Churches Awaiting the Love After Lockdown: Many Happy Returns

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See stephenbarany.com for instructions on making this easy art project,perhaps in time for Mass.

As more Catholics resume physical attendance at Mass in areas where governors and bishops have issued policies easing COVID-19 lockdown rules, pastors and parish ministers around the country will carry many concerns with them when they open their church’s doors.

Their rigorous attention to practices and protocols, focused on keeping worshipers healthy, will be right and just—the unquestioned top priority for an endless string of planning meetings. But let’s hope the agenda will leave room for one thing alongside the technical factors on everybody’s mind, namely a factor to be celebrated and nourished in everybody’s heart: Parishioners walking through those doors will carry with them a gift for themselves, for their Church family, and for God, in the form of joy.

It might help to recall the visit to Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42, so long as we realize Jesus was encouraging and advising his hard-working host, not scolding her. Martha, “burdened with much serving,” griped about her sister’s sitting transfixed at Jesus’ feet, her distraction from details of hospitality. He responded, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”

That wonderful scene displaying the two women’s compatible forms of relationship with the Lord can help a parish appreciate the multiple dimensions of this day of reopening. People may experience, to one degree or another, a delight of reunion after a period of sorrowful, painful separation. This will be one of the times when those being dutifully welcomed, securely assembled, and carefully distanced can minister to their ministers. We all silently sing, Hallelujah.

Some folks may not feel the electricity, partly because their minds are still trapped in tedious memories, with masks on and emotions off. But others will kneel with new reverence, or sigh as they look up at Christ on the cross, or smile at their favorite Blessed Mother statue. Receiving the Body of Christ will be climactic, quite different from lining up for bureaucratic check-ins or grocery stores check-outs.

This is a great time for priests and pastoral staff members to accompany their people as they evangelize each other. Watch the Spirit bring a special gift to every soul. Just as profoundly, watch them embody the New Evangelization before Mass as passers-by observe them going to church. After Mass, hear them tell stories about how it felt to be back.

“If other people knew how many Catholics have spent time crying over not being able to go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, they would be impressed,” a friend remarked to me last week. We were discussing the news that the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will allow the resumption of public Masses on May 23-24. May we all be impressed by sights of hunger and satiation, on that weekend or whenever.

Rev. Robert Garrow, pastor of Saint Anthony de Padua Parish in South Bend, witnessed to the dual significance of this time in a letter he sent to parishioners. He attached two pages reporting on the changes one would see—in the pews, at the ambo, etc.  He wrote about gradually “resuming our ordinary life” as a parish and moving toward “a more normalized schedule.” But to this rulebook motif he added more transcendent language, giving incarnational faith its due. He reflected on Communion as “a gift” to be anticipated: “What joy it will be to be able to come back together to show our veneration and love to God.”

This pent-up excitement seemed to set the stage for all ministers and parish members to be visionary. I wondered if someone in the Saint Anthony family might be moved to prepare a unique expression of happiness over this homecoming.

It occurred to me a family could bring to Mass a bouquet of flowers. Or a reasonable facsimile: A talented parishioner has previously posted (as a free gift) an online art project that would yield crayon-colored paper flowers. Someone could bring a spiritual bouquet recalling acts of devotion performed for the Lord during self-isolation. Another returnee who typically wore tee-shirts might come dressed in his “Sunday best.”

The return to public Masses, after all,  will not be a time for show-off gestures. All the world is in a stance of humility, seeking healing after lockdown and obeying strict rules because we’re still vulnerable. But that need not preclude us Catholics from moments of spontaneous feelings  and romantic imagination. These are long-awaited blessings that must be shared with others—and affirmed by our ministers. The Lord wants the company of both Marthas and Marys. After a time of so much distancing, the joys of this reunion will not be taken from us.

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High Stakes for Global Communication, Solidarity, Sustainability

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It’s been said that the COVID-19 crisis is “accelerating history.” It seems more decisions have to be made–by individuals, communities, societies, and the entire world–more quickly and with less certainty,  less consultation, and less complete information. Even though it’s hard to imagine an environment that is more immersed in news and data. I’ve heard a new term: we’re living in an “infodemic.” Catholic values can help in a few ways: questioning any urges to rush to judgment without encounters with diverse people beyond the usual power brokers, an abundance of truth-seeking curiosity and well-intentioned journalism; and a readiness for authentic discourse in local communities and parishes, not overridden by externally packaged talking points based on labels, falsehood, and defamation easier to plant at the national-media level.

