Several priest-friends have been telling me of their parishioners asking, “Where is God in this coronavirus pandemic? Does God punish people for their sins?” Some have suggested that the coronavirus pandemic is a punishment from God. I cannot say for sure that it is, but neither can I say for sure that it is not. We know that God permits evil so that He may bring good from it, as we remember how His Son Jesus was allowed to suffer and die on the cross so that we might be saved from our sins.
Thinking about this question since then, I’ve heard that others have noted that maybe it’s a result of our society having removed Him from our schools, our movies and television programs – indeed from much of public life. Yes, God respects our freedom, so if we ask Him to go away, why are we surprised that He seems to have left us in times of calamity?
The Bible gives many examples of God punishing the sins of the people. Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, the Garden of Eden, after their sin of disobedience. With the story of Noah’s Ark, God punishes the whole known world for their wickedness, except the righteous Noah and his family. With King David – after his sins, God gave the him the choice of either plague, war, or famine as a chastisement. David chose the plague with these words: “It is better that I fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men.”
Some might object that punishment is from the Old Testament – that in the New Testament, Jesus brings forgiveness, not punishment. But, check out the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25:45-46, on the Last Judgment: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Even Saint Charles Borromeo concluded, “The plague, along with war and famine, is attributed very especially to the hand of God.”
President Abraham Lincoln, who died 155 years ago, in his Second Inaugural Address given just a month before he died, suggested that the Civil War was a “scourge” from God as a punishment for the sin of slavery.
We can talk about God’s “punishment” as a “scourge,” but the word I think expresses best what God is doing is “chastisement,” which comes from the Latin castigare, which is often translated literally as “to castigate” (which still has its focus on a harsh punishment). If we realize that the word really means “to chasten,” which comes from the adjective, “to make morally pure,” then we can say that God chastises us as a type of purifying.
But, God is not a sadist seeking to afflict us with pain simply to see us suffer. God cleanses us of sin to purify our faith. Faced with God’s chastisement, we turn to God with repentance and atonement for our sins. We even see that as a result of “sheltering in place,” more families are spending time together. Although people cannot come to church for Mass, more people are watching daily Masses being streamed online than normally come to church physically. Hopefully these people also will be come to church when the restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
In our parish “Drive-thru Confessions” are heard every Saturday outside our rectory at 9:00 a.m., and again at 2:30 p.m. For those unable to receive Holy Communion physically, they should make a Spiritual Communion, that is, express to God your desire for Him to come into your heart and your longing to receive Holy Communion as soon as possible.
Three times in last Sunday’s Gospel Jesus says, “Peace be with you!” The disciples were behind locked doors because they are afraid the same thing will happen to them as just happened to Jesus. Yet, Jesus appears in their midst and twice says, “Peace be with you.” When Thomas later joins the other disciples behind locked doors, Jesus appears again and says, “Peace be with you.” I think He wants to offer the same to us. During these days of the coronavirus pandemic, when many people are also behind locked doors, “sheltering in place,” afraid to go outside, Jesus comes to us in our time of fear with this same message: “Peace be with you!” Continue to pray, and remember that there is a God who loves (even if some fool should say in his heart, ‘There is no God!”). If you truly believe in and love God, then may you rest assured and be at peace.