Heather Cox Richardson Post of the Day: May 17, 2020

Today former President Barack Obama gave two virtual graduation speeches. Midday, he spoke to the graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and in the evening, he spoke to the high school graduates of 2020 in an event called Graduate Together. 

Both speeches were a striking contrast to the language we have become accustomed to hearing from today’s White House. And while they were directed at this year’s graduates, they mapped out more generally a new direction for America than the one we have taken since 2017. 

The former president noted that we are in a frightening moment, when we are coping with a deadly pandemic and a terrible recession. But he also heralded the enormous possibilities of a time when all the cards have been thrown up into the air, waiting to be gathered up into new patterns.

Obama noted that the pandemic had “fully, finally torn back the curtain on the idea that the folks in charge know what they’re doing. A lot of them aren’t even pretending to be in charge.” “Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. A lot of them aren’t even asking the right questions.” 

He called for today’s youth to honor “honesty, hard work, responsibility, fairness, generosity, respect for others.” 

He rejected the aggressive individualism that has defined America since the Reagan years. “[I]t doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick…. [O]ur society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.”

He placed America’s strength in community. “No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together. So be alive to one another’s struggles. Stand up for one another’s rights. Leave behind all the old ways of thinking that divide us — sexism, racial prejudice, status, greed — and set the world on a different path.”

He urged young people to change the world. “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you. With everything suddenly feeling like it’s up for grabs, this is your time to seize the initiative. Nobody can tell you anymore that you should be waiting your turn. Nobody can tell you anymore ‘this is how it’s always been done.'”

“More than ever,” the former president said, “this is your moment—your generation’s world to shape.” 

[Photo: Children’s driftwood fort, 2018]

—-

Notes:

https://www.axios.com/read-obama-delivers-hbcu-commencement-speech-ab461eec-7ee4-42ff-ad52-a7373afaa4f1.html

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Article of the Day: May 15, 2020

The Secret Group of Scientists and Billionaires Pushing a Manhattan Project for Covid-19

They are working to cull the world’s most promising research on the pandemic, passing on their findings to policy makers and the White House

By April 27, 2020 10:49 am ET

A dozen of America’s top scientists and a collection of billionaires and industry titans say they have the answer to the coronavirus pandemic, and they found a backdoor to deliver their plan to the White House.

The eclectic group is led by a 33-year-old physician-turned-venture capitalist, Tom Cahill, who lives far from the public eye in a one-bedroom rental near Boston’s Fenway Park. He owns just one suit, but he has enough lofty connections to influence government decisions in the war against Covid-19.

These scientists and their backers describe their work as a lockdown-era Manhattan Project, a nod to the World War II group of scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb. This time around, the scientists are marshaling brains and money to distill unorthodox ideas gleaned from around the globe.

They call themselves Scientists to Stop Covid-19, and they include chemical biologists, an immunobiologist, a neurobiologist, a chronobiologist, an oncologist, a gastroenterologist, an epidemiologist and a nuclear scientist. Of the scientists at the center of the project, biologist Michael Rosbash, a 2017 Nobel Prize winner, said, “There’s no question that I’m the least qualified.” 

This group, whose work hasn’t been previously reported, has acted as the go-between for pharmaceutical companies looking for a reputable link to Trump administration decision makers. They are working remotely as an ad hoc review board for the flood of research on the coronavirus, weeding out flawed studies before they reach policy makers.

The group has compiled a confidential 17-page report that calls for a number of unorthodox methods against the virus. One big idea is treating patients with powerful drugs previously used against Ebola, with far heftier dosages than have been tried in the past.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have already implemented specific recommendations, such as slashing manufacturing regulations and requirements for specific coronavirus drugs.

Nick Ayers, a longtime aide to Vice President Mike Pence.Photo: jonathan ernst/Reuters

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told people this month that he agreed with most of the recommendations in the report, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal and people familiar with the matter. The report was delivered to cabinet members and Vice President Mike Pence, head of the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Dr. Cahill’s primary asset is a young lifetime of connections through his investment firm. They include such billionaires as Peter Thiel, Jim Pallotta and Michael Milken—financiers who afforded him the legitimacy to reach officials in the middle of the crisis. Dr. Cahill and his group have frequently advised Nick Ayers, Mr. Pence’s longtime aide, and agency heads through phone calls over the past month. 