Today’s decisions are more weighty,  more complex, and more connected to an array of factors. Some of the variables are trivial, like what kind of mask we’ll wear to which open store; some of them massive and secular, like how our political and financial infrastructures can handle the burdens we’re placing on them; and some of them massive and spiritual or values-based, such as how we shall treat our elderly, or people losing their lives and livelihoods and incomes, raising questions of justice. solidarity, and human dignity.

A lot of these challenges have to do with communication. How well are we being informed, and by whom? How well are we informing ourselves? Whom do we trust to give us the most valuable information? Have we given up trusting all institutions and trusting only ourselves, which is a burden when we know we and our resources are flawed? Are we judging the value of information on the basis of its foundations in truth and reality, and how are we determining truth and reality? Are we exploring and weighing all the aspects of these challenges, including the questions of conscience they raise, or are we confronting the challenges mostly on the basis of emotions,, snap judgments, and conformance with pre-packaged solutions? If we do recognize that questions of conscience are being raised, how do we decide whether our consciences are well-informed, by whom, with what kinds of rights and responsibilities to be exercised?

We might be trying to process many important thoughts with benevolent goals at rapid speed, unless we are distracting or withdrawing ourselves from important internal dialogues; or unless we are trapping ourselves in what Pope Francis has described as a potential “digital culture” of isolation and artificial realities and monolithic thought which is often “fake” or defamatory; or unless we are withdrawing from communities and from any sense of participation in a vibrant communication ecology; or unless we are dismayed at how assessing all fine points of fact and complex costs and benefits is just too darn hard.  Healthy communication, most readily achievable at the local level, taps fully into people’s hearts, minds, and souls. It desires for us unique and diverse creatures to come together for the common good, sharing certain truths and values in communion with God so as to learn from Him and share His gifts of love and providence.

All these considerations relevant to the flow of knowledge and ideas have to do with communication. The Church has provided many guidelines and resources for good outcomes. At the moment, it’s useful simply to outline a few of them. These are ideas I summarized (notes for myself ) as I prepared for my May 20 interview on the Sheila Laugminas “Closer Look” radio program on the Relevant Radio network. You’ll see much more about these points below in blogs I have been writing for years, pondering how Catholic values can bring renewal to communication nowadays; it has been weakened and may be overburdened if too many crucial issues mount up and too many people witdraw.

