One of the best adjectives I can use to describe the coronavirus outbreak is “disruptive”. Sure, every day before the virus had its own ups and downs, but after the virus took hold in the US, it turned everything upside down. I know that in the Sacramento Diocese, the bishop and department heads at the pastoral center have been in a constant state of disruption. Reacting to an ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, nothing felt routine, the training wheels fell off before anyone could get their balance. Events postponed, schools closed, workspaces shifted, sacraments suspended: everything “normal” was completely upended, disrupted.
It’s been a few weeks, and as I try to catch my breath, I begin to reflect on this viral disruption and wonder if it is not, indeed a holy moment. When I look at Jesus’ life, was it not one successive disruption after another? Ask Herod how disruptive the prophecy of the birth of a baby king can be. Ask Mary and Joseph how disruptive a lost child on a pilgrimage can be. Ask Peter how disruptive a chance encounter on the seashore can be. Ask the Pharisees how disruptive a young Rabbi who works miracles can be. Ask the ancient Roman civilization how disruptive a Spirit-frenzied band of twelve Messiah-lovers can be. Ask Saint Paul how disruptive a horseback ride to Damascus can be.
Over and over, Jesus disrupted the status quo. He inserted himself into equations that were considered to already have been solved, only to rewrite the entire formula of life. Jesus was nothing if not a disruptive, and if I am honest, it is precisely his in-breaking, his desire to mess things up, that I often need the most. I need to shaken, aroused, and disrupted if I am ever going to grow.
Perhaps the coronavirus has added some punch to this Lenten season by asking us to rethink life as we know it. Isn’t that the ultimate purpose of Holy Week, to enter the gates of our hearts’ Jerusalem and proclaim that things can never be the same once Christ has entered? Perhaps we need this disruption so that when we recover from the chaos, we come out the other side wiser and stronger, and when things normalize, they will be imbued with a new energy, a new spirit. Let us welcome this disruption in so far as we can find Christ in it.
I’ve been having some good conversations with coworkers and close friends, many of whom have young families and are trying to adjust to the COVID-19-quarantine reality of working from home with the kids being there all day. While they point to the blessings of spending more time with their families, there are honest admissions of frustration and conflict. One of them admitted, “I thought I was a good person until I had to spend a week at home with my family.” While we love our families deeply, we are unaccustomed to the sustained intimate contact that bruises our egos and rubs off the polish we put on for our coworkers and classmates.
Yes, home is where the heart is, and that’s part of the problem. Jesus understood the hearts of human beings, and while he acknowledges the heart as the seat of love, he also recognizes its shadow side. In Matthew 15:19 he says, “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy.” In essence, if home is where the heart is, it also where our ugliness can most readily come out, and that seems like a problem.
However, that is actually the beauty of the family. Family is where people can be themselves, warts and all. It is also where we learn to bear with others’ faults, learn to forgive, and discover that love does indeed “cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Family is the school of virtue precisely because it the context that gives us the most opportunities to practice choosing love.
Respected Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton says that “Family is the theatre of the spiritual drama, the place where things happen, especially the things that matter.” How true. Family is the place where things matter most; a truth that so many cultures espouse throughout the world. We need not shy away from the bumps and bruises of family life, but embrace them, knowing they will heal and make us stronger.
I pray for all families, especially now. I pray for those young people for whom being with family is more of a cross than a crown, who feel safer away from home. I pray that all of us will find ways to strengthen our familial bonds during this time and not revert to shallow family life after the virus passes. Finally, I pray that the Holy Family inspires us all to make our homes domestic churches of the highest quality, a place where saints are made and sinners are welcomed.
Growing up Catholic, eating fish on Fridays was a staple. Local parishes offered fish frys so regularly that asking what was for dinner on Fridays was superfluous. The abstinence from meat on Fridays of Lent prescribed by the Catholic Church is a reminder to make a small sacrifice during Lent to commemorate and unite ourselves to the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross on Good Friday. It reminds us that even from its beginnings life requires sacrifice to be fruitful.
Sadly, no one in the US will be at a fish fry today. The coronavirus has swept away public gatherings, so we must observe our Lenten abstinence in isolation. Yet, as I anticipate my fish dinner tonight, I feel a sense of comfort in knowing that there are millions of other Catholics sharing my tradition, my small sacrifice.
Life during this pandemic has turned upside down. So many things that so many of us enjoyed and cherished have been suspended. It feels hard to keep hope. But sometimes it’s the little reminders, like fish on Fridays, that tell us that this is not the end of the story. We are on this Lenten journey together toward Easter, and Easter will indeed remain long after the virus has run its course. Let us find comfort in our Lenten practices, even as we sacrifice together.
In February of this year, the Sacramento Newman Center student leaders and I went to UCLA for the University Catholic Conference of California (UCCC). One of the activities that we did in the evening was to have a Holy Hour of Adoration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. It was my first time to visit the massive cathedral, but of all its features, the one that impressed me the most was the long tapestries that lined the walls of the main nave. Like the picture above, the tapestries depicted saints from all ages and places, from every possible walk of life. I imagined what it would be like to attend Mass in this cathedral with these striking, visual reminders that the saints and angels join us every time we offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar. I felt communion in the broadest sense, like I was not alone.
But the more I reflected on that experience, the more I realized that the saints don't just show up in my life at Mass. They are always alive in Christ, available and open to communion with me, willing friends and companions on my journey with God. In fact, even in the loneliest, most isolated times of my life, the saints have always been there with me and for me.
Nothing reminds me more of this than today, the feast of Saint Joseph. I remember him because the day I became a father on June 13 2010, I started my devotion to him. After my divorce in 2013, the courts allowed my ex-wife to move to California with my daughter. I was living in Kentucky at the time, and was utterly spiritually and emotionally smashed to pieces by the separation from my daughter. I remember crying out to Saint Joseph to pray for me, to show me some way to fulfill my vocation as a father with my daughter over 2000 miles away.
For five years, I was a long-distance Dad, until after too many tear-filled FaceTime calls with my daughter I decided to leave my well-established job and community and take the leap of faith to move out to California to be with my daughter. I didn't have a job lined up. I didn't know anyone in California, but I knew I was making the right choice, a choice Saint Joseph would approve of.
When I arrived In California, I remember how isolated I felt. I would lie in bed praying, praying that Saint Joseph would intercede for me and help me. Praying as a father to a father, someone who would understand. Saint Joseph did not disappoint. He connected me with people from church. He introduced me to Yolanda, who became my wife. He provided a job at Sac State Newman Center. He reassured me that God was in control and I was not alone.
In a time when isolation is being mandated, let us remember that we can have communion with the saints. Let us find a friend in them, someone who will pray for us and journey with us during this most uncertain time. We may be physically isolated, but we are connected in the Body of Christ, and the Saints are a beautiful reminder of that. Let us walk with them toward our ultimate home, and remember that we are never alone.