No one involved with the group stands to gain financially. They say they are motivated by the chance to add their own connections and levelheaded science to a coronavirus battle effort that has, on both state and federal levels, been strained.

“We may fail,” said Stuart Schreiber, a Harvard University chemist and a member of the group. “But if it succeeds, it could change the world.”

Steve Pagliuca, co-owner of the Boston Celtics and the co-chairman of Bain Capital—as well as one of Dr. Cahill’s investors—helped copy edit drafts of their report, and he passed a version to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive David Solomon. Mr. Solomon got it to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. 

Vice President Mike Pence at the lectern during a news briefing with members of the coronavirus task force. Behind Mr. Pence, from left, Robert Redfield, Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, Seema Verma, Alex Azar, and Stephen Hahn.Photo: michael reynolds/EPA/Shutterstock

The group’s members say they are aware that many of their ideas may not be implemented, and could be ignored altogether by the Trump administration. 

This account is based on interviews with scientists, businesspeople, government officials, as well as a review of related documents.

Break out

Only two years ago, Dr. Cahill was studying for his M.D. and PhD. at Duke University, conducting research on rare genetic diseases and wearing $20Costco slacks. He assumed he would continue the work after graduation.

Instead, he reconnected with a friend who introduced him to a job at his father’s company, the blue-chip investment firm the Raptor Group. 

Dr. Cahill got hooked on investing, particularly in life sciences. He reasoned he could make a bigger impact by identifying promising scientists and helping them troubleshoot problems—both scientific and financial—than doing research himself.

After a stint at Raptor, he formed his own fund, Newpath Partners, with $125 million from a small group of wealthy investors, including Silicon Valley stalwart Mr. Thiel and private-equity founders like Mr. Pagliuca. They were attracted to his blunt approach, as well as his interest in tackling intractable problems.

In early March, as the Covid-19 death toll mounted, Dr. Cahill was intrigued and a little depressed with the state of research on the virus. “Science and medicine were the furthest things removed from everything happening,” he said. 

President Trump at an April 13 news briefing. Behind the president, from left, Deborah Birx, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Vice President Mike Pence.Photo: Yuri Gripas/CNP/Zuma Press

His investors peppered him with questions about the virus, and he organized a conference call to share some against-the-grain ideas on how to accelerate drug development and the like. He expected about 20 people. 

When Dr. Cahill tried to dial in the meeting, he was rejected because the call had reached capacity. Then his cellphone buzzed from a New York number. It was National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver. He, too, wanted the meeting’s access code. Dr. Cahill later gave him a personal briefing.

Newpath’s deep-pocketed investor base had spread word of the call, and hundreds of people were on the line, most of whom he had never met, including Mr. Milken.

When he finally got on the call, Dr. Cahill took a deep breath and said he had been working with friends to whittle down potential Covid-19 treatments to the most promising. He said he largely dropped his investing work to focus on a hunt for a cure.

After an hour, he hung up and found his email inbox full of ideas and offers to help, including from Mr. Milken’s team. “For the 50 years I’ve been involved in medical research I have never seen collaboration as we have today,” Mr. Milken said.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, at a hearing in March.Photo: Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Zuma Press

Dr. Cahill received a handful of notes from advisers to the vice president. They also had been on the call. 

The scientist-investor had gained a platform. All he needed was a plan.

Tracing contacts

One of Dr. Cahill’s first calls was to Mr. Schreiber, a founder of several private companies.

Mr. Schreiber looped in a longtime friend, Edward Scolnick, former head of research and development at pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., where he helped develop 28 new drugs and vaccines. Dr. Scolnick was blunt: A vaccine would take at least 18 months to hit the market under normal circumstances, he told Mr. Schreiber, “if you’re damn lucky.”

Mr. Schreiber responded, “What about six months?”

The team drew up a list of roughly two dozen companies that could benefit from their recommendations and pledged to sell any shares in them immediately. One early member said he couldn’t and was kicked out.

Share Your Thoughts

What is your assessment of the group’s Covid-19 plan?Join the conversation below.

Much of the early work involved divvying up hundreds of scientific papers on the crisis from around the world. They separated promising ideas from dubious ones. Each member blazed through as many as 20 papers a day, around 10 times the pace they would in their day jobs. They gathered to debate via videoconference, text messages—“like a bunch of teenagers,” Mr. Rosbash said—and phone calls. 

