Bishop O'Connell: the shepherd and the sheep in a time of pandemic
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that influenza in the United States was associated with over 35.5 million confirmed illnesses and more than 34,200 deaths during the 2018-2019 influenza season.
Data for the 2019-2020 influenza season has not yet been finalized; estimates for confirmed illnesses, however, are between 39 million and 56 million; estimates for deaths are between 24,000 and 62,000.
The CDC reports that COVID-19 in the United States was/is associated with more than 22.8 million confirmed illnesses and more than 350,000 deaths so far during the 2020-2021 COVID pandemic.
In New Jersey, to date, 595,000 confirmed COVID-19 illnesses have been reported and 20,039 deaths confirmed.
Although reports indicate that COVID-19 cases are statistically less prevalent than influenza cases in the U.S., current data confirms that COVID-19 deaths are almost six (6) times higher. COVID-19 is clearly a deadlier infection.
The availability of vaccines since the beginning of 2021 offers promising signs of hope in confronting the future spread of COVID-19 as we continue to observe established pandemic protocols and precautions.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis stated that currently available vaccines – declared morally permissible by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops – are “an ethical choice because you are playing with health, life, but you are also playing with the lives of others. I’ve signed up. One must do it.”
He continued, “I don’t understand why some say, ‘no, vaccines are dangerous.’ If it is presented by doctors as a thing that can go well, that has no special dangers, why not take it? There is a suicidal denial that I would not know how to explain.”
Canon law states that “A diocesan bishop in the diocese entrusted to him has all ordinary, proper, and immediate power which is required for the exercise of his pastoral function except for cases which the law or a decree of the Supreme Pontiff reserves to the supreme authority or to another ecclesiastical authority (c.381.1).”
The pastoral function of the bishop for those “entrusted to him” includes the responsibility to teach, to govern and to sanctify. A bishop cannot fully exercise his “pastoral function” without, at the same time, considering the physical health and well-being of those “entrusted” to his spiritual and pastoral care in a diocese.
The coronavirus pandemic affecting the physical health and safety of the faithful is not something a bishop can ignore when fulfilling his pastoral responsibilities. For that reason, since a bishop is most likely not a scientist or doctor, he depends upon the findings and data of science and medicine to help guide the pastoral decisions he makes.
The ancient Roman poet Juvenal wrote in the first century AD, “orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano” – “a person should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.” That concept of “mens/mind” is also translated as “soul” and is an encouragement to the bishop in his approach to the spiritual care for the faithful entrusted to him.
The pastoral decisions a bishop makes are for the benefit of the whole Catholic person as an individual – soul, mind and body – and for the Catholic community as a whole in his diocese. A bishop supports and serves both the individual and the common good of the Church in all its dimensions.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, bringing with it sickness and death, a shepherd must care for his sheep and do whatever he can in the Church to protect them and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in and through the Church’s activities.