by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
One week ago, March 27, Pope Francis led the world in a eucharistic Holy Hour and gave his “urbi et orbi” (“For the city (Rome) and the world”) blessing.
The Holy Father gave an insightful and powerful meditation on the account in the Fourth Chapter of the Gospel of Mark ( Verses 35-41), when the disciples are caught in a terrifying storm while Jesus is asleep in the boat.
Pope Francis used the moment to give a poignant description of what the entire world is experiencing as a result of the coronavirus: “For weeks now, it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void. . . . We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel, we were caught off-guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm.
“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedule, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly save us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.”
Mark contrasts the terror of the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen that were used to the squalls of the sea, to the absolute calm of Jesus who is asleep in the stern of the boat.
During this violent and terrifying storm, Jesus is completely at peace, sleeping serenely while his disciples are in a panic. The Holy Father points out that this is the only time in all four Gospels that Jesus is depicted sleeping.
The disciples wake Jesus and accuse him of not caring that they are about to perish. Many of us can identify with the disciples. With the coronavirus in just a few months spreading rapidly and lethally throughout the world, Christians everywhere have petitioned Our Lord to put a miraculous end to this pandemic.
No doubt some of us wonder if Our Lord is asleep — if he does not care that so many are perishing.
After calming the wind and the sea, Jesus asks the disciples: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?”
With our fear of the ability of the coronavirus to spread a rapid pathway of suffering and death, Jesus might pose the same questions to us: Why are we so terrified? Do we not yet have faith?
In this past Sunday’s Gospel in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Our Lord is accused by some of not caring enough to prevent the death of his friend Lazarus. When Jesus first learned of Lazarus’ serious sickness, he tells his disciples: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God.”
In the Gospel for the previous week, describing Our Lord’s healing of the man who was blind from birth, the disciples asked Jesus if the man was blind because of his own sin or the sin of his parents. Jesus replied: “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so the works of God might be made visible through him.”
In the Gospels, especially John, Our Lord speaks frequently of his hour. What is this “hour” of Jesus? The hour of Jesus comes on Good Friday, when he demonstrates his absolute fidelity to the will of his Father by submitting himself even to death, death on a cross.
Jesus reverses the disobedience of our first parents with his great act of surrender to the will of his Father on Calvary. The manifestation of God’s glory will be completed on Easter with Our Lord vanquishing both sin and death with his resurrection.
Jesus does not promise to protect us from all illness, adversity and death. After all, Lazarus had to die twice. However, Our Lord does make available the antibodies that can preserve us from fear.
What are these antibodies? First, Jesus revealed God’s unique and personal love for each of us. We are never alone. Jesus is always in the boat with his disciples, no matter how fierce the storms surrounding us.
Secondly, through the waters of baptism, we have been given the assurance of eternal life. We have been given a share in Our Lord’s risen life. We have a destiny to live with Our Lord and the saints forever! If we have faith in Jesus and his Gospel, then fear has no power over us.
At the same time, Christian charity also requires that we exercise prudence. We need to observe Governor Kelly’s executive order.
We have an obligation in charity to do those prudent steps (remaining at home except for essential tasks, social distancing, washing our hands, not gathering in large groups, etc.) that not only protect us but also protect others by preventing the continued spread of this vicious virus.
I am grateful that Governor Kelly’s executive order acknowledged the constitutional right to perform or attend religious or faith-based services or activities. Some of the orders issued by counties and local municipalities had prohibited religious activities, in some cases even specifying the prohibition of funerals and marriages.
These were clearly unconstitutional. Government cannot permit liquor stores, pet stores and dry cleaners to continue to operate and not allow religious activities.
At the same time, for the good of the public health of our communities, our churches are rightly obligated to observe the same limitations — e.g., the number of people who can assemble or the social distancing that is required of other organizations and enterprises.
During a recent Zoom virtual meeting, I bemoaned that some local governments considered religious activities as nonessential while permitting liquor stores to continue to operate.
One of the other participants suggested that if I was working from home while attempting to supervise the education of four grade-school-age children, I might be more sympathetic to the necessity of a glass of wine in the evening!
Finally, you are all invited to join me virtually for Palm Sunday Mass and the Triduum liturgies. I hope we will be able to livestream them from the Cathedral of St. Peter.
Though Holy Week this year promises to be quite unusual, I am confident that Our Lord will make it a grace-filled time for all of us.
I pray you experience a blessed Holy Week. May these days increase our longing to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist and to be reunited in our churches with our parish families.
Together, we will make it through this current adversity. We have the antibodies against panic, fear and discouragement!
Be not afraid!