Personal hygiene went by the wayside. Michael Lin, a Stanford University neurobiologist, began disabling the camera on his phone to protect his vanity. “A couple of days, I’ve had seven or eight Zoom meetings, which will itself I’m sure cause some kind of disease,” joked David Liu, a Harvard University chemical biologist.

Debates haven’t always been purely science. The group discussed, for instance, whether to suggest that public-health authorities rename the virus “SARS-2,” after the 2003 China animal virus. To them, the name sounded scarier and might get more people to wear face masks. They dropped it.

The team pledged to try to block out politics—not an easy task in the noise and fury of a presidential election year.

Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug promoted by the president, was dismissed after the group’s resident expert, Ben Cravatt of Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., determined it was a long shot at best. The drug received only a passing mention in the group’s final report.

Hydroxychloroquine pills.Photo: John Locher/Associated Press

The group also disparaged the idea of using antibody testing to allow people back to work if their results showed they had recovered from the virus. Mr. Cravatt, a chemical biologist, declared it “the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” He said that prior exposure may not prevent people from giving the virus to others, and that overemphasizing antibody testing might tempt some people to intentionally infect themselves to later obtain a clean bill of health. 

The group’s initial three phases of recommendations, contained in its report, center on leveraging the scale of the federal government. For instance, buy medicines not yet proven effective as a way to encourage manufacturers to ramp up production without worrying about losing money if the drugs fail. Another is to slash the time required for a clinical review of new drugs to a week from nine months or a year. 

The group next needed to get their recommendations to the right people in the Trump administration. For that, Dr. Cahill tapped another well-placed billionaire.

An introduction

Brian Sheth, co-founder of private-equity firm Vista Equity Partners, and a Democrat, had been watching the effort gather steam from his home in Austin, Texas. He was an early investor in Dr. Cahill’s fund and had been on the first call. His expertise was technology, though, not immunology.

He had become friendly with Thomas Hicks Jr., the Dallas businessman and co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Sheth introduced Mr. Hicks to Dr. Cahill’s group.

Brian Sheth, co-founder and president of Vista Equity Partners, last year in Beverly Hills, Calif.Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News

The connection cinched ties between a group of mostly liberal scientists from left-leaning institutions with a Republican stalwart who hunts birds with Donald Trump Jr.

In his first chat with the group, Mr. Hicks said, “I’m not a scientist. Make it clear enough for me, and then tell me where the red tape is.”

A major concern of the scientists was the FDA. The scientists had in their research identified monoclonal antibody drugs that latch onto virus cells as the most promising treatment. But to make the medicine in sufficient quantities, one drugmaker, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc., would have to shift some of its existing manufacturing to Ireland. FDA rules required a monthslong wait for approval.

Mr. Scolnick, who had tussled with bureaucracy during the AIDS epidemic, tried reaching the FDA. The call ended poorly after the bureaucrats told the group they already had the pandemic under control. In a group call afterward, one of the scientists said, of the FDA: “They’re the problem here.”

A growing number of hospitals are investigating antibody testing and blood plasma therapy as a way to combat the new coronavirus in sick patients. WSJ’s Daniela Hernandez explains. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann

Dr. Cahill got in touch with Mr. Ayers. Once the group briefed the vice president’s aide on the bottleneck, Mr. Ayers said he knew who to call. That evening, March 27, Regeneron received a call from the FDA. They had permission, starting immediately, to shift production to Dublin.

“That was proof positive that what we were doing was starting to work,” Mr. Rosbash said.

The group also made inroads with the VA, the largest health care system in the U.S. The scientists pushed the division’s medical staff to allow veterans with Covid-19 to join existing studies in such areas as prostate cancer, to see if already-approved drugs might be effective against the virus. They spoke to the VA’s chief medical officer and secretary about the proposal and learned the initiative was being fast-tracked.

Mr. Pagliuca spoke to Charles Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, on the phone about the report. The governor, Mr. Pagliuca said, planned to adopt elements of the plan.

Steve Pagliuca, co-chairman of Bain Capital.Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg News

With much of their scientific proposals under advisement, or already in the process, the group has an eye on the post-Covid-19 world. Mr. Pagliuca pushed the scientists to add a fourth phase to the plan—reopening America.

