The year 2020 began with great hope and expectation. I distinctly remember welcoming in the new year just after the homily at our midnight Mass. Many remarked that because “20/20” is the term for perfect vision, the Lord would surely give us greater clarity and vision. We had no idea what we were saying!
Though I was in exceedingly poor health from January through mid-February, the year still began with great hope. The economy was roaring, unemployment was near zero, and the President’s State of the Union address brimmed with robust optimism. The annual pro-life march was invigorated by the first attendance of a sitting U.S. President. Although there was debate about immigration, border walls, Russian collusion, race, sex (the #MeToo movement) and whether the president was a hero or a demon, America seemed to be moving forward. Patriotism was strong, at least among conservative Americans.
As early as Jan. 9, though, there were reports of a mysterious viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China. The first case of COVID-19 reached our shores on Jan. 21. On Jan. 31, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency and by Feb. 2 the President had imposed restrictions on those traveling to the U.S. from China. Dire predictions of massive death tolls circulated throughout February (predictions which were later scaled back). By March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency and banned incoming travel from most of Europe.
Shutdowns and “stay-at-home” orders quickly followed in many states. The previously bustling economy screeched to a near halt with so many forced closures, and unemployment soared. Then, the unthinkable happened: Catholic priests were ordered to cease all public liturgies. Some bishops ordered churches locked, and a few even forbade the giving of sacraments under any circumstance. The crucial seasons of Lent and Easter were lost to the faithful. I cannot even begin to describe my dismay and shock at the cancellation of Mass. The year was off to an awful start, and it would only get worse with months of racial unrest and then a hotly contested election.
We need to remember the panic-stricken atmosphere in those early weeks of March, lest we be too severe in our judgments of those who had to make difficult decisions. But if 20/20 means perfect vision, we were certainly shown that we had hard lessons to learn and that we got a lot of things wrong. We were quick to entrust ourselves into the hands of professed experts, surrendering many of our rights as well as abandoning our religious duties and blessings.
Rather than merely chronicling what was surely the worst year in a long time, I would like to speak to some of the lessons we were taught. I propose to do this in two articles: this first one focuses on the social and political order while the next one will be on the responses in the Church.
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