware of God in us. We live through Him by virtue of the grace infused into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, but we live for Him to the extent to which we respond to the gift of grace through the exercise of faith.
2.1. Faith: seeking God through that which conceals him
The presence of God who sanctifies our soul, as we said, produces the indwelling of the Most Holy Trinity. This is established in the depth of our hearts, submitted to the divine will. Faith leads us to submit to the will of God, purifies our hearts from the materiality of sense knowledge and from the merely carnal inclinations that keep us from noticing God or accustom us to a life without God, without the need for faith. With the Jesuit father and great spiritual director Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), we can say that only to the extent to which we mortify our senses and strip ourselves of them do we bring faith to life; the destruction of the senses means the kingdom of faith. A kingdom that is hard to accept, that requires an agere contra; but only insofar as we make an effort do we live for God by detaching ourselves from what is tempting because it conforms to our way of thinking. One principle enunciated by Father de Caussade in his masterpiece Abandonment to Divine Providence is this: the life of faith is nothing other than a continuous search for God through all that conceals, disfigures, destroys, and so to speak annihilates him. This statement is surprising, yet it is only by negating what God is in the way common to all beings that we can come to know what He is in a singular way. Here is a text in which this principle is developed:
“The soul illuminated by grace is very far from judging things as those who measure them with their senses do, being ignorant of the priceless treasure they conceal. He who knows that a certain person in disguise is the King welcomes him in a way very different from that of the one who, seeing the outward aspect of an ordinary man, treats him according to what is apparent. […] The life of faith is nothing other than a continuous search for God through all that hides him, represents him badly and, so to speak, destroys and annihilates him. It is certainly the reproduction of the life of Mary, who from the stable to Calvary remains attached to a God whom everyone else struggles to recognise, abandons, and persecutes. In the same way, men of faith pass through and beyond a continuous succession of veils, shadows, appearances, and deaths, as it were, in which each thing does its best to make the will of God unrecognisable, but in spite of this they fulfil and love the divine will until the death of the Cross. They know that the shadows must always be abandoned in order to follow this divine Sun, which from its rising to its setting, however black or heavy the clouds that cover it may be, illuminates, warms, and makes shine with love the hearts of the faithful, who bless him, praise him, and contemplate him in all the points of his mysterious orbit.”
This corresponds to what St Louis Grignon de Montfort (1673-1716), a contemporary of Fr de Caussade, calls “pure faith”, full of contradictions and repugnance, which the servant of Mary lives every day, leaving to the heavenly Mother, Sovereign Queen, the clear vision of God. It is the Virgin who with her own supports that faith which lacks the sensible perceptions of her devoted son and who supplies in times of darkness. This is therefore a question of participating in Mary’s faith. De Montfort writes:
“Leave, O poor little slave, leave to your Sovereign the clear vision of God, the transports, the joys, the pleasures, the riches, and take for yourself only pure faith, full of listlessness, distractions, boredom, aridity; and tell her: ‘Amen, So be it, to all that You, my Mistress, do in Heaven: for now that is the best that I can do’.”
Only a “naked faith”, calling us back to the passive purification of the intellect of St John of the Cross, or a “pure faith”, allows us, in the judgement of Fr de Caussade, to recognise the working of God in history, both in common events and in extraordinary ones. In fact, he says that all the events that make up history express God’s divine attributes: his wisdom, his power, and his goodness. All preach the same adorable word; even if we do not see this we must believe it. In a very instructive way, Fr de Caussade asks:
“What does God mean by allowing the existence of the Turks, Protestants, and all the enemies of the Church? It is all a striking lesson: it signifies the infinite perfection of God. The Pharaoh and all the wicked men who followed him and who will follow him exist only for this purpose. […] Thus you speak, Lord, in general to all men through general events. Revolutions are nothing other than the tides of your Providence that arouse storms and tempests in the minds of the curious. You speak in particular to all men in the events that happen to each of them from moment to moment. But instead of listening to your voice, men see nothing but a movement of matter, blind chance, and the human element. […] But what God says to you, dear souls, the words that He speaks from moment to moment, whose substance is not paper and ink but what you suffer and what you have to do from moment to moment, does this not deserve attention on your part?”