The ideas include development of a saliva test, and scheduling tests at the end of the workday so results are available by morning. They also have suggested a nationwide smartphone app that requires residents to confirm each day that they don’t have any of 14 symptoms of a cold or fever.

Group members have continued their discussions with administration officials in recent days, hoping their confidential plan turns to action.

“We need the entire nation—government, business and science—to unite to defeat this,” Mr. Pagliuca said.

Corrections & Amplifications 
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a quote, “I’m sure cause some kind of disease,” to Michael Lin. It was said by David Liu. (April 27, 2020)

Write to Rob Copeland at rob.copeland@wsj.com

Science Article of the Day: May 13, 2020, Statistical Accuracy and Coronavirus

There’s a more accurate way to compare coronavirus deaths to the flu

If we measure flu mortality the same way we count covid-19 deaths, the picture becomes very stark

A funeral director stands in front of empty caskets for covid-19 victims last week at a funeral home in Queens. Data show that the coronavirus has already killed eight times as many people as the flu this year.
A funeral director stands in front of empty caskets for covid-19 victims last week at a funeral home in Queens. Data show that the coronavirus has already killed eight times as many people as the flu this year. (Angus Mordant/Bloomberg)

By Christopher Ingraham May 2, 2020 at 7:00 a.m. CDT

Months into the coronavirus pandemic, some politicians and pundits continue to promote ham-handed comparisons between covid-19 and the seasonal flu to score political points.

Though there are many ways to debunk this fundamentally flawedcomparison, one of the clearest was put forth this week by Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency room physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

As Faust describes it, the issue boils down to this: The annual flu mortality figures published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are estimates produced by plugging laboratory-confirmed deaths into a mathematical model that attempts to correct for undercounting. Covid-19 death figures represent a literal count of people who have either tested positive for the virus or whose diagnosis was based on meeting certain clinical and epidemiological criteria.AD

Such a comparison is of the apples to oranges variety, Faust writes, as the former are “inflated statistical estimates” and the latter are “actual numbers.”

To get a more accurate comparison, one must start with the number of directly confirmed flu deaths, which the CDC tracks on an annual basis. In the past seven flu seasons, going back to 2013, that tally fluctuated between 3,448 and 15,620 deaths.

Image without a caption

Note that these numbers are very different from the CDC’s final official flu death estimates. For 2018-2019, for instance, the 7,172 confirmed flu deaths translated to a final estimate of between 26,339 and 52,664 deaths. Again, that’s because the CDC plugs the confirmed deaths into a model that attempts to adjust for what many epidemiologists believe is a severe undercount.

Sign up for our Coronavirus Updates newsletter to track the outbreak. All stories linked in the newsletter are free to access.

Now, let’s add a bar for this season’s covid-19 deaths, which as of this writing stands at 63,259, and which will be even higher by the time you read this. Note the drastic change in the y-axis to accommodate the scale of covid-19 mortality.

Image without a caption

This year’s data are necessarily incomplete, as 22 weeks remain in the flu season. There are not likely to be many more flu deaths, as we are well past the worst of the season. But covid-19 mortality has plateaued at around 2,000 deaths per day. Where it will head next is anyone’s guess.AD

Using an apples-to-apples comparison, we can say that the coronavirus and the disease it causes, covid-19, have already killed eight times as many people as the flu. By the time we get data for the entire season, the difference appears likely to be at least tenfold, or a full order of magnitude.

The coronavirus, Faust writes, “is not anything like the flu: It is much, much worse.”

One of the most challenging things about this pandemic is making sense of the profound uncertainty surrounding the many quantities that might appear, at first glance, to be rock solid. On the surface, comparing flu and coronavirus deaths seems like a simple proposition: dig up the official numbers of both and see which is greater.How two doctors became central to the push to lift coronavirus stay-at-home orders: Recommended Watch!

https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/how-two-doctors-became-central-to-the-push-to-lift-coronavirus-stay-at-home-orders/2020/04/30/fd98b35a-abc6-4981-96dc-cc9a3bb5bc37_video.htmlDan Erickson and Artin Massihi became rising stars among conservatives circles after holding a now-viral press conference on April 22. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

