WASHINGTON, DC — Capitol Hill’s Monsignor Charles Pope has the coronavirus.
To anyone lucky enough to know the archdiocese’s most charismatic Catholic, that won’t come as a surprise. Not because he has written and preached against Christians cowering in fear of death, as an equally unsurprising Washington Post article will have you believe, but because unlike the vast majority of us, from politics to the pulpit to the pews, Msgr. Pope lives what he preaches, and he does so without fear.
“The pastor of a Catholic church on Capitol Hill who urged people not to ‘cower in fear’ of the novel coronavirus has contracted Covid-19,” The Washington Post’s Rebecca Tan wrote Sunday. “There is more to life than just not getting sick and not dying,’” she later quoted monsignor, adding further down that he admonished “lukewarm” Catholics who were not at serious risk from coronavirus, but still weren’t returning to Mass — something he vigorously denies. “I never said that Catholics who have not returned are lukewarm,” he told The Federalist. “There are many who should not return yet and I have always cautioned prudence,” he added.
“A pastor who told congregants not to be afraid of the coronavirus was hospitalized with COVID-19,” a derivative Business Insider report echoed Monday.
Sadly, in a culture that rightly celebrates the bravery of front-line health care workers but in its callous arrogance attacks the front-line priests, pastors and nuns caring for our souls, this is unsurprising: Msgr. Pope and other clergy like him are just one more Christian in the way.
The life of a good priest is a full one, and the paths they might take are many. Msgr. Pope has chosen a life of public ministry, speaking to the faithful on the radio, in his frequent writings, in their homes, in his home, in the park, on the street, and in his homilies.
His homilies, which are nearly three times as long as the average American Catholic homily, are locally famous, attracting Christians of many sects and traditions to the historically black church he served from 1993-1999, then led starting in 2007. While New England Catholics like myself had never seen a gospel-music Mass with clapping choirs and applause and dancing in the pews, the parish embraces us with the same warmth they have for Msgr. Pope, and which he has for them.
In 1993, Capitol Hill was a dangerous environment, polluted with drugs and beset by violence. Gay and straight prostitutes worked openly, side-by-side with dealers in beautiful Lincoln Park, gangs murdered each other with little fear of authority, and the doors and windows of many homes were guarded with prison-like metal bars. The monsignor embraced his community, teaching the faithful and challenging them, himself, and those around them to be better Catholics.
He openly tells us of his path to God, and of the deeply personal struggles he has overcome with faith. “I’m not who I wanna be,” he’s fond of saying, quoting a popular gospel song, “but I’m not who I used to be.”
“Can I get an amen?”
“Amen!” the response rings from the pews.
The monsignor also takes the Word to the secular world, publicly protesting the American culture of death and counseling its victims, as well as walking Lincoln Park daily to pray the rosaries with the sisters of the nearby Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará. These things, he says, come easily to him. His true challenge lies behind closed doors, where he and three other Washington priests — with the assistance of brave laymen — prayerfully confront the darkness head-on in their frightening and dangerous duty as the archdiocese’ exorcists.
When I asked one ranking Knight of Columbus why so popular and gentle a man as Msgr. Pope seemed to have been passed over for promotion to church hierarchy, he replied with sadness but without hesitation: “because he smells too much of the flock.” Unfortunately, he was right.
But fortunately for his parish, we have a man who abides by the protocols to keep the vulnerable safe but also refused to close his doors when the pandemic and ensuing hysteria hit us, when the laity was most vulnerable, when the people suffered physically, financially, and spiritually, and when fear and cowardice infected the elite class, including many of the church’s own leaders.
“Coronavirus, Where is Thy Sting?” Msgr. Pope asked in a May article reminding readers that the scripture teaches us Christ came to “destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
“We have limited and even denied the sacraments to the faithful,” he lamented in a piece two months later, “conveying the silent message that physical health is more important than spiritual health.” He quoted Psalms, writing, “You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.” The picture for this piece was a painting, Ivan Aivazovsky’s “Walking on Water.” In the scripture it depicts, Christ chastised a frightened Peter, who would later found his church: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
His refusal to be cowed does not mean Msgr. Pope was reckless, as the article suggests. Our own archbishop presided over Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian’s first public Mass as an example of how to prudently return to the Sacraments. Where we once had holy water, we now have sanitizer; masked parishioners are spread out; capacity is limited; even the gospel choir this New England Catholic has come to love is absent. But in the wicked rush to attack Catholics across the country, he still stands condemned.
In a Sunday video update, our monsignor shared how he wept in front of the nurse when he learned he had tested positive. “She said, ‘Are you really that afraid of COVID?'” he recalled, but his tears weren’t for himself: They were for us. “‘I’m a priest,'” he told her. “You literally and figuratively touch hundreds of lives and I could see all the dominoes falling, everyone in the rectory would have to quarantine, I could see huge numbers [affected].”
“I don’t know why God has permitted this right now,” the monsignor, who is on his way to recovery, said later. “He’s permitted a lot of suffering in my life in the past year. I don’t know why, but it’s enough for me to know that he knows why, and that too gives me peace.”
Over the past few months, Msgr. Pope has counseled me through some of the most difficult times of my life despite the risk it poses to him as he approaches 60 years. In his video message, he thanked the parish for our prayers, and he apologized for catching coronavirus and putting us at risk. We know he’s sorry, but it hurts so much to hear it because we know his private — and now public — sacrifice was given without hesitation, and for our sake. For his completely unnecessary apology, the Post mocked him.
So why the dishonest effort to shame a good and selfless priest? Why is this acceptable in so many quarters of America?
While those who tend to our physical health, who work our grocery stores, who answer their call to duty are so often lauded as noble front-line workers, our country shames a priest working to save our souls. What good is it to gain the world and lose your soul? We still understand this when we send chaplains to the front lines of battle besides our military, but in our decadence at home, the needs of the soul are quickly discarded in the face of death.
“Part of the reason I think that the wealthier and more intellectual classes are anxious and fearful about this more than, say, the poor and the working class, is it that the rich and the well-landed have the luxury to be worried,” Msgr. Pope shared in a May episode of The Federalist Radio Hour.
“A decadence,” he explained, “often leads us to ‘we have too much to lose.'”
“Let’s return to the Lord’s question: Why are you terrified?” he wrote in a July post. “The worst (and least likely) case is that you will die, but for a Christian, death has meaning, and ‘To die is gain’ (Phil 1:21). Would that we worried as much for our souls as we do for our bodies!”
Thank God for those who know the greatest danger is losing our souls. And God bless Monsignor Charles Pope.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect Msgr. Pope’s strong denial he criticized Catholics not returning to Church.