A soon-to-be Catholic’s coronavirus purgatory

Catechumens hold candles during the Easter Vigil March 31 at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church in Huntington Station, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

I was supposed to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil this year. But, like catechumens across the country, my journey was put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. We now find ourselves in a kind of purgatory—that almost-holy middle ground between creation’s anger and heaven’s rest. It is a doctrine that has long been a stumbling block for so many Protestants, but in this pandemic age, purgatory has taken a new meaning for me.

In January 2018, I picked up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In a sense, it was not a random selection. Though I was baptized Baptist, I had spent six years in Catholic school, and even then, I was drawn to prayers, rites and the deep sense of peace I experienced in the Mass. In another sense, reaching for the catechism was the product of chance. With an hour to kill before picking up my son from basketball practice, I drove to a nearby bookstore. But instead of perusing new fiction, I wandered into the spirituality section and noticed the thick white spine of the catechism. I took it from the shelf, flipped through the pages and felt the tug of my childhood.

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It is a doctrine that has long been a stumbling block for so many Protestants, but in this pandemic age, purgatory has taken a new meaning for me.

I read the catechism over the coming months, and I found a resonance, particularly in the idea that Jesus heals through bread and wine. That idea—that divine love meets humankind in the Eucharist—pulled me to the Catholic faith. There was, however, a complication. My wife, Amber, was in the process of studying for ordination in the Anglican church and was to become a priest in our tiny Arkansas parish. I would be both her husband and parishioner, and despite my growing interest in Catholicism, I harbored no theological or ideological reservations about that fact. Still, I could not shake the sense of something deeper, more potent and unifying in the Catholic Church’s expression of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. With Amber’s blessing, I enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

I muddled through the teachings that trip up most Protestants—Marian dogma, the role of both grace and works in salvation, the doctrine of purgatory. In the weeks leading up to the Easter Vigil of 2019, I had resolved most of those issues. Only one stumbling block remained: If I was confirmed, could I still receive communion in an Anglican service—administered, no less, by my wife? Some in my R.C.I.A. class seemed to think I could not. If that was true, did I still want to enter the Catholic Church? Would refusing communion from my wife create a marital rift? Amber said as much.

Unsure how to navigate the questions, I took the issue to the local Catholic priest, who was straightforward in his reply: As a Catholic, I should not regularly participate in communion at another church. I nodded and stood to leave his office. Then he offered a bit of spiritual direction: “These things often take time. Honor your marriage first, and see what happens.”

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If I was confirmed, could I still receive communion in an Anglican service—administered, no less, by my wife?

It had been 15 months since I picked up the catechism, and at the end of that long road, I chose marital harmony over confirmation. In that choice, I entered into the deep sadness of liminal space, the space between the faith I knew as a child and the full joy of Eucharistic participation.

The reasons are complicated, but over the months that followed, Amber discovered that the Anglican Church would not be her home. She resigned from her position at the church; she returned her cassock. She drove from the church building for the last time, sobbing. Unordained but not faithless, she suggested we could explore Catholicism as a family. So, two weeks after our last Anglican service, Amber, our three sons and I joined in worship with the parishioners of our local Catholic church.

Amber enrolled in R.C.I.A. in September and joined a cohort of Catholics-to-be. There was a young therapist, a man who works at the local university, a former Anglican who had been a secular third order Franciscan. I was a de facto member of that cohort—the confirmation candidates of 2020—though I never attended their class. Together, we were a community in waiting, and there were tens of thousands like us scattered all over the world. And though I could be confirmed at any time—under the catechism, my Baptist baptism sufficed—I chose to wait until the great Easter celebration to join the church with Amber, our children and the rest of the confirmation class. I chose to extend my personal purgatory. 

We were nearing the finish, and I could almost taste the bread and wine. Days later, the wheels came off the world.

The new year came, then Lent. We set our hearts on penance, preparation and Friday night shrimp tacos. We selected saints—Amber, Magdalene; me, Francis; our boys chose a traveler, a theologian, a painter and a chef. On Feb. 27, we participated in the rite of election and shook hands with the bishop. We were nearing the finish, and I could almost taste the bread and wine. Days later, the wheels came off the world.

The local news broke the story. A man from northwest Arkansas had traveled to an international coronavirus hotspot, and upon his return, he had visited the very church where we attended the rite of election. Neither he nor anyone in his family were showing symptoms, and they had all self-quarantined. Still, the pandemic panic that was already so thick in Rome struck our local community. Within two weeks, and just one month before our Easter confirmation, the diocese suspended all Masses, including the Easter Vigil. There would be no end to this season of purgatory, and now, Amber would join me in it.

Holy Week came, and I could not shake the feeling that creation had turned on the people. On Holy Saturday, the United States recorded over 30,000 new coronavirus cases and 2,024 related deaths. That night, as my family tuned into the parish’s online Easter Vigil, I considered the scores of would-be Catholics sitting in their living rooms. We were starving for the eucharistic feast we had waited so long to enjoy. My stomach growled at the words of David: “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”

The season of waiting continues for me, my family and many of those who were to enter the church this year.

On Easter morning, I woke to something that felt far from resurrection. In the stillness of those early hours, my thoughts turned to the Black Death. In that epidemic, some estimate the European population was reduced by 50 percent. Still, didn’t the sacraments of the church continue? Didn’t the priests still lay hands on the sick, administer the Eucharist and perform baptisms? Didn’t they wade into sickrooms knowing they would be martyrs at the hands of an invisible killer? And here we were, nearly 700 years later, and there were no sacraments to be found?

 

I considered those questions, disappointment welling. Then, I considered my local priest, a good man who gave me such wise pastoral advice a year before. Should he put himself in harm’s way to satisfy my deep desire for confirmation? Even if he should, would I want him to? In that moment, I saw Easter Sunday for what it was: an opportunity to purge my own wants as I considered the well-being of my local priest and my community. Through this season of social distancing, of waiting for initiation into the Catholic Church, I might conform myself a bit more to Christ who laid down not only his wants but his life for the sake of others.

The season of waiting continues for me, my family and many of those who were to enter the church this year. It continues for many Catholics who pine for a return to Mass or confession. I hope bishops and priests explore creative ways to bring the sacraments back to the people. I hope my family—together with the thousands of catechumens around the world—can enter the church soon. But as we wait, perhaps a new imagination can take hold. Maybe we can see this time as a sort of living purgatory, a time of preparation before entering into the joy of heaven on earth.

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