I began this post on Wednesday afternoon [yesterday] sitting in my car under the watchful eye of the medical professionals for my 15-minute crisis observation in case I suddenly started to retch or do whatever a bad immunization makes you do. For just a few moments earlier I received my first injection of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine at the Orange County Convention Center, just north of Disneyworld. I am as amazed as anybody that this opportunity to receive the two-dose vaccine came up so quickly and, in my case, so easily. It was/is my best Christmas gift this year.
I know that all of you watch enough news to know that the distribution of the Covid vaccine, in my case Moderna, is becoming a national crisis, both in terms of limited distribution and national debate about who should get the limited supply first. On our Monday evening local news [December 28], we saw our Orange County executives receiving their shots. Privately I did not think I would be able to get vaccinated till March or April, and probably then in my doctor’s office. When I learned that 19,000 doses had been sent this weekend to my county for first line providers and the like, I never considered that the average senior gentry like myself would get anywhere near these precious first shipments. However, there on TV was the announcement that anyone 65 or older whose residence was Orange County could go on-line to register for 3000 available doses offered this week and next.
Margaret and I do not normally win lotteries, but immediately, in the middle of dinner, Margaret and I each logged in on to the Orange County Covid site on our IPads, just as we had been instructed on TV. Naturally, the site was overloaded for both of us, but we each kept hitting the “Next” button—literally about several hundred times--and about an hour or two later our pads lit up like Christmas trees and we obtained reservations—in the same two-hour window, no less. I believe there were eleven openings left. Tuesday morning Orange County texted us with our bar codes for admission and record keeping for the next day’s vaccination.
Naturally, I was surprised this all happened so quickly for us. I had long believed that there would be an elaborate pecking order for vaccine access, from first providers to nursing homes to teachers, etc. [Margaret is, in fact, an adjunct professor at UCF who visits public schools as part of her job, but we did not expect that to open any privilege doors for us.] We are both in the 73-74-year-old range, short of the CDC’s guidance of age 75, and neither of us have unusual health issues or think of ourselves as particularly vulnerable other than what the actuarial tables tell us. We are both proactive about flu shots, pneumonia vaccines, shingle shots, etc. We had no expectations of early opportunity; just hopeful we could be treated before summer to do some long-postponed travel abroad.
So, to what do we owe our unusual good luck? Well, our case is a textbook example of who you know and where you live. By the norms of the Center for Disease Control standards, the age of 75 is currently the cutoff for inoculations for vulnerable populations; my generation is, nationally, in the next lower tier. There is, of course, a national consensus of sorts that front line providers and nursing home residents should move to the front of the line.
However, I live in Florida. Our governor, Ron DeSantis, has been governed by one principle since the virus reached the Sunshine State almost a year ago: his reelection in 2022. Consequently, our protective measures throughout the state have been minimal at best. There are no statewide orders on lockdowns, masks, or public gatherings to speak of. Truth be told, major businesses and Catholic bishops have been more proactive in protecting the public. Governor DeSantis recently addressed residents at Florida’s giant retirement mecca, The Villages, about 30 miles north of my county, promising to make the vaccine available immediately at age 65. This would be fine if the vaccines were rolling out in large numbers of dosages, which is presently not the case. [In fairness, this underwhelming availability of vaccines is a federal failure as much as a state issue.] In Florida there is a political twist here, as residents of The Villages, like many of the 250,000 seniors who live in my county, are “snowbirds,” the folks who spend large portions of the milder months up north with families and grandchildren. There is political capital in freeing them up to travel when the first buds of spring appear. And Orange County is one of the world’s vacation meccas, and there has been great effort to keep the restaurants and bars open [though Disney’s policing of CDC policy is very stringent, I am told by my patients.]
