The word quarantine is defined as a strict isolation imposed to prevent the spread of disease. During the Black death of the 1300s, ships entering port were marked with a special yellow and black flag and kept in isolation before their cargo and passengers would be allowed ashore.
Throughout history, many people suspected of having yellow fever, diphtheria, small pox and cholera were kept quarantined. More recently, those with SARS, bird flu and swine flu have had to endure forced isolation. And today, the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has most of the world in quarantine, self-imposed isolation or some type of social distancing to help flatten the curve and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Historically, the duration of the quarantine depended on the type of illness. The imposition of a 9-day quarantine helped bring an end to the influenza pandemic of 1918 which killed more people than World War I. Individuals who were potentially infected with the Ebola virus were monitored for 21 days. And according to the CDC, those who develop symptoms after having contracted COVID-19 will do so within 11.5 days.
The present quarantine due to the Coronavirus is in place for many reasons. First, it’s intention is to slow the spread of the virus—reducing the number of people you have contact with lessens the possibility of transmission. Next, the isolation will prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with a huge number of patients simultaneously. A quarantine also buys us time for the development of a vaccine to prevent people from acquiring the illness or an antidote to cure those who have.
Lent = Quarantine
During Lent, the Church too places the faithful in quarantine, literally—for 40 days—from Ash Wednesday to the Triduum. You see, in Church history, penitents—usually guilty of public scandals like murder or adultery—were temporarily separated from the Church for the entire season of Lent in imitation of God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve. They were sent away with the admonition “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They lived isolated from families, friends and parishioners for the 40 days of Lent.
This temporary 40-day separation gave us the term quarantine from the mid 17th century Italian word for “forty days”—quarantina. The Italian word quaranta means ‘40’. The similarity can be heard in the Spanish word for 40—cuarenta, and Lent—cuaresma.
Lent’s duration of 40 days reflects other times of trial, testing and hardship that are found in the Scriptures:
- The story of Noah tells of rain falling on the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.
- Both Moses and Elijah fasted for 40 days before beginning their missions.
- The Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the desert after leaving Egypt.
- It took Joshua’s spies 40 days to search out the promised land and bring back fruit.
- Goliath taunted the Israelite army in the morning and evening for 40 days.
- Jonah warned the Ninevites they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city.
- Jesus fasted and prayed in the desert for 40 days before beginning his ministry.
As we’ve heard now for weeks, Coronavirus disease is a respiratory illness whose three main acute symptoms: fever, a deep, dry cough and shortness of breath can quickly become life-threatening, especially to the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. Many of us have been told to stay at home to protect those most vulnerable.
But Lent’s quarantine is not due to a physical threat, but a spiritual one. This disease sets us against God’s love and turns our hearts away from him. Our disease is sin which manifests itself in various ways. St. Paul gives this list:
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”—Galatians 5:19-21
The Catechism presents these categories for sin:
“Sins can be distinguished according to their objects, as can every human act; or according to the virtues they oppose, by excess or defect; or according to the commandments they violate. They can also be classed according to whether they concern God, neighbor, or oneself; they can be divided into spiritual and carnal sins, or again as sins in thought, word, deed, or omission.”—Catechism of the Catholic Church #1853
The news has shown us that some of those who get Coronavirus only have a slight fever or a cough before they recover while others end up in ICU. Sins must also be evaluated according to their gravity. In the Hebrew Scriptures, some sins merited death while others could be expiated through offerings. In a similar way, we have venial and mortal sins.
Venial sins do not separate us from God and allow charity to subsist.
Mortal sin, however:
“…destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.”—Catechism of the Catholic Church #1855
Unlike COVID-19 which takes human life, Mortal sin is so called because it causes the death of the soul (separation from God). The soul looses the state of grace it had and, if unrepented, results in eternal damnation:
“It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell..—Catechism of the Catholic Church #1861
According to the Catechism (1857), three conditions must be met for a sin to be mortal. It must be:
1. a serious matter
2. committed with full awareness of its gravity
3. freely committed
Scientists and doctors are experimenting with treatments to battle the Coronavirus. Remdesivirm, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine—drugs used to treat other ailments—have shown promise when used to combat COVID-19. To remediate sin, the Church prescribes sacramental confession.
“The whole power of the sacrament of Penance consists in restoring us to God’s grace and joining us with him in an intimate friendship.”—Catechism of the Catholic Church #1468
Confession restores baptismal grace and reconciles us with God and his Church.
“Confession heals, confession justifies, confession grants pardon of sin, all hope consists in confession; in confession there is a chance for mercy.”—St. Isidore of Seville
“Confession is an act of honesty and courage – an act of entrusting ourselves, beyond sin, to the mercy of a loving and forgiving God.”—Pope John Paul 2
But if the sacrament of penance is the post-baptismal antidote for mortal sin, how are we to obtain absolution in this time of isolation?
Luckily, there have been a few innovators. A creative pastor devised a drive-thru confessional in the parking lot of his parish. A penitent sits in his or her car a few feet away from the priest and calls his phone. Confession is made and absolution given.
In a similar solution, another priest had the same idea minus the phone.
Still another set up a walk-up confessional through the window of his office in the rectory.
But for most of us, these are not options. Perhaps the best recourse for the majority of the faithful is to do what the Holy Father suggested—perform an act of perfect contrition.
As part of his live-streamed Mass on March 20, Pope Francis instructed us to:
“Do what the Catechism [of the Catholic Church] says. It is very clear: If you cannot find a priest to confess to, speak directly with God, your father, and tell him the truth. Say, ‘Lord, I did this, this, this. Forgive me,’ and ask for pardon with all your heart….I will go to confession afterward, but forgive me now.’ And immediately you will return to a state of grace with God.”
His reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that through an act of perfect contrition, venial and mortal sins are forgiven with the resolve to go to sacramental confession as soon as it’s available:
“When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.”-Catechism of the Catholic Church #1452
What about your parish? Have they done anything to bring the sacraments to the faithful during this period of isolation? Are they live streaming their Masses or have they done more? How about baptisms? Marriage? Holy Orders? How is your parish coping? Please comment below! Share and let’s learn together.