by Grace Maffucci ’22
Thousands of years ago, according to the Old Testament, Cain, in an attempt to evade responsibility for the death of his brother, asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Essentially, God said “yes,” and ever since, Christians have used this ancient tale to remind us of our God-given responsibility to care for and promote the well-being of others as well as the sanctity of human life.
I think about this lesson a lot nowadays, in the midst of the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic, as I walk into St. Dominic Chapel and notice a sea of praying Catholics—and not a mask in sight.
Despite repeated reminders in the form of door signs, emails from Fr. Sicard, Dean Sears, and the Continuity Task Force to wear masks inside all buildings, and despite the evidence that mask-wearing reduces the rate of COVID-19 transmission in a community, many members of the PC community are often seen without masks (or with improperly worn ones).
We are in a much different place now than we were a year ago when vaccines had only just begun to roll out, and for most of us, the risk of serious illness and/or hospitalization due to COVID-19 is much lower. While this is enough of a reason to be grateful and breathe a little more easily (literally and figuratively), it does not mean we are off the hook in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19. The Omicron variant has proven to be highly contagious, even among the vaccinated; as of Jan. 31 there were 906.7 new cases per 100,000 people in the seven days prior, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health, which also labels Rhode Island’s rate of community transmission of the virus as high.
At Providence College, as of Jan. 28, there have been 83 reported cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff since the start of the spring semester. And while 97 percent of full-time students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated, there are still several members of the PC community as well as the greater Providence community that are unvaccinated, immunocompromised, or elderly, and are thereby more vulnerable to COVID-19.
This should be reason enough for members of the College community to take mask-wearing seriously. Just because you are vaccinated does not mean you cannot get the virus and potentially transmit it to someone who is at greater risk of grave illness.
But my intention is not to condemn the entire campus for slacking on mask-wearing compliance, because for many students, it is a school rule. However, for devout Catholics, wearing masks in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, a disease that has killed at least 873,957 people in the U.S. alone, according to the CDC, should be more than a rule—it is a necessary means of living out Christ’s command to love one another as we love ourselves. Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Wearing a mask is not even close to laying your life down—it is just a small inconvenience—but we are called to do it in order to protect the most vulnerable, the weak, those without a voice, terms that should sound familiar to pro-life Catholics. If pro-lifers claim to be willing to go to great lengths to defend and protect life at all stages and in all forms, why is it so difficult to wear a mask to protect the life of those in the community around us?
I understand the frustration about having to mask for the sake of others while fully vaccinated, but even those who are vehemently opposed to vaccinations (and they exist—maybe even abound—within our Church) are deserving of the sacrificial love to which Christ calls us. I wish I didn’t have to wear a mask to protect people who refuse to protect themselves, but I know that, as a Christian, I am called to prioritize others’ health and safety over my own small comforts.
What is truly troubling is not only the lack of mask-wearing in the devout Catholic community on campus but the utter refusal of active members of Campus Ministry to wear a mask even when it is required at a school event, in a classroom, or at Mass. Refusing to mask has become a grand political statement in defense of one’s personal freedom, but when this act of freedom is at the cost of others’ health and safety, it is no longer in accord with the Catholic notion of freedom. Jesus did not die on the cross for our individual freedom to trump others’ well-being. If anything, Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of love should remind us that wearing a mask is just a fraction of the suffering to which we are called if we want to walk with Christ and follow his example.
Regardless of any objections to the prior argument, all members of the campus’ Catholic community should be alarmed that the lack of proper masking in St. Dominic Chapel and the Campus Ministry Center has turned some faithful students away from attending Mass and getting involved in ministry on campus. For these individuals, who are rightly concerned about the high rate of community transmission and how this might affect themselves and their loved ones, the chapel is no longer a safe space to pray and join in communion with others. I do not mean to say that we are responsible for people that fall away from the faith because of the mask debate (just like with the sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church), because as a practicing Catholic, I know that there are inviolable truths upon which the faith is founded, and corruption within the Church cannot change these truths. However, the fact that this issue is causing division within Church communities (and not just at PC!) is concerning and must be addressed.
Remember, whether you like it or not, if you are a believer in the Word of God and a follower of Christ, you are your brother’s keeper.