  • Remember recent World Communications Days and the pastoral messages from Pope Francis. WCD takes place on the Sunday before Pentecost.  WCD 2018: A journalism for peace, seeking more knowledge, not to defame but to empower; genuine, simple trust in truth, rejecting a post-truth world and seeking truth in Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.   WCD 2019: Caution toward social media which have become anti-social by operating with exclusion and manipulagtive algorithms , plus engagement through enragement and closed-mindedness through  labels and groupthink and the fostering of artificial realities. WCD 2020: Storytelling. We have to keep telling stories that unite and empower and encourage us at a time when we’re losing our confidence in institutions and people and God; sharing with each other and with God stories based in the story of redemption history plus the real-world parables Jesus told. God lives with, and sustains, His people, by embracing them as storytellers. Annual WCDs occur on Sundays before Pentecost. There are few other resources available focused on WCD and Pope Francis’s pastoral remarks about values-rich communication as a path to piece.
  • Communication, community, communion. Pope Francis has discussed this triptych for a Catholic ethos of effective local connection-making. The three build upon each other in the healthy communication ecology of a parish or other extended-family setteing.
  • Science vs. religion, post-truth attitudes. We have a crisis of communication: Post-truth society, no common ground. The science-intensive phase leading to COVID-19 social distancing and mass-quarantining provided immense amounts of data, but it turned out society did not know which data to trust. Some statistics misinformed us or simply were lacking. Science proved not be a foolproof alternative to faith-informed knowledge, and it is a resource that can be taken too far and manipulated like any information resource.
  • Pope Francis is the only world leader who is seeking–and frequently speaking about–Christian values as forces that can aid the renewal of socially polarized language and non-constructive discourse in the public square.
  • In a relativistic and moralistic age, we feel we need to do and enforce the right thing, but we reserve to ourselves the identification of that right thing. We become chief judge and executioner. An individual with this approach may now be the person operating a social-media site and acting as the “gatekeeper” or filter for the information exchanged there. Whereas the traditional journalistic gatekeeper role in newsrooms fostered a relatively balanced package of news, the ubiquitous “publishers” of social media pages tend to compile and present only the news that agrees with their perspective and affirms the same story lines day after day. “Objectivity” served as a goal in ensuring individual news stories and the entire news product contained a variety of perspectives and told multiple sides of a story, but professional and amateur journalists alike are less inclined today to see objectivity as either possible or desirable.
  • Starting in March 2020, I saw social distancing as a kind of retreat time. it was like God had allowed conditions of quietude and changed perspective that invited all people of good will into a Lenten time of reflection. Some undergoing social distancing and lockdowns spent their time in order to develop a lot of insights into how little we know and how vulnerable we are. There are practical, secular , spiritual 0and very human reasons to be of two minds. Chesterton talks about how reality is best explained by and captured by paradox. It’s possible to hold two apparently contradictory aspects of reality in the mind at the same time, but the media don’t always allow for this if there is a more simplified, compelling message to be conveyed.
  • As discussed in my most recent blog about social distancing, it’s possible to imagine that the next stage in the recovery from COVID-19 challenges will require the People of God to step forward from reflection and renewal they pursued during their lockdowns and to engage in robust dialogues about policy options and implications where secular and faith-based values confront each other. These have not been comfortable conversations in the national media or in highly politicized conflicts within the federal government. Will it be possible to ensure that Catholic values have a seat at the table whenever urgent decisions must be made regarding human dignity, justice, compassion, fairness, and respect for unique and diverse perspectives along with what is perecived as “the common good” and “the American way”? To effectively utilize a place in urgent social discourse like that which awaits us, I believe we must be prepared, with knowledge and enthusiasm, to ask moral questions which get to the heart of the matter and incorporate the “big picture.” It is an opportunity for the Church to evangelize among its members and to evangelize countless others,  and in some cases, the stakes may never be higher. The kind of storytelling Pope Francis has recommended in his 2020 message for World Communications Day will be a valuable part of that preparation for evangelization, since we will need to build from a single, unifying embrace of the story of redemption, of God’s relationship with us, as it has existed in the past and in this moment, in the lives of individuals, communities, societies, and the world.
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“When Headlines Hurt” — Reviewed by “Catholic Reads” — and Now On Sale

SEE THE REVIEW PUBLISHED TODAY!  Buy the ebook half-priced at Amazon–$1.49!        A great, short read for WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY (May 24). Discover OnWord.net!

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When Distancing Ends, Questioners Engage

Social distancing has created a pivotal time of solidarity mixed with hardship. Enduring to its end may prove to be a cultural and spiritual breeze compared to our next transition from silent quarantines to momentous questions surrounding COVID-19’s legacy. We’ve sheltered from a “perfect storm.” We’re feeling our way toward a “new normal,” gearing up to beat a schedule no one really knows. How can we cope with so much mystery?

Some say God has played a direct role in the rise of the pandemic. Regardless, it’s time to capture some lessons from recent times that will bring us into closer personal relationship with the Lord. That’s our ultimate goal, after all, lockdown or no lockdown.

How do I see the story? I’ve reflected on the early experiences of sheltering as a kind of invitation into a unique, worldwide Lenten “retreat.”  Small groups nearly everywhere turned inward and then began to accept sacrifice and suffering while hoping these lead to brighter days. Yes, abstinence from the pleasures of this world has helped us to appreciate them more, and it has even helped some discover rewarding practices. Many of us have received a bit of wisdom—and maybe some supernatural insight. The Church offered closure and, as always, reminded us of the awesome Lenten endgame: turning the tragedy of Good Friday into Easter’s resurrection victory.

