The situation we are living in now with the Coronavirus pandemic is not easy because it is filled with such great uncertainty. No one knows what the “new normal” will look like or when our churches, businesses, and schools will be open and under what conditions that may be possible. This situation has required things we have planned – e.g., weddings, baptisms, the celebration of Confirmation, and First Communions – to be put on hold. Graduation ceremonies, May processions, birthdays, and other events will take place in a virtual form, but they won’t be the same. Perhaps the hardest or most troubling situation is that families who have a loved one in a nursing home or hospital cannot visit, even when the person is dying. And when the person dies, the requirements for social distancing and the limitations on gatherings make having a traditional funeral service and viewing impossible. The sources of consolation in times of loss are not as available. This is very hard for those who are grieving. The virus not only has physically divided us from one another, but has been a source of division within the community at large as authorities struggle to respond in a way that considers the needs of different groups and factors that seem at odds with each other. There are complaints from all corners that what we are have a right to is being denied. Suspicion and division are only enhanced when certain people or groups sense partisan motivations or prejudice behind the limited resources or access to services now available.
Our scripture readings today present us with several situations with which we can relate because of this pandemic, but more importantly, they reveal to us how we can respond to our situation so that we can come to a place of healing, peace, and increased growth. Our Gospel passage is a scene from the “Last Supper”. Jesus has just announced that one of the Twelve would betray him. He tells his disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer and where he is going that are not yet ready to follow. Peter thinks that he is stronger than the rest and that what Jesus is saying does not apply to him. But Jesus lets him and the others know that, before the morning, Peter, who thinks so highly of himself, will deny him three times. We can imagine the uncertainty that the disciples felt. How they were at a loss as to what this sudden change in circumstances would mean for them. How all of the plans that they had in mind for their future with Jesus were “going up in smoke.” They don’t know where all of this is headed. The disciples are filled with uncertainty about the future, but Jesus reminds them that they have experienced the certainty that is the fruit of faith. It is this certainty of faith that moved them to leave everything and follow Jesus – follow him into the unknown. He says to them, “you know the way.” What was it that they recognized in Jesus that moved them to leave behind their livelihood and families and set out with Jesus when they didn’t know then where he was leading them? They recognized in Jesus the presence of God – a presence that filled them with hope and a certainty that the road ahead was good. At that time, they didn’t have any real idea of what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God” or what it meant to be made “fishers of men”, but they followed him nonetheless. They followed him because they recognized a fullness in their hearts when they were in his presence. They recognized in their hearts that their destiny and fulfillment were tied to this man. What they recognized and believed, even if they couldn’t explain how it was possible, was that in Jesus, they have seen the Father. In Jesus, they have encountered the living God. This is what gave them peace to face the unknown – that realization that God was with them in their circumstance. That was enough for them at the beginning of the journey. It is all that they need now. “You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”
We let our hearts be troubled when we forget this experience of faith – the gift of faith that we’ve been given. The circumstances are not the cause of our lack of faith but reveal to us that in fact, like Peter and Philip and the other disciples, we can be with Jesus a long time and still not really know him. Perhaps over time, we have forgotten that experience of faith or have put our faith in things other than Jesus, e.g., money, power, our own plans, our strength and health. And so when those things are threatened or taken away, we are filled with anxiety. Jesus is calling us today to renew our faith or to deepen our faith in Him. He is calling us to recognize his presence. He has not abandoned us. Anyone who has said “yes” to Christ’s call to “follow me” in the vocation of marriage or in a religious or priestly vocation has known the “way” of which Jesus speaks. The presence of God that we have encountered makes sense of our life, fills us with new life, and sends us forth with great hope. We have met “the way and the truth and the life.” It is not just by the words of Jesus that we believe but by the works that are generated in and through us when we follow our heart and stay with Jesus. Jesus went to the Father and sent us the Holy Spirit so that he could remain with us. Those who believe in him and are open to the Holy Spirit will do the works that Jesus does because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, dwells in them. He makes things grow in surprising ways when we face our circumstances with our eyes fixed on Him and our hearts open to the Holy Spirit.
We see this dynamic at work in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles. The Apostles are facing a division in the community between two groups. One of the groups is complaining because certain members were being neglected in the distribution of resources. This is a practical problem that requires the response of all the members of the community. Members of the community are selected and proposed by the community and are then confirmed and appointed by the Apostles to respond to the need. The qualifications of the candidates are simply that they are reputable men, filled with faith, the Holy Spirit, and wisdom. When the problem was approached in this way, the community experienced a great increase. The word of God would not have continued to spread and the community would not have experienced growth and a deepening of faith without this collaboration between the leaders and the members of the community. The members don’t act independently of the leaders, nor is it just a problem that the leaders have to fix. The proposal had to be acceptable to the whole community and has to involve the cooperation of the whole community.
Without a doubt, there will be many practical problems that arise when the time comes to open up our churches again for public Mass. When that happens, how will the needs of the community be met – especially the needs of the most vulnerable? How do we approach this uncertainty so that it does not lead to a greater division but instead is an opportunity for growth and an increase in faith? It is not a problem that I as the pastor can address alone. There is not a one-size-fits-all formula that will come from the Archdiocese. The problem will cause a greater division if we act independently – not in agreement with the whole community – or if the problem is not approached with a spirit of collaboration, open communication, and prayerful discernment. The Holy Spirit is at work in our community. I do not doubt that. But are our eyes focussed on the uncertainties before us or on Christ? Will we be closed in on ourselves and content to complain, or will we be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit? Christ is present in our circumstance. This situation can be of great value to us who have faith. Our experience of faith is that if we respond to Christ’s call by listening to our hearts, he “calls us out of darkness into his wonderful light.” I do not doubt that that will be true for us as we face this pandemic together as a people of faith. “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” May we remember the times that we have felt chosen by Christ. These are experiences of his mercy upon us that make us aware that we belong to Him. So even in uncertain times, we place our trust in Him.