Given the absence of state supervision, each county must fall back on its own resources to establish vaccine protocols, and there is a disturbing inequality in funding, infrastructure, and experience across county lines even here in Central Florida. Orange County’s on-line reservation and delivery system is first rate. [There is an expectation of Disneyesque quality, I guess.] But we have good friends in bordering counties where no on-line registration system exists, and individuals must call county health offices, whose phone lines are jammed and offices severely understaffed. This morning’s Orlando Sentinel describes the statewide problems encountered so far.
The current situation certainly weighed on my mind when I took advantage of the opportunity to be vaccinated. There is unfairness in the system, to be sure, and as you might expect, I do try to examine issues from a Catholic moral perspective, and there are indeed moral considerations surrounding both Covid-19 and the medical means of treating and preventing it.
The medical resources available for illnesses and pandemics are uneven even across state and county lines, but this is a small paradigm of the challenges facing world health. Pope Francis has written and preached exhaustively about the rights of all persons on God’s planet to enjoy a modicum of preventive and proactive health care, matters that include clean water, sanitation, nourishment, and access to professional care. Covid-19 is teaching us that an international fraternity of care needs to govern our interactions across the globe.
Closer to home, the medical profession’s “do no harm” principle extends to all public officials in the establishment of public policy. It is becoming clearer that our country’s ability—at all levels of government—to address chronic and unexpected health emergencies is compromised by inadequate funding and an unseeming politicization of the healing process.
Our Catholic catechetics must review its contents and resources to address the morality of self-care and social responsibility. The many breakdowns of Covid-19 preventive personal discipline are rarely addressed as sin, but what other term would you use? The Fifth Commandment, in Catholic tradition, has come to imply an obligation to care for one’s own body and the physical safety of others. The political statement of going mask-less, for example, can hardly be justified in the face of honoring the body as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit.”
Catholics are obliged to seek truth in both the religious and the scientific realm. We hold that God is revealed naturally in the wonders of science. Consequently, there is an obligation to respect sound scholarship—and that includes the principles by which we come to understand more about ourselves and our surroundings. To undermine the common good through the seeding of “offbeat theories” which have continually failed the crucible of peer review and scientific method carries moral guilt commensurate to the harm it causes. Anti-vaxxers need to address their stance by a moral light. About fifteen years ago I sought medical help for deafness; a specialist explained to me that there is a strong correlation between mumps and adult deafness. At age 14 I was hospitalized for a severe case of mumps that invaded much of my body. Of course, this was long before the discovery of the mumps vaccine. It is hard for me to comprehend how parents expose their children to such long-term risks today when vaccines are readily available. At the very least, I believe there is a moral imperative to prevent the proliferation of Covid and other contagious diseases.
I am not going to lie and say that I had no thoughts about the consequences of injection of a new drug into my arm. However, I trust sound medicine and the institutions that brought it forth. I understand that Covid-19 is a grave danger to a good number of those infected. I also understand that my inoculation contributes to the common good, and in some way is my contribution to the ministry of Protection of Life. I regret that in my corner of the world there was not a fairer system of distribution in my state and in my country, but I could not see that declining the drug would any way change that equation.
So, it is now early morning, and you might be wondering about side effects. [The CDC advisory on side effects is here.] I woke up at 3 AM with a very sore arm and a case of euphoria [I do not usually blog in the middle of the night] for I consider myself extremely lucky to have had this health intervention so soon, and I look forward to my second dose on January 27. This was a Christmas gift I never expected to get, and I sincerely hope all of you can protect yourselves and your loved ones as soon as possible.
Time for breakfast.
It is a testimony to the times we live in that I cannot remember the occasion which prompted my last pastor to engage a local law enforcement officer to stand guard over our congregations and parking lot on Saturday and Sunday Masses. Perhaps it was a shooting massacre at a church—Charleston, South Carolina comes to mind—but last Saturday an Altamonte Springs, Florida, city police cruiser sat near my car in the lot, a reminder of the vulnerability of all gathering places and sites of worship.