2.2. Faith in a time of a pandemic
In this interpretation of the Providence that operates in history and that requires our pure faith, devoid of solely human and perceptible reflections or motivations, we can also add the problem that grips our days, the infection epidemic caused by the Coronavirus. Even in a pandemic, what is needed most of all in order to truly decipher what is happening is faith that is always accompanied by hope. There is hope if there is faith. Indeed, “faith is the foundation of what is hoped for and the proof of what is not seen” (Heb 11:1). Science and medicine play a fundamental role, but we have seen that on their own they are not enough. Despite the remarkable progress in these areas, modern man is confused and fears there may be no way out. Fear has shown itself to be one of the main diseases of these days. Fear of contact, small or large phobias are getting the upper hand. Science offers certainties, sometimes more clear and sometimes less so, when it comes to experimenting with treatments and vaccines, but it does not give us certainties except when we arrive at a law that regulates phenomena. Absolute certainty is only in the truth that grounds both man and science in their specific being: God. Therefore, only a faith that we have described as pure and counter-trend is capable of sustaining the human person in moments of calamity, bringing about reliance on God’s will, scrutinising this day after day, from moment to moment. In God’s will is the salvation of man; above all the peace that is its prelude as the tranquility of a spiritual order never scratched by the adversity of events.
But faith, in turn, needs to be nourished by prayer so that it may nourish hope; together, then, faith and hope serve as the foundation of charity. In charity is fulfilment, the perfection of life in the Spirit. Precisely in order to reach this fulfilment, constant nourishment by prayer is necessary. Among the most precious forms of prayer that nourish the theological virtues of faith and hope, in times of distress and hard trial such as that of a pestilence or a pandemic, liturgical prayer and in particular the votive Mass of deliverance from death in time of pestilence must be counted, present in the 1962 Missal but gone from the New Missal of Paul VI. This Mass of deliverance is enriched by a solid theology of the Provident God who punishes in order to save. It takes its name from the first words of the Introit Recordare Domine, testamenti tui, which has us pray in the following way:
“Remember, Lord, your covenant and say to the destroying Angel: now stay your hand, that the earth not be left desolate, and do not destroy every living soul.”
The collect of this Mass is also very expressive, clearly indicating the action of God who scourges by virtue of his righteousness full of love, but is ready to forgive those who do penance for their sins and who devoutly turn to their Father:
“O God, who do not desire the death but the repentance of sinners: look kindly upon your people who turn to You; with clemency remove from them the scourge of your anger in the measure in which they turn to you with devotion: Through our Lord Jesus Christ, etc.”
A vengeful God, as has often been said, to disqualify this Mass and the ancient Missal itself? No, but a provident Father, who chastises in order to make chaste and pure those men who are stained with sin and therefore subject to eternal death. Alongside the Mass, another prayer that is very instructive in terms of the theology and catechesis it contains, as well as being of great benefit to the spirit, is the Litany of the Saints of the Roman Ritual, modified in the new Book of Blessings. Among the litanies usus antiquior are the following invocations for asking the Lord for deliverance:
“From all sin, from your wrath, from sudden and unprovided death, from the snares of the devil, from all anger, hatred, and all ill will, from the spirit of fornication, from lightning and tempest, from the scourge of the earthquake, from pestilence, famine, and war, from everlasting death.”
If these prayers are abandoned or replaced with much milder texts that make no mention at all of the relationship between the scourge of an epidemic and the provident hand of God, and this because of a new (apophatic) theological approach to the problem of evil, is there not a risk that with the passing of time the faith of believers will also change? That is, that in times of distress and calamity these believers find themselves without faith or at least unable to give an account of the hope that is in them? Is this also responsible for today’s confusion? Let us see what has happened.
3. In this pandemic: two causes of uncertainty
Referring now directly to the situation that has arisen from the end of 2019 to today due to the outbreak of the epidemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, defined as “coronavirus disease 2019” (COVID-19), we can undoubtedly assert that at the alarm of an infectious disease that was spreading all over the world, finding us unprepared from the technological-scientific point of view, no true Christian response was forthcoming. As Church and as pastors of the people of God we should have reassured the faithful, inviting them not to lose the supernatural vision of what was and is happening, interpreting the facts in the light of divine Providence. And instead?