Now, with widespread eagerness to declare that our pull-apart strategy has achieved its own turnaround victory, or will soon, please God, it makes sense to ask smarter, tougher questions about where we go from here. Otherwise, how could we prove the retreat taught us anything?

The meaning of the retreat intensified far more than expected. The world learned there would be a follow-up examination. A group project. It’s like we had all been reading a book of inspirational passages, a devotional. Each section ended with “reflection questions” to ponder. Suddenly, we faced questions with a level of gravitas for which we had not prepared. They were based on fundamental emergencies that zoomed to the top of individuals’ and societies’ agendas.

Everyone is becoming consumed by health fears, unemployment, lost livelihoods, debt, dubious global finances, political quandaries, rights deemed to be at risk, social polarization, lost intimacies and interactions, and  environmental angst. All these concerns have moral dimensions, raising profound “reflection questions.” They entail justice, compassion, dignity, kindness, freedom, humility, accountability, truth, trust, and concern for other generations now and in the future. Reflections like these, all worthy of attention and grounded in Catholic Social Teaching, could fill a devotional of multiple volumes.

Well, this is the pandemic story I’m seeing unfold—reluctantly, sadly, painfully. I’m hoping that, any day or month now, the “perfect storm” will pass and the “old normal” will return, relieving me–and all of us–from the tsunami of questions. But I can’t dismiss them now, given what I know about the tendency of this world (including individuals like me) to kick the can of responsibility down the road for a long time. Nor can I be dismissive given what I think I know about Our Lord. He rejects indifferent and lukewarm attitudes; commissions us as missionary disciples to encounter both the powerful and the marginalized; approaches us with intensely personal questions to kindle a closer relationship; and wants us to be seekers who constantly ask Him fresh questions and expect Him to surprise us. He blesses us for times such as these.

That’s why I’m starting  a new spiritual growth plan for the pandemic and its aftermath. As a journalist and interviewer, I tend toward curiosity and inquiry, so I’m starting a “devotional” blog—focused on reflection questions drawn from religious sources, the news of the day, and my own curiosity about what God wants to say to us. These questions may be the most complex and wide-ranging I’ve addressed in my lifetime. Many forces are coming together. Many forces must come together. What we choose to ask will really matter.

I anticipate many of my questions will become the stuff of reflection shared with like-minded Catholics and others of good will. Some of my questions will be more pointed, written when I feel called to call the world into question. These will be harder to write. But perhaps we can be instruments of blessing to a Church that must enter a phase of diligent probing so it can retain its voice in multiple, essential debates where it has turned down its own volume–with help from our culture’s “mute” buttons. As Pope Francis said in a homily this March, God draws near to us to instruct us within relationship; even when a pandemic prevents physical closeness, He expects us to form habits of drawing near to our brothers and sisters through prayer, learning, grieving, and other acts of love. I suspect there will be times when the act of love will be to say: “Are you sure you want to do this? Don’t you see you’re hurting others, and ultimately yourself?”

This is a time when, at least in the spiritual sense, total distancing must give way to total engagement. Don’t assume I’m being apocalyptic. That may be just another way of saying what the Church always tells us: We are indeed in the last days, and we have been for quite a while; pilgrim people must always be on high alert. Devotional books might call our next step “reflection questions.” I’m calling it diligent probing. Scripture, referring to our fellow traveler, the Blessed Mother, called it pondering–an understatement, but a beautiful word for what she did and what we must do.

Here are some questions to start with, stockpiling acts of love for future engagements. Use these inquiries to look back, look forward, or both. Best of all, contribute additional questions, supporting the Church’s readiness for an inevitable, galvanizing, perhaps elusive pivot point: the end of distancing.