But that effort gets complicated as soon as you realize that flu mortality is not reported as a tally but as an estimated range, which is far different from the individual counts, based on testing and diagnoses, used for covid-19. And because we can’t test and diagnose everyone, those covid-19 deaths are probably undercounted as well. Soon, what once appeared to be a simple mathematical exercise turns into a mess of algorithms, estimates and uncertainty.ADhttps://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

People encountering that uncertainty for the first time, as many of us are during this pandemic, are likely to react in one of two ways. Some cherry-pick a single number that comports with their biases, creating an artificial certainty to score political points or avoid upsetting their preconceptions. That’s what the politicians and talking heads using faulty flu data to downplay the outbreak are doing. Others throw their hands up and declare the truth to be unknowable, indulging in the cynicism that believes you can “make statistics say whatever you want.”

But rather than try to make sense of this uncertainty ourselves, there’s a third option: turning to the experts who’ve devoted their entire careers to these questions. We can listen to the epidemiologists and physicians, people like Faust and his colleagues, who are trained to draw the best possible conclusions out of uncertain data, understanding that those conclusions may have to be updated as new information comes in.

And while the experts might not all agree on some points, something like a critical consensus emerges if we listen to enough of them. Then, that consensus can be used to inform policy that helps save lives and protect the economy.AD

Coronavirus aid: What you need to read

Updated May 8, 2020

What you need to know: Personal finances during the pandemic | Paying your rent or mortgage | What to do if you’ve been laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic | Coronavirus stimulus check calculator

Impact: Airlines | Newspapers Gig workers | U.S. Postal Service | 10 Americans navigating the coronavirus economy

Small businesses: How to get a small-business loan under the new $484 billion coronavirus aid package | Data shows nearly 300 public companies received PPP loans | The companies that got loans that didn’t need them

We want to hear from you: Are you waiting on a stimulus check, loan, or unemployment assistance from the Cares Act? | How has the coronavirus impacted your business?

Are you recently unemployed due to the pandemic? The Post has anew Facebook group to help you navigate what’s next.1.1k CommentsPAID PROMOTED STORIES

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History Article of the Day: Mother’s Day, 2020

Heather Cox Richardson is an American historian and Professor of History at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West, and the Plains Indians. She previously taught at MIT and the University of Massachusetts. Richardson has authored six books.

Heather Cox RichardsonMay 10

If you google the history of Mother’s Day, the internet will tell you that Mother’s Day began in 1908 when Anna Jarvis decided to honor her mother. But “Mothers’ Day”—with the apostrophe not in the singular spot, but in the plural—actually started in the 1870s, when the sheer enormity of the death caused by the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War convinced American women that women must take control of politics from the men who had permitted such carnage. Mothers’ Day was not designed to encourage people to be nice to their mothers. It was part of women’s effort to gain power to change modern society.

The Civil War years taught naïve Americans what mass death meant in the modern era. Soldiers who had marched off to war with fantasies of heroism discovered that long-range weapons turned death into tortured anonymity. Men were trampled into blood-soaked mud, piled like cordwood in ditches, or transformed into emaciated corpses after dysentery drained their lives away.

The women who had watched their men march off to war were haunted by its results. They lost fathers, husbands, sons. The men who did come home were scarred in body and mind.

Modern war, it seemed, was not a game.

But out of the war also came a new sense of empowerment. Women had bought bonds, paid taxes, raised money for the war effort, managed farms, harvested fields, worked in war industries, reared children, and nursed soldiers. When the war ended, they had every intention of continuing to participate in national affairs. But the Fourteenth Amendment, which established that African American men were citizens, did not include women. In 1869, women organized the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the American Woman’s Suffrage Association to promote women’s right to have a say in American government.

From her home in Boston, Julia Ward Howe was a key figure in the American Woman’s Suffrage Association. She was an enormously talented writer, who had penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the early years of the Civil War, a hymn whose lyrics made it a point to note that Christ was “born of woman.” Howe was drawn to women’s rights because the laws of her time meant that her children belonged to her abusive husband. If she broke free of him, she would lose any right to see her children, a fact he threw at her whenever she threatened to leave him. She was not at first a radical in the mold of reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, believing that women had a human right to equality with men. Rather, she believed strongly that women, as mothers, had a special role to perform in the world.

