When people are frightened, they turn to God, but one of the cruelties of this pandemic is that places of worship are closed.
While booze, marijuana and guns are essential services in various parts of the country, spiritual solace has been deemed superfluous.
But the pastor of Hell’s Kitchen, Father George Rutler, whose parish was hard hit by the Spanish flu in 1918, has kept his Church of St. Michael the Archangel on West 34th Street open for private worship by anyone who happens to wander in through the open doors and sits in back — as long as they keep a safe distance from one another — after the archdiocese, on medical advice, canceled all Masses indefinitely two weeks ago, in the middle of Lent.
“I have been impressed by the maturity and patience of our people,” he says via e-mail. “It reminds me of the strength of our parishioners who suffered so many losses on 9/11.
“New Yorkers are resilient.”
On the morning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Father Rutler was at St. Agnes Church near Grand Central Terminal and rushed to Ground Zero to help, hearing confessions and administering last rites to firefighters.
He was there when the body of his fellow priest Mychal Judge, the first official casualty, was carried out of the rubble.
“We have a banner with the names of those killed on 9/11, and the whole neighborhood rallied then and now is flourishing,” he says.
St. Michael’s also was at the center of New York’s Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, which killed more than 30,000 New Yorkers and up to 50 million people worldwide.
One of the victims was a predecessor of Father Rutler’s: the second pastor of St. Michael’s, Father John Gleeson.
“I can only imagine the heroic work of our parish priests in those grim days,” says Father Rutler.
“Now with the Javits Center down the street being turned into an emergency hospital, our parish welcomes the chance to be of pastoral help.”
He continues to hold a “private Mass” daily in an empty church during the quarantine, but says that even without a congregation, “there are also present all the angels and saints.”
So it is apt that in a place of pride in his church stands a statue of St. Michael, which is a copy of a statue that sits on top of a large fortress near Vatican City in Rome, to signify a legend of the angel who rescued Rome from a deadly plague that killed up to 100 million people worldwide around 590 A.D.
In one of the lofty homilies he e-mails to parishioners weekly, which keep their fears in perspective, Father Rutler reminded them that this national emergency is “not unprecedented.”
“I have an oral tradition of my own family witnessing to the influenza epidemic of 1918, when my grandparents’ venerable parish rector survived the infection while ministering to the ill, but whose two daughters died.”
He urged them to pray for our leaders and scientists a week ago. “We also deplore those who would exploit this crisis for political gain. Our Lord had the greatest contempt for demagogues,” he wrote.
He did not mention names.
But what about those who would exploit the coronavirus pandemic to advance a green agenda, as climate alarmists are wont to do?
They may have found succor in the words of Pope Francis last week when he told a Spanish journalist that he believes the pandemic is caused by nature “having a tantrum” over human degradation of the environment.
“There’s a saying that . . . God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, nature never forgives,” said the Pope in Spanish.
“Fires, earthquakes . . . that is, nature is having a tantrum, so that we will take care of nature.”
Father Rutler was not impressed: “The Holy Father has often spoken eloquently about sickness and suffering. Perhaps in speaking off the cuff, Pope Francis was using what in rhetoric is called the ‘pathetic fallacy’ — attributing human sensibility to inanimate nature. To take that literally would contradict the Catholic understanding of good and evil.”
It was Father Rutler’s 75th birthday last week, and he received a letter of congratulations from President Trump, who he says is not exaggerating when he calls himself a “wartime president.”
“A struggle against disease, whose present virulence still remains uncertain, can be as violent as any combat zone.”
In the end, Father Rutler reminds the faithful that “all struggles are rooted in the war that broke out in heaven when Michael and his angels fought against the dragon.”
“The happy fact is that the dragon, which is Satan, who leads the whole world astray, was defeated.”
We can all say amen to that prospect, and look forward to the day the churches reopen. It may not be in time for the president’s Easter aspiration, but just the idea gives us hope.