There has been significant spiritual unpreparedness to face a situation that is certainly new, but no more disastrous than past epidemics that have claimed victims upon victims (think of the Spanish fever that from 1918 to 1920 caused tens of millions of deaths), of which the Church has always been a witness through her great humanity and her vigilant presence in those moments. A great uncertainty, instead, has characterised our days. The spiritual response to the disaster was either lacking or was very mild, very human. This uncertainty basically has two causes, a remote one of an ecclesial nature and a proximate one of a scientific nature:
- The remote one developed in 2013 with the resignation of Benedict XVI, hailed as the last attempt of the katechon(cf. 2 Ts 2:6-7) to hinder evil and the manifestation of the antichrist, if not his very destruction. A completely unusual new scenario opened up with the presence of two popes in the Church, one emeritus and the other reigning. This has caused widespread mistrust about leadership in the Catholic Church, which in fact is lacking, combined with the strong suspicion that Pope Francis is not the true pope due to the invalidity of Pope Ratzinger’s resignation, although the latter has repeatedly reiterated that his resignation was voluntary. All this would go on to produce, on the one hand, even conspiracy theory-based positions that see the alliance between the vaccine and the pontificate of Francis as a way to make the human race disappear, having already somehow decreed the disappearance of the Church; on the other, an abrupt ‘no’ to everything that has been produced by the Vatican under the pontificate of Francis, even to the little that has reiterated moral principles, such as the Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines (21 December 2020).
- The proximate cause instead depends on the very historical uncertainty over the origin of the Coronavirus, which now seems to point without doubt to the production and testing of this virus in the Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, leaving the field open to just two possibilities: was it an error that caused the release of the virus, or an intentional act of biological warfare? In any case, all this has caused doubts about the existence of the virus or its harmfulness.
4. Spiritual unpreparedness: a secularised hope
We believe that this uncertainty, together with the state of confusion in which both Church and civil society, now companions in the misadventure, have found themselves, is behind the significant spiritual unpreparedness with which the state of epidemic has been managed by the ecclesiastical authorities. There has been a real surrender to the government’s health diktat regarding the manner of administering the sacraments and the availability of churches to remain open for the administration of the sacraments. The reference is to the Italian Church, but there have been similar reflections in many other episcopal conferences. The Church, who is a mother and has at heart the salus aeterna of her children, without forgetting the well-being of the body and physical health, in letting itself be guided by the civil authority in matters completely extraneous to it, has not only proved itself incapable of teaching what is the true good of men, but has also laid the foundations for its irrelevance in the near future. If, in fact, at a dramatic moment in history, the Church closes its doors and aligns itself with the public health protocols, thus becoming superfluous, when its mission is to speak of life beyond death and the good of the soul more than that of the body, why then in normal times, when danger is absent as well as the need for “salvation”, should it be able to speak to man? Who will listen to its voice, which was absent when it should have been present? Health protocols have even imposed the way of distributing the Eucharist “safely”, as if the Blessed Sacrament were a drug on sale at the first pharmacy on duty and in any case a simple ceremony that can be adapted to health requirements. Physical health has prevailed over eternal health. But is this only for pragmatic reasons or rather because faith in eternal salvation has been clouded in the Church, and not just recently?
A perceptible lack of pure faith, which sees God even in the most glaring historical contradictions, has also brought about a lack of historical-theological reflection on our present circumstances. The fact that it is God who controls secondary causes and allows everything for a good end is ignored if not ruled out from the start, making it possible to look for a cause of the whole epidemic-pandemic scenario that would correspond only to a subversive plan for establishing a New World Order and controlling humanity. It cannot be denied that there are attempts to do this, but if disconnected from the provident plan of God that allows his enemies to work, one ends up waging war on those who are not aligned with one’s own thinking rather than resisting with faith and right reason the snares of the wicked and of the Evil One. The moral permissibility of the vaccines, which is the moral minimum that can be affirmed without claiming to indicate the most perfect moral choice (and therefore neither the worst or most disastrous one) is either derided and therefore excluded a priori, or instead, in the vax-only camp, emphasised to the point of forgetting the need to protest against a product that is not ethically unobjectionable, tolerated but never praised. One fact is clear: hope has become worldly. Thus either the vaccine is lauded as the only remedy necessary or is considered the greatest conspiracy for the numbing of consciences. But for both positions the problem has to do with nothing other than health and medicine, which manifests a retreat into materialism: morality as serving the purposes of health and not vice versa, as it should be. God who guides history and events seems absent. Faith is lacking and therefore hope as well.
There has been a lack of supernatural wisdom with which to handle this situation. Yet we could have seized in this historical moment in which everyone is talking about the common good, about solidarity, a golden opportunity to evangelise the people, getting the world to reflect on the existence of another virus that is at the origin of every virus, sin as an offence against God and neighbour. If there is this virus it is because at its origin is a more pernicious virus, an evil that contaminates us without our being able to see it and block it before it causes damage: sin. Sin is not spoken of as an offence against God and therefore we no longer even know how to talk about viruses as believers, with a wisdom that sees beyond the present historical situation and the much desired healing.