For Howe, the Civil War had been traumatic, but that it led to emancipation might justify its terrible bloodshed. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 was another story. She remembered:

“I was visited by a sudden feeling of the cruel and unnecessary character of the contest. It seemed to me a return to barbarism, the issue having been one which might easily have been settled without bloodshed. The question forced itself upon me, “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone know and bear the cost?”

Howe had a new vision, she said, of “the august dignity of motherhood and its terrible responsibilities.” She sat down immediately and wrote an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” Men always had and always would decide questions by resorting to “mutual murder.” But women did not have to accept this state of affairs, she wrote. Mothers could command their sons to stop the madness.

“Arise, women! Howe commanded. Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

Howe had her document translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Swedish, and distributed it as widely as her extensive contacts made possible. She believed that her Women’s Peace Movement would be the next great development in human history, ending war just as the anti-slavery movement had ended human bondage. She called for a “festival which should be observed as mothers’ day, and which should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines” to be held around the world on June 2 of every year, a date that would permit open-air meetings.

Howe organized international peace conferences and American states developed their own Mothers’ Day festivals. But Howe quickly gave up on her project. She realized that there was much to be done before women could come together on such a momentous scale. She turned her attention to women’s clubs “to constitute a working and united womanhood.”

As she worked to unite women, she threw herself into the struggle for women’s suffrage, understanding that in order to create a more just and peaceful society, women must take up their rightful place as equal participants in American politics. 

Perhaps Anna Jarvis remembered seeing her mother participate in an original American Mothers’ Day when she decided to honor her own mother in the early twentieth century. And while we celebrate modern Mother’s Day in this momentous year of 2020, it’s worth remembering the original Mothers’ Day, and Julia Ward Howe’s conviction that women must make their voices heard.

Theological Article of the Day: May 5, 2020

Communion with Christ and One Another in a Time of Pandemic

 April 9, 2020   Catholic Voices,  Features

CATHOLIC VOICES

By Julia Gatta

In 1938 Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

In the period between the death of Christ and the day of judgment, when Christians are allowed to live here in visible community with other Christians, we have merely a gracious anticipation of the end time. It is by God’s grace that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly around God’s word and sacrament in this world. Not all Christians partake of this grace. The imprisoned, the sick, the lonely who live in the diaspora, the proclaimers of the gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that the visible community is grace. . . .  The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer (Life Together in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 5, 28-29).

Bonhoeffer knew whereof he spoke. The previous year the Gestapo closed the underground seminary of which he was the director. Colleagues and former students were being held in detention. Bonhoeffer no doubt realized that his own freedom was precarious, as subsequent events proved to be the case. Today his words speak directly to our situation as we forego the “incomparable joy and strength” of  “the physical presence of other Christians.” To keep contagion at a minimum we are advised—and in some cases, ordered—to “shelter in place.” Our church buildings are closed, and they will probably remain closed until the danger has passed.

We are in new territory here as citizens of this country, as citizens of the world, and as citizens of the kingdom of God. We have perhaps learned to appreciate the “physical presence of other Christians” as never before. And we are grateful for the technology that allows us to see one another through various media and even engage in worship online. While none of this is the same as fully enfleshed engagement with one another, it nonetheless offers a more robust form of communication than previous ages had available when they faced comparable isolation.

How are we to respond to this situation of physical isolation combined with media connectivity? First of all, I think we should acknowledge the loss. Our loss may be relatively small, especially if we are not among those most vulnerable economically, or if we are not suffering the daily risk faced by healthcare providers or others engaged in essential services. But still our loss is real enough, and it may deepen as the crisis goes on. It is one thing to “fast” from Holy Communion during Lent, but it will seem strange indeed during the Easter season and beyond.

How, then, do we continue to worship during this time of pandemic? And where might we find wellsprings of grace to sustain us during this difficult time? We are, after all, a community of death and resurrection, having been made so by the gift of incorporation into Christ at baptism. We share in that paschal mystery every day and at every moment. God has not abandoned us, and divine grace awaits us at every turn. While this period of sacramental minimalism may awaken us to the joy and grace of the sacraments, it is well to remember that, as the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer puts it: “God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us” (BCP, 861). God continues to reach out to us, supplying the strength we need to weather our losses. Christ is our companion in joy and sorrow, life and death. Even in physical isolation, we are not alone: Christ is with us along with the whole communion of saints who belong to him.