I imagine that the officers working our church this coming Christmas Eve will be busy, for this year we have the new—and hopefully the last—challenge of Covid 19 to good church order. The pandemic and its challenges to Christmas worship in the United States has been chronicled in some detail at National Catholic Reporter, with reports on how various dioceses are accommodating the expected large numbers of worshippers at Christmas, how the Vatican is permitting each priest the privilege of offering four Masses on Christmas Eve if the pastoral need exists, and church-state struggles on worship and civil Covid regulations.
The State of Florida has gained some measure of national notoriety for its loose Covid-19 precautionary standards. The optics as well as the content of the state’s guidance webpage offer little encouragement or hard restrictions, and the governor has declared that local jurisdictions cannot impose stricter measures than the state. That said, major retailers and the Disney complex in my county are running tight ships. Several of my patients tell me that Disneyworld is policing its masking, eating, and social distancing rules forcefully across its parks. Publix grocery stores, Costco, and Staples [my regular shopping haunts] require masks and social distancing for admission and service.
I am pleased to report that the Diocese of Orlando has publicly maintained strong safety policies. Our bishop, John Noonan, has situated all Covid discussion in the context of Christian service and responsibility to neighbor. There is still a dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation for those in vulnerable populations, no questions asked. It remains to pastors to enforce diocesan policies on such matters as communion in the hand and to develop unique strategies of safety best suited to the size of the parish and its configuration. Again, my home parish, Annunciation Church in Altamonte Springs, Florida, has met this challenge very well. After the two-month lockdown during the first surge in the spring, my wife and I, who fall in the “vulnerable population” as we are in our 70’s, experimented with returning to Mass by attending a sparsely populated noon Mass on Thursdays. Having established our comfort with the level of protection provided by the parish, we eventually returned to our favorite Saturday vigil Mass and continue to worship in peace. From where I sit, it is rare to see an unmasked individual. [I do note with some humor the appearance of a “Trump 2020” facemask at one of our Masses; I cannot remember if this was before or after the election. Maybe that mask will reappear on January 6.]
My parish is one of the largest in this diocese and possesses state of the art technology. Early on, the parish staff developed a system of on-line reservations for the weekend Masses. On Tuesday mornings the website is open for reservations for each of the following weekend Masses, and the names are duly logged in the parish records. On Saturday night when my wife and I enter the church for Mass, we must present ourselves at the door to a greeter with an Ipad tablet, who checks off our names. I have no problem with this method of insuring social distancing. It is not clear precisely what sort of algorithm is used to determine in my church [or any other in our diocese] what constitutes a safe maximum number for preserving social distancing. I am lousy at guessing crowd numbers, but my sense is that my parish admits about 400 persons maximum in a building that perhaps holds 1500. I do notice that although my Mass is frequently listed as “full” on the reservation site, there are a fair number of empty available pews, suggesting that attendance may lag reservations.
I think the biggest test of the adage, “see how Christians love one another,” will come on Christmas Eve. Historically, Christmas Eve is the largest assembly of the faithful; the phrase “Christmas and Easter Catholics” is not a cynical invention but a recognition that even the most marginal Catholic makes an appearance for Mass in the glow of holy nostalgia and sometimes spirited reinforcement from the punchbowl. This is a unique post-Vatican II challenge; in my youth there were no vigil Masses, just a standing room only Midnight Mass. As an altar boy I reveled in the beautiful music, poinsettias, and gold vestments of the Latin Mass. I also remember individuals passing out, and the unique aroma of alcohol induced bad breath. As my pastor would tell the altar boys, put out the candles quickly or this place will explode.
In the past half-century, the popularity of the earlier evening vigils has grown exponentially. When my wife and I were married over twenty years ago, our attendance at Midnight Mass was unshakeable. But then we drifted earlier, to a 9 PM Mass, and over the past decade, to a 7 PM Mass. We are not courageous enough to attend one of our 4 PM Masses. In my mother’s parish up near Buffalo, the pastor used to plead with the weekly 4 PM congregation not to attend the Christmas Eve 4 PM Mass, where the parking lot would be near full at 2 PM, even in the region’s worst lake-effect snow squalls.
