Two weeks have passed since my travels home and I have crossed a very important finish line - I didn't get sick! Sadly, that small accomplishment is muted in light of the many struggles and trials our world is facing. And, sadly, many of these struggles can do severe damage to our hope as a culture.
When I wrote you last, I posed the question, "What world am I walking into?" As with most reflective questions, the answer transcended what I hoped would be a simple answer. The question I should have asked is, "What 'worlds' will I be walking into?"
While driving home through New Mexico, I listened to their Governor's press conference, updating citizens on the state of Covid-19. She shared guidelines for reopening the state and provisions people should follow. With a medical expert present to clarify the science of Covid-19, the plan presented was cautious and slow. When I arrived at my hotel in Santa Fe, I read the news that the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Governor Ever's safer at home order for the Badger State with no restrictions maintained. At that moment, I sat in my hotel room stunned, trying to understand the two Covid-19 realities or "worlds" I was in: New Mexico and Wisconsin.
This "two Covid-19 worlds" approach revealed itself to be, again, rather naive. Upon returning to Wisconsin, I learned that social distancing restrictions would be determined by individual counties. At first, I feared this would create the potential of 72 radically different interpretations of what should be done in light of the science of Covid-19. Thankfully, it seems that there is a continued air of consistent caution in the state. I have yet to hear of radically different approaches to Covid-19 from county to county, but the state is starting to see increases in Covid-19 cases. Still, this time of quiet observation did awake another level of trying to understand the Covid-19 worlds: The personal.
Looking back, it should not have surprised me that, in a country that is growing increasingly distrusting of civic and religious authority, people's understanding of Covid-19 is all over the board. As a priest, it's disheartening to see both lay people and clergy who have publicly criticized our Bishop (and by extension the Bishops of at least the United States if not the world) for shutting down public Masses. Often citing religious freedom as the grounds for this criticism, absent is any sober reflections of when the Church closed public Mass in the past out of concern for the welfare of people of God.
When watching the news and trying to understand people's opposition to stay at home orders and the closing of public celebrations of Mass, I am stunned to hear comments such as, This disease only kills the weak who have pre-existing health conditions, It only kills the homeless because they don't take care of themselves, and Its only the elderly in nursing homes that are dying from Covid-19. There are more statements I could quote, but they have all led me, from the perspective of a Catholic Priest, to be concerned that many are inadvertently rejecting the Church's teaching on the dignity of the human person, calling us to protect the most vulnerable in society. When reflecting upon these concerns as a citizen, I am also concerned that we are inadvertently creating legislation that is turning natural selection into a social theory by arguing that the weak can be allowed to die for the health of the economy and the free movement of "healthy" peoples.
If these were not enough worlds to navigate, we then witnessed the tragic death of George Floyd. The commingling of legitimate anger and calls for justice, the criminal acts of arsonists and looters who simply seek to use this tragedy for personal gain, and the grinding mental stress we all feel from Covid-19 has created a cultural powder keg. Every time I listen to a commentator try to explain the origins of these social ills, I always come away thinking, "It's not that simple." When trying to wade through this in a meaningful way on a blog on faith and science, what emerges is a complicated web of questions that touch medical science, social science, and faith.
Medical Science - What do we know about Covid-19 and what does that science tell us about treating this illness?
Social Sciences - What impact is Covid-19 having upon the psyche of global citizens and how do we best maintain physical, psychological, spiritual, and societal health amid this pandemic?
More Social Sciences - In light of the death of George Floyd, what are we learning about the current state of racism and race relations in the United States and its impact on society? What needs to be done to improve these relations?
And More Social Science - What is motivating the violence we see by looters and arsonists? Are these opportunistic crimes, grief in the form of violence, or is it a culmination of many things that are sadly converging at one of the most stressful time periods in modern global history?
Faith - Where is God in all of this?
Reflecting on these questions creates stress inside of me. They also remind me of the heart of this past Sunday's first reading for the feast of Pentecost. Our reading from Acts speaks of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus' followers as tongues of fire. These tongues were then uttered in languages that were clear, discernible, and unifying for the people who heard them. This contrasts the story of the Tower of Babel in which the tongues spoke were not unifying, but divisive, thinking that greatness was achievable upon human strength alone.
When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled,
they were all in one place together.
And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind,
and it filled the entire house in which they were.
Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire,
which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
and began to speak in different tongues,
as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem.
At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd,
but they were confused
because each one heard them speaking in his own language.
They were astounded, and in amazement they asked,
“Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans?
Then how does each of us hear them in his native language?
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites,
inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia,
Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia,
Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene,
as well as travelers from Rome,
both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs,
yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues
of the mighty acts of God.” (Acts 2:1-11)The whole world had the same language and the same words. When they were migrating from the east, they came to a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us mold bricks and harden them with fire.” They used bricks for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky, and so make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.”
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the people had built.Then the LORD said:
while they are one people and all have the same language,
they have started to do this,
nothing they presume to do will be out of their reach.
let us go down and there confuse their language,
so that no one will understand the speech of another.
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth,
and they stopped building the city.
That is why it was called Babel,
because there the LORD confused the speech of all the world.
From there the LORD scattered them over all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)
How does this apply to the "multiverse" of stress we are living through? We are Babel, the confused tongues of a people who are divided and struggling to understand how to move forward both individually and communally. We are in need of a Pentecost moment. We are in need of a Spirit driven, unifying voice that is not merely an ideology or a placard, but a unifying voice of peace to help us navigate this broken world.
We need inspired wisdom to help us see clearly the many worlds we live in. We need the gift to understand the medical, social, psychological, and spiritual challenges we face as a global community. We need good counsel from experts and people who live with these difficult situations to deepen that understanding and grasp the full breadth of these struggles. We need knowledge and fortitude to both know the best path forward and then have the resolve to stay the course. And we need prayer, not in a way that is bargaining, manipulative, or reduces God to a magician who can magically make all our issues go away. Rather, we need prayer that allows us to be changed to our core in a way that brings calm, peacefulness, and clarity to our thoughts and actions as we navigate this difficult time. In short, we need the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I have heard some use the phrase "history repeats itself" in rather discouraging tones these days, pointing to the complex web of social issues we face and how best to address them. To conclude this reflection, I want to pray that history does repeat itself again, but not with a history of violence and division. Rather, I pray that history repeats itself with the sweet renewal of heart that comes with a renaissance of authentic faith. In that Spirit, to express my faith at this time of pandemic and social struggle I offer this well known prayer.
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.