It remains true, of course, that the Holy Eucharist is “the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts” (BCP, 13). The link between Eucharistic worship and the Day of Resurrection—the “Lord’s Day”—seems pretty clear from the New Testament itself and characterized the worship of the Church from her earliest centuries. This is a feast that at once looks back to the Last Supper and anticipates the banquet of the age to come. It both “proclaims the Lord’s death” and participates in his resurrection. Hence, a candidate for Holy Baptism must promise fidelity to the Eucharistic community—to the “breaking of the bread”–in words describing the first generation of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:42).

When, however, for reasons of public health we cannot gather as a community for the Eucharist, we have another liturgy still available to us: the Daily Office. The Book of Common Prayer describes the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, together with the Holy Eucharist, as the “regular services appointed for public worship in this Church” (BCP, 13). We can thank Thomas Cranmer, architect of the first Book of Common Prayer, for the inclusion of Morning and Evening Prayer in our prayer book. The origins of the Office go back to the round of Jewish piety that punctuated the day. These services evolved over the Christian centuries, first in the cathedral cities, until quite an elaborate seven-fold office was prayed, often with beautiful chant, in medieval monasteries. Cranmer culled material from these monastic offices, simplified them, and restored them to use by lay people and parishes. They were now in English rather than in Latin. Cranmer never intended the offices to replace the Eucharist on Sundays. Rather, they were to be prayed every day in the parish church: these are daily offices. On Sundays, the offices would be said and the Holy Communion celebrated.

The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are thus a treasured part of our Anglican heritage. But these treasures are to be used rather than placed on a shelf for admiration. They are the living prayer of the Church each day. Even if we say the office privately, we do not pray alone. We are praying with the Church, engaging in a common round of consecutive readings from Scripture, recitation of the psalms, canticles and prayers. The office supports our prayer when we feel uninspired; we just have to do it. It subtly but steadily deepens our connection to the particular mystery of Christ commemorated in any given liturgical season.

In this time of Eucharistic deprivation, a number of parishes are streaming the Daily Office on Sunday, often using the Eucharistic lectionary for the readings, since the Office is serving as the main—or only—service for the day. This is all to the good, and in this way some Episcopalians who are unfamiliar with the office may begin to take it up, as intended, for daily use. People who are not living in total isolation but in Christian households might well begin praying the office together not just on Sundays, but every day. The office is designed for daily use, and it is only over the long haul that one really experiences its benefits. The Scripture lessons, in particular, bear fruit not when dipped into occasionally, but when read consecutively, “in course.”

If, as is likely, the need for physical distancing stretches out for months rather than for weeks, the pain of separation from the Eucharistic celebration may become acute. Some parishes and cathedrals are already streaming the Eucharistic liturgy online, and more may do so over time. In what spirit might Christians watch these celebrations in which they cannot participate by receiving the consecrated Bread and Wine? In what spirit should priests and bishops preside at them?

This situation is not entirely novel to Christian experience. As Bonhoeffer observed, Christians are sometimes deprived of the physical presence of the faith community, and thus of the sacramental ministrations they would normally provide, over long stretches: Christians suffering under conditions of persecution or imprisonment, for instance, or those living among non-Christians where no Christian community is at hand. Wars and natural disasters—tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and catastrophic fires—all disrupt community on every level and thwart participation in the sacraments. In the rubrics for the Ministration to the Sick, the prayer book anticipates a circumstance in which someone might be physically unable to receive Holy Communion:

If a person desires to receive the Sacrament, but, by reason of extreme sickness of physical disability, is unable to eat and drink the Bread and Wine, the Celebrant is to assure that person that all the benefits of Communion are received, even though the Sacrament is not received with the mouth. (BCP, 457)

This has come to be called “Communion by desire” or “spiritual Communion.” The assurance the celebrant is charged to offer those too infirm to receive the Sacrament is no empty gesture. It bespeaks a confidence in God’s love for us and in the capacity of divine grace to reach us no matter how constricting our circumstances. Hence, the longing for sacramental Communion, roused by our very deprivation of it, should not be repressed but rather channeled into the earnest seeking of spiritual communion with Jesus. Such a deepening of union with Christ is always available to us, but we lay hold of it intentionally through prayer. In one of his talks, Thomas Merton described the process this way:

In prayer we discover what we already have through the indwelling Spirit of God and our incorporation through baptism into Christ. You start where you are and deepen what you already have and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. All we need is to experience what we already possess (qtd. in Martin L. Smith, A Season for the Spirit, 45).

