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?

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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