Given these logistical challenges in an ordinary year, how does a parish maintain sanity and safety in a Covid environment? Evidently, even the Pope has been reflecting upon this problem, for he has given priests the permission to offer four Masses on Christmas, if parishes would want to offer extra Masses in smaller groups. Bishops in many dioceses are granting a special permission to begin Christmas Eve Vigil Masses at 2 PM [Church Law forbids Vigil Masses before 4 PM.] My parish has taken advantage of these permissions. But it took the extra step of a strict on-line registration policy, announcing well in advance from the pulpit, bulletin, and website that a preregistration was sine qua non for admission to any of the Masses.
Ground Zero for on-line reservations was December 18, last Friday, at 10 AM. My wife and I, for reasons of safety and my curiosity, had decided to reserve space for the novel 2 PM Vigil Mass. My wife literally had her finger over the button on her Ipad when the reservation site turned green. Evidently, so did many other folks, and we heard later that there were a few hiccups in service given the incredible on-line demand. The parish added two more Vigil Masses, but quickly all available space was booked. On the parish website now is the list of Masses with a statement that all Masses are now closed, and that those without reservations should watch the parish livestream of two Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
So, I wonder how my parish—or any parish--will manage the inevitable visit of the annual worshipper who never got the fax and will be expecting admission. As a Church we do not have collective experience with turning people away from our doors. [We are trained to think counteractively.] I will admit that in twenty years as a pastor I sometimes gave my local fire marshal gray hairs to include everyone for Christmas Eve or Easter Morning. My sermons on those occasions were pitched in part to the occasional worshipper or stranger to welcome them physically into the parish family, with an offer to assist anyone in second marriages, LGBQ estrangement, confessional fears, or dislike of me personally for my perceived shortcomings, of which there were plenty. And I was hardly the only pastor who brought this approach; a parish that does not evangelize on Christmas and Easter is missing the boat.
The Covid-19 environment puts a good parish and a conscientious pastor in a most uncomfortable predicament: protecting the safety of those in his building while extending pastoral concern to those who showed at least a spark of grace by turning up. How this dilemma is addressed will depend initially and most importantly on how the folks on the ground defuse the disappointment, surprise, or anger of those who cannot be admitted inside the Church. Again, as any minister will tell you, there are many Catholics on the cusp of leaving institutional contact at the next slight. And while such individuals may have doctrinal or personal issues with the Church, nothing is quite so definitive as having a door slammed in your face—on Christmas, no less.
There is a political edge to consider here, too. If the analyses of recent elections and polling are any indication, there is a strong current in the United States of fear that government and culture are overtly anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. In New York and Washington, D.C., for example, Catholics sought judicial relief for what they viewed as excessively harsh restrictions on the exercise of religion by local authorities. In Washington, for example, church gatherings were limited to 50 persons. It was probably galling for Catholics to live under these restrictions when the federal government was hosting gala balls for hundreds in indoor settings. I must think that somewhere in the United States—and Florida, with its statewide laissez-fare approach to the Covid crisis is as opportune a place as any—political activists in premeditated or spontaneous ways may demand access under the banner of freedom of worship.
It is my profound hope that the priests and lay ministers who will lead the Church’s parochial celebrations of the Lord’s birth have given prayerful thought to the unique challenges of this Christmas Season. Last Easter was observed when much of the country was shut down and there was more unity of purpose in protecting life and limb. But after many more months there is either lethargy or rage in the face of energized Covid-19, exacerbated by fear and uncertainty after a tumultuous election and economic woes. Amid this, our church ministers have gamely pushed on in the face of financial strain, material interruptions to ministry, and, in a very real way, missing their families in faith. My hope is that the liturgical Christmas “rush,” such as it is during an untamed pandemic, will energize our parish leaders Even within the confines of social distancing, tell them you appreciate them at Mass [and cover their backs, if necessary, as they work to protect ours at the church doors.]
On My Mind