There was an opportunity to hit the ground running in order to explain to the world what is the true “common good” in which everyone glories while few know that its root is Christian even before human and ethical-moral. The common good is not the good of all summed up and put together, but is above all a good, and therefore the end of a being who therefore repudiates evil as the inability to reach his own perfection; then of all as the good of each inscribed in everyone’s heart. It is the good of the community that prevails over that of the individual because it is the good that every individual man could never do without, and it is only in this way that he is able to participate in the whole. Ultimately, the common good is the community as a good, as the capacity to achieve its end together. Common good is common purpose. The common end that has every claim on goodness is God alone, a good of all and for all men, which we have however lost sight of, even in the Church, with all the tragic consequences that are before our eyes.
At the end of this brief excursus we could ask ourselves: can we still do something or is it already too late? We can certainly do quite a bit if we go back to following the Christian rule of true faith nourished by prayer so that hope and charity are always kept safe. The rule could be summarised in the well-known Carthusian motto: Stat Crux dum volvitur mundi: amid the world’s convulsions the Cross remains. The Cross of Christ is the intersection of God’s Providence, of his Love that never ends, with man’s suffering, his trials, his guilt. In the Cross of Christ is the reason, there the answer is. Abandoning the Cross, or almost feeling a sense of shame towards it, declaring all to be brothers without the Son, without the Cross, can only cause confusion and a lack of response in a difficult time like ours. If faith is clouded in these dark moments in history, what will man’s response be?
 A. Tanquerey, Compendio di Teologia ascetica e mistica, San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2018, p. 60 (French original, Précis de théologie ascétique et mystique, Tournai-Paris-Rome, 1923).
 “Grace causes faith not only when faith begins anew to be in a man, but also as long as faith lasts […]”, St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 4, a. 4, ad 3.
 J.P. de Caussade, SJ, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, Burns & Oates, London 1962, p. 22 (French original, Abandon a la Providence divine, 1861).
 St Louis Grignon de Montfort, Treatise on True Devotion to Mary, no. 214.
 Id., The Secret of Mary, no. 51. See also Treatise, no. 238.
 J.P. de Caussade, op. cit., p. 25.
 Ibid, pp. 25-26.
 See the UN report on COVID-19 and mental illness: https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/un_policy_brief-covid_and_mental_health_final.pdf
 The new votive Mass that is closest to the previous one is that in time of famine or for those suffering from hunger, in which however the accent is almost exclusively on hunger.
 Cf. P.T. Weller, The Roman Ritual, vol. III, The Blessings, Caritas Publishing, 1945 (republished in 2017), p. 448.
 Modified according to the decrees of Vatican Council II and promulgated by John Paul II in 1984. The invocations that have to do with our case are now rendered in a single invocation as follows: Free humanity from famine, from war, and from all calamity as we call upon you: Save us, with all our brethren, from everlasting death. [unofficial translation]
 This is a reflection from Luca dal Pozzo on Tempi.it, reasoning on the basis of the book by Antonio Socci Il segreto di Benedetto XVI. Perché è ancora Papa, Rizzoli, Milan 2018: https://www.tempi.it/benedetto-xvi-il-katechon-dei-nostri-tempi-e-forse-lultimo/. Stefano Fontana instead maintains that “in the face of the lack of generosity in his day, Benedict XVI carried out an action of Kathecon, of restraining the processes of dis-solution”, Capire Benedetto XVI. Tradizione e Modernità, ultimo appuntamento, Cantagalli, Siena 2021, p. 16.
 This is the thesis of the Italian philosopher Massimo Cacciari, presented in an interview on vita.it, 11 March 2013: http://www.vita.it/it/article/2013/03/11/cacciari-il-nuovo-papa-dovra-sfidare-lanticristo/122928/. Cacciari had published Il potere che frena. Saggio di teologia politica, Adelphi, Milan 2013.
 The literature on this topic is extensive. See in particular: J. Tritto, Cina Covid-19. La chimera che ha cambiato il mondo, Cantagalli, Siena 2020; F. Gatti, L’infinito errore. La storia segreta di una pandemia che si doveva evitare, La Nave di Teseo, Milan 2021.
 “The common good and the particular good of the individual differ not only in respect of the ‘many’ and the ‘few’, but also under a formal aspect.” St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q.58, a.7, ad 2.