Knocking at death's spiritual door in the time of COVID-19

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the world was about to cross a grim statistic Nov. 1 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Catholics were preparing for the solemn observation of death on All Souls' Day.

The Nov. 2 observance is a time to remember and pray for family, friends and others who have died.

It's a time "to notice and ponder the mysteries of life and death," said Jesuit Father Kevin Gillespie in his "From the Pastor's Desk" note in the Oct. 31 parish bulletin at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington.

Around the world, there are more than 5 million reasons to ponder. That's the number of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, friends, acquaintances, members of faith communities, including women and men religious, priests and bishops, and others who have succumbed to the virus in less than two years since the pandemic began.

The United States is at the top of the list of countries with the highest number of coronavirus deaths with more than 750,000 fatalities to date.

However, the real number -- in the U.S. as well as worldwide -- is believed to much higher than the official toll.

"This is a defining moment in our lifetime," Dr. Albert Ko, infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Associated Press.

It's been a defining moment for the church, too.

"No one has escaped from this," said Father James Gardiner, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement who serves at Washington's Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington. "These days, we have all kinds of neighbors, friends, family, victims of COVID. So many people have died."

In addition to taking away those who, from our perspective, died before their time, said Father Gardiner, the coronavirus changed the process of mourning and spiritual rituals that help with grief and healing, including for those whose loved ones have died from something other than COVID-19.

"We have not had the benefit of the rituals for how we deal with death," said Father Gardiner in a Nov. 2 interview with Catholic News Service. "I think that's a problem."

Catholic funeral rites, for example, take place in "stations" or separate parts, such as a vigil service, also known as wake, where people visit with family and pray for the deceased, sometimes with the body nearby.

It is followed by a funeral liturgy at a Mass where family and friends of the deceased commend the person to God's mercy and compassion, followed by a graveside burial committing the body to its final resting place.

"The deceased are accompanied," Father Gardiner said. "But we haven't been able to do that."

Many never saw friends of family again after they entered the hospital to be treated for the coronavirus. Funerals and other services were postponed or pared down.

With so much death, or an increased potential for it, occupying our thoughts since the pandemic began, the last two years have created a type of fatigue, Father Gardiner said, not just from COVID-19 fatalities but from other types of deaths and calamities.

"I'm afraid people are saying, 'Well, what else is new?'" he said.

Vaccines and advancements in treating COVID-19 infections in 2021, however, may be opening the door once again for the spiritual healing that went missing when churches closed their doors, and thereby limiting rituals, as a way prevent the virus from further spreading.

With infections and death rates on the decline in the U.S., All Souls' Day 2021 allowed an increase of public events around the country to collectively remember loved ones but also to once again ponder the spiritual connection between the living and the dead.

Holy Trinity Parish gathered photographs of parishioners' loved ones, asking the faith community to pray for them throughout November. The parish also held an event at its cemetery, Holy Rood in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, where parishioners gathered with their pastor on All Souls' Day for an outdoor service in a place where family and past parish members are buried.

Father Gillespie read two poems by Irish poet John O'Donohue, including "On the Death of the Beloved."

"May you continue to inspire us, to enter each day with a generous heart, to serve the call of courage and love, until we see your beautiful face again in that land where there is no more separation, where all tears will be wiped from our mind. And where we will never lose you again," Father Gillespie read.

He invited his flock to engage the imagination, mentioning that this year the pope has encouraged Catholics to read the Italian poet Dante and his "Divine Comedy," a poem about the afterlife divided into three parts: hell, purgatory and heaven.

"Imagine, what's life like after death?" Father Gillespie said.

Much of Western society and spirituality of the past focused on punitive images about the journey of the soul toward heaven, but it did not focus on the "paradiso," or paradise, meaning heaven, and the love of Christ that carries the soul on its journey there, Father Gillespie said.

As parishioners sat near the final resting place of their sons, daughters or former parish friends, Father Gillespie said to them: "You might ask, 'Where are they now?'" as he spoke of the loved ones who have died.

"They're with Christ," he responded.

A few hours later, in another part of Washington, Father Gardiner prepared for the All Souls' Day Mass he would be celebrating in the underground Purgatory Chapel at the Franciscan monastery.

Black marble frames the room decorated with a depiction of death in the form of a grim reaper type of figure holding a large sickle in front of a skeleton with a white sheet draped over its head. Another part of the wall features Jesus raising Lazarus, wrapped in linen cloth.

And another wall depicts the prophet Ezekiel's vision in a valley full of skeletons telling them: "Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."

"That's one of the things that the church does: We confront death," even when it's difficult, Father Gardiner said.

The only time he remembers being surrounded by death on a scale similar to what the world has experienced during the coronavirus pandemic was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in his native New York, he said.

"I was doing four or five funerals a week for people half my age," he said, adding that being surrounded by so much death, "does something to you."

Regardless of the pandemic or other circumstances, Father Gardiner said, Christians need to keep in mind that "we don't die when we want to."

"We die when God calls us," he added. "That's what our faith tells us. We don't die until the one who created and knows us calls and says, 'Come.'"