  1. How do we keep a balanced point of view in favor of respecting human life as public debate becomes more conflicted between “saving lives” and “restarting the economy”? How can we measure and compare the relative costs, given the fact that lockdowns and shutdowns of activity can also endanger health and well-being for some people even though those shutdowns can discourage the spread of COVID-19?
  2. In a worst-case scenario of hospital capacity being overwhelmed, when some countries and organizations must make judgments about who should receive care, how will they judge? Three committee chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have already foreseen this scenario; in April, they issued a statement acknowledging “the fact that we have limited resources [for fighting the pandemic] and therefore may be facing some difficult decisions ahead.” Human dignity and each person’s right to medical care are the top priorities, they said, but the tough judgments “will require patients, their families, and medical professionals to work together in weighing then benefits and burdens of care, the needs and safety of everyone, and how to distribute resources in a prudent, just, and unbiased way.” The principles are sound, but they cannot simplify the profound calculus of charity and conscience into which the Church must integrate Christ’s love.
  3. We recognize and applaud heroism among medical workers and emergency personnel, but how shall we honor and nurture such self-sacrificial heroism in ourselves and others? To what degree will we inspire each other not only as “essential employees,” but mutually essential brothers and sisters?
  4. Pope Francis’ 2020 message for World Communications Day (the Sunday before Pentecost) will speak of the need for Catholics to be better story-tellers, conveying God’s stories of salvation history to each other and to future generations. Have we shared these stories of gratitude and instruction during our quarantines? Did we see how we could/should improve the sharing of faith within families?
  5. Many people put their “faith” in science and think that faith in God is inherently flimsy, mystical, and an obstacle to sound, clear judgment. But did scientific and medical experts and their use of “hard statistics” teach any lessons about scientific certainty? And will we be tempted to assume, in contrast to plentiful experience, that science and technology inevitably “give us good gifts,” while we blindly ask, “What has God done for us lately?” Will still more young people give up their church affiliation if classrooms teach that science is brings dynamic hope and God is a deadly bore?
  6. Did the pandemic experience of lockdown make us more or less trusting in God as we move back into the unpredictable experiences of everyday life? How can we cling to the long-term lesson of needing God’s providence once we’re tempted again to self-identify as “masters of the universe”? Are we relearning the prerequisite to trust neighbors, institutions, and businesses and linking that to the responsibilities we must all share as participants in a fragile human ecology?
  7. What did we learn about social media? The Church consistently acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of mass communication, but Pope Francis warns about the risks of a “digital culture.” There, we are drawn into isolation, artificial realities, confirmation bias, and anger. Have the social media shown any strengths, weaknesses, or opportunities for improvement? Did our lockdowns teach us ways to use social media more socially and constructively, or do we love them all the more as pandering babysitters?
  8. The financial cures for a comatose global economy may carry side effects after the pandemic’s worst is over. How can we express to our leaders and show in our lives that a “super-sized” marketplace—propped up to avoid reasonable costs and sacrifices—cannot be the sole definition of prosperity? Might a phased-in return to jobs and “business growth” allow us to calibrate desires and dispersal of wealth and power? Is this a chance to say “yes” and “no” in balanced measure, inserting simplicity, gratitude, prudence, and fairness to avoid the return of a plague we came to call “affluenza”?
  9. In his Urbi et Orbi message for Easter 2020, Pope Francis talked about possible steps for policy-makers to take in response to the pandemic and the policy challenges attributed to it. He suggested it is time for those with authority to consider forgiving the debts of countries with the most extreme despair of illness and poverty. Doesn’t this idea resemble the Judeo-Christian notion of the “jubilee” and “jubilee years” when debts were forgiven? Haven’t some modern authors proposed this as a way to address the world’s overwhelming debt burden? Who’s talking about this, how can we learn more, and should we try to advance the discussion of this?
  10. An April 10 commentary widely read online (“Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” by Julio Vincent Gambuto) cautioned that a wave of fake-news marketing will fill our media as the pandemic crisis eases and distancing restrictions are relaxed. Companies will promote forgetting about the year’s winter-through-summer anomalies of March-May experiences so we can “return to normal,” the secular author predicted. How should the country sort through a maze of practical or ideological definitions for “normal” and “new normal”? Will a flood of “transformation” wash away the roots we’ve grown in reality–the anchors, not traps, that ground a healthy skepticism about where “progress” actually leads?
  11. As we abstained from the Mass, the Eucharist, and many aspects of parish life and sacramental grace, did we grasp the Lenten insight that such absence should make the heart grow fonder, and hungry for more? How can we avoid an increase in distracted, distanced hearts who discount their faith as an optional part of a human-defined “new normal”? How can we encourage more dynamic pondering, which still sets the stage on which Jesus Christ goes “all in” to make all things new?
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Amid Social Distancing, a Meeting of Minds on the Kyle Heimann Show

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A Most Remarkable Lent: Pope Says, Draw Near! (Social Distancing, Part 2)

 

From the Vatican News coverage of the Pope’s homily during Mass on March 18.

Pope Francis has spoken out about our need to draw near to one another. He has done so from Rome, in the heart of a nation well-known for its current reliance on “social distancing”–the medically necessary phenomenon that tames contagions but challenges us in body, mind, and soul.

In his March 18 Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, Francis made valuable pastoral contributions to the growing conversation about how we all can use the mandate for social distancing to derive spiritual growth and wisdom for the future. The sadness of distancing and related COVID-19 containment strategies, which have grown in scope to include the heart-breaking cancellation of gatherings for Mass, is like a huge resolution to give up something for Lent; it demands to be accompanied by hope, trust, and the desire that a greater good will result from this sacrifice.

One splendid outcome would be greater awareness, among Catholics and all people of good will, that the “distanced” life we’re experiencing is the embodiment of an ongoing social trend we must resist. That trend is social polarization, the phenomenon that Pope Francis and many secular observers of public affairs are condemning as a dead-end for constructive communication, inclusive civic cooperation, the “dignitarian” principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and relationships with the Lord through missionary discipleship.

This most remarkable Lent must become a teachable moment when we wake up to the fact that we should not step closer toward the precipice. We retreat from the Kingdom of God by drifting into isolation, defamation, closed-minded outrage, relativism, and escapism through artificial realities. These and other contagions have been growing in the breeding grounds of politics, information media, the digital culture, and secular post-modernism.

Living through today’s experiences of interrupted togetherness, we need to find, and nurture, renewed preferences for the solidarity found in common pursuits, agreements about truth, and the joyful wholeness of a healthy human ecology. “Love always communicates,” the pope wrote in his 2019 message for World Communications Day.  Social distancing is an oddly unfortunate but welcome instrument of survival that combines practical wisdom with the impulse for charity–the humbled recognition that we’re all in this together.  It’s a taste of sacrificial love that should leave us wanting more and realizing that love deserves a brighter future.

If we’re willing to learn its lessons, this realization can strike us in new ways while we’re enduring the vulnerable suffering of man-made separation. Pope Francis captured this message of a fruitful attitude adjustment in his homily for the Mass he celebrated on March 18. Our uplifting pastor at the Vatican reaffirmed that we can learn lessons and skills now that will help pull us away from the precipice of polarization. The lessons come from a God who loves to be near to us even when we seem to have chosen isolation.

Here are a few points he made about the wonderful instinct to draw near to others, as reported at the Vatican News website:

  •   “The Lord gives His people the law by drawing near to them.” The laws he gave to Moses “weren’t prescriptions given by a far-off governor who then distances himself.” We should be drawn to seek a deeper relationship with this God amid our loneliness–the kind of loneliness that arises from social distancing, as well as from social polarization.
  • When God draws near, we too often pull away. “Sin leads us to hide ourselves, to not want nearness. So many times, we adopt a theology thinking that He’s a judge….” People want to be in control of relationships because they don’t want to be vulnerable. God knows this, so he makes himself weak in approaching us–with a weakness which was seen on a grand scale when Jesus came to earth in a manger and sacrificed himself through the shame of the cross.
  • “In this moment of crisis, because of the pandemic we are experiencing, this nearness asks to be manifested more…. Perhaps we cannot draw near physically to others because of the fear of contagion, but we can reawaken in ourselves a habit of drawing near to others through prayer, through help. There are many ways of drawing near.”

That’s the poignant challenge of this most remarkable Lent. How can we spend our moment of intense earthly separation–a separation that even extends to the cancellation of Masses–by bringing the heavenly Kingdom to ourselves and others? Not through physical nearness, but communication through our spirit and human senses–a smile we share, a song we sing, a thoughtful word, a period of listening, a tear we shed over someone’s pain. The March 13 post in this OnWord blog suggested some ways to refresh our talent for such nearness.

