Outside the church a group of women were sitting in a circle, equally spaced six feet apart, enjoying the sunshine and sharing stories of domestic life with families in close confinement. We stopped to say hello and, as we were leaving, we overheard one of them say, “this is the new world.”
“Oh no,” I said, “this isn’t the new world, this is the same world as before.” If the “new world” means abandoning all close personal contact, then, as Samuel Goldwyn once said, “include me out.” Yes, I know it’s for my own safety that I don’t come near anyone, and for their safety too, but I can’t bear the thought of this being the way henceforth we will live our lives.
There is a liturgical saying in Latin which comes to mind: lex orandi, lex credendi. which roughly translated means, The way we pray leads to the way believe. This can be adapted to our current situation to something like, the way we interact leads to the way we love. If we are forced to keep one another at a distance for a prolonged period, we will become emotionally distant from one another. This brings its own dangers which in the long term may be as injurious to our health as the coronavirus.
We are already seeing the heartache caused by family members unable to visit loved ones in hospitals or even on their death beds. My cousin was unable to attend his father’s funeral this week because it would mean two weeks quarantine in New Zealand and two weeks more on coming back to the USA.
This affects the life and work of a priest, who is called to serve among the people. The bishop of Pennsylvania often quotes Pope Francis who once said, “A shepherd needs to smell of the sheep.” Not any more. Everyone must be protected from one another, in case one of us is a carrier. As for the work of ministry, pastors are encouraged to develop remote pastoring skills, and stay safe at home.
It was therefore stirring to read a recent article recently in the May 3 edition of “The Living Church”, about the work of priests and nuns during the 1866 cholera epidemic in London. The epidemic claimed over 5,000 lives. Rather than avoid those areas affected, which is what would happen today, the clergy and religious selflessly entered the homes of the sick and the dying in order to minster to their spiritual wants. There was, not surprisingly, a high level of sickness experienced by the ministers, but that did not deter them. There was a sense of a higher calling, of doing the Lord’s work where it was most needed. How many people welcomed the simple human touch or the soothing words of prayer and absolution as they lay dying? I would much rather help someone take the next step on their journey than expect them to die alone, even at risk to myself.
When I think of future priests reading and comparing our two very different stories, it will be the men and women of 1866 who will, I hope, inspire them. I know that today we are obeying the governor’s orders by keeping away, but the longer it lasts, the greater the dangers for us in “normalizing” unhealthy behaviors. If everyone is a potential threat to me, then no-one is my brother or sister. Maybe it is time for the Church to take a stand and say we will not be cowed by this virus – If this is a war, as some say, then let us fight in it, rather than stand at the sidelines.
With Easter blessings