By David Cooley.
It seems like a growing number of people that I’ve spoken to lately are having a difficult time finding joy in life. This worries me, especially as fall creeps in and the cold months of winter get closer. Many people seem down, cynical, defeated and tired of the way things have been this year. Anxieties are even higher than usual as tough decisions and sacrifices are being asked of almost everybody. These feelings are all very understandable in the midst of the coronavirus, ongoing restrictions, civil turmoil, natural disasters, unnatural disasters and an election season. But, what’s needed in times like these? The answer is always the same — supernatural faith.
As Catholics, we are at our best when we are desperate for God. A first, that statement might seem obvious or strange. But think about it, in the United States, in the 21st century, besides occasions of personal grief, recognizing our desperation for God is not something that we as a community do very often. But the truth is always the same — without God, we can do nothing (cf. John 15:4-6). When we seek God’s help we can do amazing things. We need God, the world needs our prayers and we need each other. Our troubles are numerous, but we have a lot to hold onto — our Catholic worldview for one thing, and, most importantly, the sacraments instituted by Christ, by which we get the graces we need.
This is a good time for us to get our priorities straight. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: What is God asking us to do — as individuals and as a Church — in this time? Sometimes it feels like our hands are tied and we can’t do anything, but I am sure the answers will come in the silence of prayer. There are plenty of opportunities to be Christ for others and to bring others to Christ.
I recently read an inspiring document produced by Word on Fire, entitled “Catholicism in the time of Coronavirus.” It was written by Dr. Stephen Bullivant, a former Oxford researcher and Fellow of the Word on Fire Institute, and in it he tackles the questions of what the long-term impact of this pandemic might be, not only on our spiritual lives but also on the Church’s institutions and its mission of evangelization. While there were many good and practical aspects to this piece, I found myself really intrigued by the historical perspective he presents.
Dr. Bullivant notes some dark points in Church history, times when the world faced grave illnesses that wreaked terror throughout the known world, and not for one year but many years. For example, in 250 AD the Church’s records gives us a first-hand testimony from St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who writes of the horrible symptoms that people experienced during an outbreak. Another bishop, contemporary of Cyprian, St. Dionysius of Alexandria, wrote, “Now, indeed, everything is tears, and everyone is mourning, and wailings resound daily through the city because of the multitude of the dead and dying.”
What’s extraordinary is how early Christians responded to this pandemic and how later generations of Christians followed in their footsteps. These actions resulting in Christianity spreading throughout the known world. While the pagans abandoned their friends, left the dead unburied and fled, the Christians took care of those in most need. History shows us that it was both the early martyrs and the faithful who showed extraordinary love that paved the way for Church to flourish in spite of having the odds stacked against her. “Selfless heroism won both admiration and converts,” writes Dr. Bullivant. Another term for this “selfless heroism” is true charity — love.
One of the most striking examples of true charity, to me, was St. Charles Borromeo in the 16th century. A plague descended on Milan and he was the city’s bishop. To fund the city’s relief effort he sold everything he had, took up a collection and persuaded those who could to give generously. He found ways to make sure that people’s material and spiritual needs were taken care of. He created jobs and hospitals and quarantine houses. He rescued orphaned infants and made sure they received the love and attention they required.
The salvation of souls was always St. Charles’ number one priority. At the peak of the epidemic when churches were closed and people were confined to their houses, St. Charles erected outdoor altars all around town for daily Mass. The people prayed from their windows. He and his clergy instituted door-to-door confessions and a home-delivery program for the Eucharist on Sundays. He even organized a number of activities and resources to help his flock lead lives of piety and virtue — he was worried about possible temptations in all that idle time.
Obviously we live in different times, but we’ve seen many parallels of St. Charles’ actions during the current pandemic. His story, among others, serves as a reminder of what we can accomplish if we have unwavering faith. It’s true that he was a bishop, but you don’t have to be a bishop. The clergy cannot do it alone.
Reading about Catholic history and what others have done during extraordinarily difficult times has inspired me to think creatively of how I, personally, can affect the lives of other people in a positive way. It doesn’t have to be world-changing, it can be something small — talking with someone who is lonely, helping a neighbor who is in a bind, sending a hand-written letter. Just letting people know you care can be so important and reminds them about God’s love and providence in their lives. Imagine the impact on the world if every Catholic devoted themselves to doing small acts of love every day. If we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord we can become a beacon of hope for others. Right now, we are the disciples in a boat on a stormy sea and Jesus is asking us: “Where is your faith?” (cf. Matthew 8:23–27, Mark 4:35–41, and Luke 8:22–25).
David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization.