2020 is a year none of us will ever forget. We have lived through the writing of a particular moment in history, an era which will be discussed and examined for decades to come; a time whose after-effects will remain with us long after these days are consigned to the past.
For all too many people, this time has been deeply scarred by the pain of loss – not only of loved ones, but of all the ‘normal’ social and communal customs which accompany loss and which, to some degree at least, make it bearable. Throughout this year, death came alone, without the near presence of loved ones and without the direct support of the Church in her last Sacraments. Similarly, funerals seemed to echo this sense of solitude and silence.
We came to realise how desperately vulnerable our elderly populations really are, as they were particularly badly affected by the virus, with the loss of so very many of these people.
For many others, loved ones suffered greatly before finally beginning to recover from a virus whose effects were grave and very varied. Many of these people will have to learn to live with the experiences they have come through – mental, as much as physical.
I’d like to offer my perspective on this past year, looking at four specific areas.
I came to realise more clearly than ever before that our world is not so sure and stable as we might like to think it is.
Many foundations were shaken as the year progressed. Mankind does not have the answer to every question nor the solution to every problem which arises. What we had taken for granted became a privilege – even meeting family, friends and loved ones became something we hoped to do again, unable to do so in the present moment.
Work, one of the most stable of all human activities, became intermittent for many, punctuated by lengthy periods not only of inactivity but also of desperate isolation. For some, home became prison in a real way. While the reasons behind this were robust, the reality of it was incredibly difficult to live with.
Community became something of a memory – not only at the local level but also at the national and international level. At times, nations seemed to have concern only for themselves and any sense of co-operation was difficult to see. But there were many other – later – occasions where that co-operation was very much in evidence; this was especially so in regard to the work around the creation of a vaccine and its subsequent distribution.
Church and Faith
The life of the Church was drastically and irrevocably altered because of the pandemic. For Catholics, the enduring presence of the Sacramental life of the Church is as fixed as the rising and the setting of the sun. And yet, throughout this period, we had to accept that it was simply not possible to continue with the life of the Church as we had experienced it up till that point – the risk to public health was just too great.
For many, this was an opportunity to experience the life of Faith in new ways, such as the ‘live-streaming’ of Mass; while this could never compare to being present at Mass, it was the best we could hope for in that moment, and it allowed a sense of connection to our parishes which was otherwise absent.
It also offered us an opportunity to decisively choose to practise our Faith – without the obligation to attend Sunday Mass, it became something we do because we want to do it. This was especially so in the case of prayer. Home became the place where we prayed, and small home altars probably appeared in more homes than had accommodated them previously. Prayer was the connection – but we had to want to pray, to give the time to doing so, and to find ways of doing so. We had to decide if our Faith was nothing more than repetition and habit – or something much more personal and meaningful.
For some, unfortunately, the practice of Faith became an arena in which to air grievances about personal rights; the right to worship; the right to gather in greater numbers than were allowed; the right not to wear a face covering, regardless not only of the law, but – more importantly – of the very real and direct risk to others. For these people, there seemed to be no sense of humility, of charity, of prudent judgement – there was only the sense of self.
I came to see over this past year that while the Church does enormous good, some of her ministers – particularly, some of her bishops – were capable of creating great harm for the faithful. This, it seemed to me, occurred for two broad reasons.
The first reason was the separation of such bishops – and also of many priests – from the unity of the Church under the authority of the true shepherd, the Holy Father. A growing sense of disunity and, at times, outright hostility to the person and office of the Holy Father gathered pace throughout this year, led in a very direct manner by some vocal critics, whose names became more prominent as the year went on. There were some occasions where this amounted to schism in everything but name – but certainly in spirit. None of this did any good for the Church, whether internally or externally; indeed, it did a great deal of damage and it continues to do so. Because of such priests and bishops, many of the faithful are in open revolt against the Holy Father and his magisterium; in former days, this was called Protestantism. It is most certainly not Catholic, even while those who place themselves in such a position see themselves as being ‘faithful’. I had to accept that sometimes, there are none so blind as those who refuse to see.
The second reason was something occurring mainly in America, where certain bishops and priests forgot whom they are called to serve. They genuflect now to politicians rather than to the Lord, their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. For them – and for the many who follow them – this perfidious mix of politics and faith is deeply dangerous not only at the social level, but – far more importantly – at the spiritual level. For them, the way has been lost. It seems to me that it can only be recovered through deep humility, and by means of re-establishing true unity with the Church in the person of the Holy Father.
And it was the person of the Holy Father who, in March this year, stood alone in Saint Peter’s Square and spoke not only to the Faithful, but to the whole world; his actions and words truly were directed ‘urbi et orbi’ – ‘to the city and to the world’.
He recounted the story of the Disciples in the boat tossed in the storm, calling to the Lord for help, asking the Lord if He does not care for them. The Pope reminded us that –
“The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, 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.”
And noting the response of the Lord to His Disciples – “Have you no faith?” – the Pope added this –
“The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by His Cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by His Cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by His Cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: He is risen and is living by our side. The Lord asks us from His Cross to rediscover the life that awaits us, to look towards those who look to us, to strengthen, recognise and foster the grace that lives within us. Let us not quench the wavering flame (cf. Is 42:3) that never falters, and let us allow hope to be rekindled.”
In the gathering darkness of that Square, this question threw a shaft of real – divine – light on the whole pandemic, on the opportunities for grace and virtue which it presented to us, and on the responses we were called to give in response to it.
The image of the Holy Father addressing the Church and the world across that empty Square is one I will never forget.
When the Holy Father raised the Monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament, the Lord present in that little Host most assuredly blessed the entire world and every person within it.
I consider this to have been an extraordinary moment of deep and signal grace for the Church and for the world. And for me, it was the very pinnacle of these days.
As the year wore on, politics became poisonous – more so than it had ever been previously. It was like a choking, sulphurous smoke whose odour and colour tarnished everything with which it came into contact. Charity disappeared, replaced with deep division and polarisation and – at times – real hatred toward others. Decisions were made based not on the needs of the people – even whilst those needs were very great indeed – but on personal image and popularity. In other words, such decisions were driven by ego.
It became increasingly clear that for some political leaders, ego was everything; people and issues mattered not a bit, even when those issues were truly global. Such unadulterated displays of narcissism were not only accepted by many, but held up as exemplars of the heights to which humanity had raised itself.
Pride, of course, often comes before a fall. And some falls are from a great height indeed.
For many other politicians, it was about people, not personal ego. I watched and listened as these politicians drew upon every interior reserve of statesmanship, calm and genuine nobility – for them, it was a question of needing to hold things together even in the midst of the most awful circumstances and the deep suffering and fear of the people in their nations.
History will look favourably on them because of this.
Perhaps more than anything else, this time of pandemic offered us opportunities – opportunities to be kind, generous, charitable, compassionate, humane. And so many people rose to the challenge with great grace.
For souls such as these, there were issues aplenty – the same issues all of us faced and, for many, other additional personal issues which they had to deal with and resolve. These souls used all of these needs and experiences as resources, as ways to do some real good for those around them.
I watched examples of this every evening on the national and international news. I saw people who went out of their way because they were able to do something – anything – which might benefit another person.
And I saw the same thing every day at work, both in my own colleagues and more generally. I watched time after time as these people forgot self and were mindful only of others. I watched as they listened to those who were struggling in one way or another – and then looked for practical solutions and resolutions which would help. I watched as they reached out to those who were not able, for various reasons, to ask for help. And I watched as they wore themselves out in doing so day after day after day, never once thinking of themselves or of their own needs or fears.
What I will take from this year is that humanity is both smaller and – at the same time – greater than it believes itself to be; but also that it needs to be rooted in the eternal values which come from – and lead back to – God. Only in Him will we find what we seek and what we need; only He has the answers to the questions our humanity raises. Only faith in Him – faith which is lived out in the generous service of others around us, without exception – will bring us to Him through the humble recognition of our need of Him; and though the realisation that He is already present, like the Lord on that storm-tossed boat, in every single person we encounter.
At the end of the day – this day and every other – all things will pass, except God.
And when those days are passed and gone and we each stand before the Lord, we will be judged on one thing alone – our love of God and of neighbour.