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COVID demonstrates what a difference Jesus can make

Joseph F. Naumann is Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This summer has been a unique one for all of us because of the continued impact of the COVID-19 epidemic.

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit several of our parishes, installing pastors at their new parochial assignments and celebrating confirmations that I was unable to do in the spring.

I have been edified by the efforts of our parishes to celebrate the Eucharist both safely and solemnly.

I am very grateful to the many parishioners that are assisting their pastors in implementing the archdiocesan safety protocols adapted to the unique circumstances of their parish community.

The impact of COVID-19 varies greatly in the many counties that compose the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. There are some of our counties that have had minimal incidents of COVID-19 cases and very few hospitalizations. Of course, the situation is much different in our larger population centers.

I was interviewed recently on a livestream Daily Update produced by the University of Kansas Medical Center. I was asked about COVID-19’s impact on the Catholic Church. I shared that COVID-19 has impacted almost every aspect of the church’s ministry.

First of all, essential to the life of the church is gathering our people together to pray and encounter Jesus through the sacraments.

Social distancing is foreign to the nature of the church. The sacraments — by definition —  involve touching the physical symbols that reveal the experience of interior grace as well as human interaction with the minister of the sacrament.

Secondly, the Catholic Church operates a large school system that includes preschool, kindergarten, elementary schools, high schools and colleges.

As we begin this new academic year, compared to 2019, we have lost 729 students from preschool through high school. This is a decline of a little more than 5% of our total enrollment.

A significant portion of the loss of enrollment (39%) is in our preschool and kindergarten programs. Many parents have decided this year to keep their children at home for these optional educational experiences. Another 24% of the decline has occurred in our high schools. 

While our schools did a heroic job last spring, pivoting from in-person classroom methods to virtual education, I am convinced that much of the impact of student formation is diminished when young people cannot interact in person with teachers and classmates.

Our schools have gone through enormous efforts to reduce the risk to students, teachers and their families. I am proud of what our schools have done to make it possible at the beginning of this school year to maximize in-person education, while attempting to accommodate a virtual learning experience for those at high risk.

During the KU Med interview, viewers were able to ask questions. The first question was why were our Catholic schools open for in- person education, when some health experts were advising against it.

I responded by citing some of the mental health data revealing significant health risks to our youth from social distancing. Not opening schools also has negative health impacts on students. 

The KU COVID-19 update had actually begun with a review of the dramatic increase in depression and suicidal ideation, particularly among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), compared to the same period in 2019, adults reported three times the rate of anxiety symptoms and four times the rate of depression symptoms.

The CDC survey revealed that almost 11% of respondents indicated that they had seriously considered suicide. This was double the percentage from previous years and it was significantly higher for young adults.

According to the CDC report: “Medical professionals cautioned that social isolation associated with social distancing, along with soaring unemployment rates, could further accelerate the national suicide crisis.”

Third, the shutdown of our economy had a devastating impact on many small businesses and thus triggered increased unemployment. Consequently, Catholic Charities has experienced an increased need for its emergency services — food, utilities and rent assistance.

Catholic Charities is able to magnify the beneficial impact of monetary donations because of its large number of volunteers. However, with a sizable portion of Catholic Charities’ volunteers falling into the high-risk population because of age and/or underlying health conditions, this has created an additional stress on this crucial ministry.

Fourth, with weekend Mass attendance suspended for a time and even now significantly decreased participation, parishes are receiving fewer donations. Our parishes subsidize significantly our elementary schools and support our high schools.

Every parish has some parishioners who have lost a job or have reduced income because of COVID-19. It is essential for those of us who are able to be even more generous in support of our parish.

This past Tuesday, we celebrated the feast of the Nativity of Mary. One of the options for the Mass readings for the feast came from the Letter to the Romans, where Paul states: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”

The Christian sees everything through the prism of the paschal mystery — the dying and rising of Jesus. Despite the dire health and economic consequences of COVID-19, we can be confident that God wants to bring forth good from this wicked illness and will draw forth new life from this deadly experience.

In fact, it is in the midst of adversity that the beauty and power of the Gospel of Jesus can shine most brightly through his disciples. For the disciple of Jesus, we know that God is with us in every circumstance.

We are never alone and never separated from the comfort of God’s love. Even as we experience the same burdens as everyone else in the present moment, our ability to be authentic witnesses of hope, to manifest an unfailing capacity for joy and to care for the suffering will draw others to desire the source of our hope, our joy and our power to love.

COVID-19 is actually a powerful moment for evangelization. It is a golden opportunity to showcase the gift of our Catholic faith and the difference that friendship with Jesus makes in our lives.

A cynical political operative once said: “Never waste a good crisis.” For the Christian, COVID-19 has provided us with a splendid opportunity to allow the beauty of our Christian faith to shine brightly for all the world to see.

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Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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