Thank God, we’ll see and hear many people offering an array of guidance for this act of repentance, a turnaround from isolation to fellowship, community, and communion. In addition to prayer and general acts of compassion to the elderly, sick, and otherwise troubled, we can resist the temptation to hoard material goods in a survivalist-style stockpile. Make a list of good alternatives. We can embrace our family and relearn its lessons of patient love. We can become more mindful of the meaning of everyday tasks that we might have performed carelessly, even hurtfully, during busier, distracted times. We can become more aware of, and thankful for, all the people who bless our lives–or other people’s lives–and then develop timeless ways to show that gratitude.

Since this is a teachable moment to remember later when social polarization is percolating, here’s one thing we might give up for this remarkable Lent: our habit of taking things for granted. It blinds us to lessons the Lord wants to teach us as He draws near. We can ask, What’s the Lord trying to teach me right now? During these days of social distancing, it’s perfectly understandable if we talk to ourselves.

 

 

 

 

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Social Distancing: Viral Strain or a Step Toward Healing?

As someone who’s avidly and anxiously watching the growth of social polarization in America, I squirmed upon hearing that one of the prescriptions for our latest national challenge—managing the COVID-19 pandemic—is a strategy called “social distancing.”

Oh, great. What is this paradoxical term? It evoked all my concerns about trends already dividing us in the realms of politics, news coverage, digital culture, and civil discourse. Pope Francis has warned us that, in light of Catholic culture and values, we must resist today’s tendencies toward outrage, defamation and de-platforming, exclusionary silencing of contrary voices, withdrawal into artificial realities, manipulation of information, weaponization of words, labeling of people, snap judgments, and a demonizing mix of relativism and moralism—all tempting us to toxify or forsake inclusive, constructive communication.

Indeed, the pope has made many comments, in his annual World Communications Day messages and elsewhere, suggesting that social media and smartphone screens make us less social. This week, I imagined him regretting the symbolism, and possible outcomes, of physical distancing: He might say the behavior widens the chasms that erode compassionate communication, offend human dignity, and short-circuit the pursuit of common good and shared truths! He agrees with a growing array of secular opinion-leaders who say Americans need to feel comfortable talking with each other again.

My imagination went astray, I’ll admit. I discovered “social distancing”—most basically, the commonplace guidance to maintain 3-to-6 feet of space between you and another person in order to limit the spread of a virus—is scientifically sound practice. The idea is akin to quarantining, avoiding big crowds, and bumping fists instead of shaking hands. It aligns with Christian principles of charity, community solidarity, and good citizenship. Of course, the Vatican itself is implementing the strategy.

All of this has legitimized distancing, but I can’t help thinking it’s a sad sign of a bigger “dis-ease.” To the degree that the elderly and infirm may have a particular need for the love expressed in a hug or a gentle touch, to the degree that compassion and caring are well-expressed in a kiss of the beloved, to the degree that dynamic group gatherings (as well as meaningful face-to-face encounters with the marginalized) are booster shots for humanity, social distancing is like pulling the light-therapy lamp away from the SAD sufferer. These increases in “personal space” and unused time are snapshots of a contaminated community space that cries out for visits by missionary disciples.

This is a teachable moment when a future shaped by social polarization is uncloaked but the present moment allows us to see we have alternatives. We have temporarily entered a quiet place–almost literally a retreat house–in our lives: March Madness thrills are sterilized, St. Patrick’s Day offers pints but no parades, the electricity of college campuses is replaced by “distance learning” delivering lectures and tests online.

When the virus scare is past, we’ll be able to raise our eyes from the screen. We’ll step out where all of us can exchange lines in the more meaningful scenes we sense we were born to play. As Pope Francis recently said to mark World Communications Day 2020, God, the “great storyteller,” is summoning us as actors to share in, and spread, the current episodes of the timeless redemption tale. “For no one is an extra on the world stage,” the pope wrote, “and everyone’s story is open to possible change.”