“What we already possess” is communion with Christ. It is variously described in the New Testament as “indwelling” or “abiding”: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (John 15:4). St. Paul declares that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). So communion with Christ is already ours, given through “our incorporation through baptism into Christ.” But it is one thing to know this, and another to experience it. This union can, as in any love relationship, be enhanced and deepened. Hence the practice of prayer, including spiritual Communion.

“The Mass on the World” by French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin witnesses to the depths to which spiritual Communion can plumb. He composed this prose-prayer on the steppes of Asia on the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord in 1923 when he found himself without the needed elements to celebrate Mass. He was instead moved to “make the whole earth my altar” at daybreak to offer God “all the sufferings and labours of the world.” As de Chardin moves from “The Offering” to “Communion” and “Prayer,” he lays bare his love for God, for suffering humanity, and for a creation shot through with the presence of Christ (Hymn of the Universe).

It may be that viewing an online celebration of the Holy Eucharist, especially one that is conducted in “real time,” can inspire a similar movement of the spirit: from hearing and interiorly responding to the Liturgy of the Word; through the “offering of our life and labors,” our joys and deprivations, our griefs and losses; to an experienced union with Christ as the Great Thanksgiving is prayed, and the Bread broken. What then? Are the “Gifts of God” still “for the People of God”? Yes, they are! In Anglican tradition, the Eucharist is never celebrated without a congregation, no matter how small; we have no “private Masses.” So any online celebration would have to include, besides the priest, at least a few people, spaced a safe physical distance from one another. Their reception of the Sacrament would be an occasion of grace not only for themselves, but also for all of us. Because we are all members of the one Body of Christ, when one member benefits from the manifold graces of Holy Communion, we all flourish.

There are some voices in the Church who have urged that when celebrating the Eucharist under these conditions, priests should refrain from receiving Holy Communion in sacrificial solidarity with the vast majority of the faithful who are deprived of that privilege. There is, however, another sacrificial reality at work in the Eucharist of greater significance. In his self-offering to the Father, Jesus also offers himself to us: “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. . . Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood” (BCP, 362-63). Would we refuse his invitation? Disobey his clear command? The bread and wine must be consumed: Communion is the climax of the Eucharist. And so the priest, together with whatever congregation is present, share in the sacramental gift of Christ on behalf of us all and for the life of the world. The Eucharist is always for the whole Church; indeed, it is always celebrated on behalf of the whole creation. Priests are not in control of this dynamic of grace. As the ecumenical Lima Document states:

It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. . .. In most churches, this presidency is signified by an ordained minister. The one who presides at the eucharistic celebration in the name of Christ makes clear that the rite is not the assemblies’ own creation or possession; the eucharist is received as a gift from Christ living in his Church. (“Eucharist” In Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, par. 29).

To preside at the Eucharist is, even under ordinary circumstances, a grace received with awed thanksgiving and piercing humility. Few priests are unaware of their personal unworthiness to “go up to the altar of God.” Yet this ministry is exercised confidently on behalf of the priestly people. In the same way, both priest and people receive the Sacrament trusting in the comprehensive mercy of God. Indeed, one of the benefits of receiving Holy Communion is the forgiveness of sins. But the sacraments are not just for the individual recipients of them, however great their personal value may be; they are for the whole world. As the Lima Document goes on to say: “The world, to which renewal is promised, is present in the whole eucharistic celebration” (par. 23).

It is always a privilege to receive Holy Communion. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, there are Christians–incalculable numbers of them, in fact–who cannot share in the communal and sacramental fullness we normally enjoy. Life in this world is riddled with inequities. But the economy of the kingdom of God is of a different order, and the Eucharist participates even now in that heavenly realm. If our situation allows us in the present constrained circumstances to receive the Sacrament, we should do so, more cognizant that ever of the extraordinary gift of Christ. When we are united to Christ in Holy Communion, we are united to one another in the whole communion of saints, in heaven and on earth.

The Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta is the Bishop Frank A. Juhan Professor of Pastoral Theology in the School of Theology, the University of the South, Sewanee. Her most recent book is Life in Christ: Practicing Christian Spirituality (Church Publishing, 2018).