Now that we’ve been distanced, it’s a good chance to become good students, learning our lines and integrating the “motivation” of our characters so we’ll be ready when the box office reopens. Here are a few ideas for optimizing the current circumstances of sluggishness and separation:

  • Bridge the gaps between people with more spacious respect. In maintaining a few feet of “social distance” during everyday civic life and commerce, let’s adopt better ways of being noticed, expressing ourselves in an appealing way, communicating respectfully, and appreciating the full value of interactions. We’re not rock ’em-sock ’em robots. We’re all human beings, with unique qualities and contributions to be discerned by ourselves and others. Let’s take in the full view of every person as an end, not a means, while extra time and space provide us the chance to do so. When appropriate, remake what used to be “small talk” into larger, longer, even louder talk. Greet and depart by giving people a big wave. Smile broadly and declare, “Stay healthy!” Don’t feel like smiling? Make a (germ-free) Vulcan hand gesture, accompanied by “Live long and prosper!”
  • Attend the modestly sized meetings in your community, and participate. Don’t become a home-body. Since you can’t go to a basketball game, go to a city council meeting, or become active in the club you joined as a lukewarm member two years ago. Entertain yourself and others by keeping civic life interesting. Attend and pay attention. Take note that there are a couple of top-players or interesting rookies among your club’s leadership! No celebrities or sports stars, but folks worth getting to know! Your seat has space around it, so fill it with gravitas; say constructive things as a contributor, not a spectator. Don’t leave everything up to the guy next to you; he’s not there! Make a simple joke—helpful, since the comedy club is closed!
  • Make full use of your time at home with the family since mom and dad have canceled their business trips and siblings are home from college. Discuss dinner plans in advance, drawing tips from menus you’ve googled. Enjoy conversations around the table, and decide what film you’ll all watch together. Take advantage of cheaper popcorn.
  • Take a social approach to the media. Among families and friends, show at least a few of the Facebook and Instagram pages you’ve followed as a solo reader. Look up the pages of people and families that everyone knows; suddenly they become more important, better understood, likely to be “liked” or “followed” by a few more people. Expand horizons by trying a few TV or YouTube channels you never watched before, perhaps ones you disagree with. Discuss those conflicts. Realize you’re shedding your confirmation bias.
  • Vet your tweets and responses before you send them. Pretend you’re the President, but don’t rush into that! Ask a friend or relative how they might rephrase your latest Twitter creation. If you see a comment that enrages you, ask for input on whether the source is a jerk who’s best ignored, or perhaps a modern-day prophet who states his case clumsily! Play a game where teams compete to hone your tweet to exactly the maximum number of characters.
  • Incorporate prayer and pondering. Increase the time you spend alone forming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. First and foremost, seize the available silence so you can reflect or meditate each day. If you need to be busy, make a dent in that pile of edifying books you’ve wanted to read. Or surf the Internet, prudently, to study spiritual points that somehow didn’t make the news, or to catch up on questions of the secular world, or to research an event in historical context. Always ponder the discoveries afterward, as Mary would, with an openness to the Holy Spirit’s insights. Establish Catholic playlists of blogs or podcasts or performers who make you say, “I wish I had said that.”
  • Remember to thank God for your health and to pray for all those friends and relatives who are sick or vulnerable. Then, plan to visit them, either in-person or virtually. Send grateful emails to the professionals who are caring for your loved ones. Include a link to something inspirational or fun.

Social distancing can open up a whole new spectrum of distance-learning opportunities.  Your retreat from some things can create a new closeness to alternatives. You may look back with gratitude on the extra quiet and extra time brought to you by order of our health-science gurus.

After COVID-19 has disappeared, we’ll need to find the right balance between low-touch scientific wisdom and high-touch spiritual renewal. Let’s remember the habits we developed during our retreat, such as cherishing communication and conversation as acts of human intimacy and empowerment. We’ll place a higher value on news and information, despite the torrents of data pouring out of our media, if we have become better sorters and interpreters of what’s important and what’s real. We’ll place a higher value on other people if we shared the frustration of closed sports arenas but responded by preparing for encounters with open minds.

My hope for an easing of polarization and outrage may be just as exaggerated as my initial resistance to the tactic called social distancing. But, in the spirit of Catholic solidarity and Pope Francis’ messages about communication, I’m betting the cross of individual separation with which we’re battling a communicable disease today can represent a “via dolorosa” leading us to redemption tomorrow–a healing of human  togetherness that we just can’t stop talking about.

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