What comes after pandemic?

Glenmary News

What comes after pandemic?

“It is in the humanity of Jesus that we understand our divinity.” On Good Friday this past April I was overwhelmed by this reality in prayer. The teaching of Jesus, “Learn from me…” (Mt 11:29) echoed in my mind as I meditated on St. John’s Passion Narrative. 

Oftentimes my default setting and belief seem opposite. I tend to think it is in the divinity of Jesus that I understand my humanity. But actually the revelation of the Incarnation is more profound and ultimately more glorious: “The Word became flesh and dwelt in our midst” (John 1:14).

I am writing this reflection in the midst of 50-plus days of shelter-in-place. Over these days I have wondered what my life, the life of Glenmary and our missions will look like six months from now or even two years from now. There is a great deal of speculation on this topic from a variety of perspectives, but there is one thing that seems clear to me: We are in uncharted waters and nobody really knows exactly what post-pandemic life will be like. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is life and the world will be different.

Most of us have lived in relative stability. It is not to say that we have not had crises or faced challenges in our lives. But we have never had to worry about such things as food supply, access to health care, or experienced a prolonged shelter-in-place. Suddenly, however, we have been cast into a dystopian world—surrounded by darkness, isolation, fear and uncertainty. In a matter of days, our lives went from ordinary to being turned upside down. It’s as if we are looking at a compass trying to figure out our location and the needle keeps spinning around the dial. There has been a sudden and collective loss of our normal.

For me the image and feeling that best captured our situation was contained in a book that I have been reading during this time of shelter-in-place—Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing. The book chronicles an Antarctic expedition in 1914, in which 28 men were shipwrecked. 

For five months they drifted on ice packs, castaways in one of the most savage regions in the world. In the words of one of the men, “In all of the world there is no desolation more complete than the polar night. It is a return to the ice ageno warmth, no life, no movement. Only those who have experienced it can fully appreciate what it means to be without the sun day after day and week after week….”

There is also the darkness and uncertainty of Jesus’ tomb on Holy Saturday. 

‘Love one another’

Studies have shown that uncertainty is the most stressful condition for our bodies. That is exactly what we have experienced for months. In response to this darkness and uncertainty Pope Francis called for “a civilization of hope” that rejects fear, discouragement, and passivity, pointing to Jesus’ resurrection as the foundation of hope.

In the pope’s words, from “A Plan to Rise Again,” an essay he published in a Spanish magazine: “Like the first disciples who went to the tomb, we live surrounded by an atmosphere of pain and uncertainty….The pain and mourning for our loved ones disorients us, distresses and paralyzes us. It is the heaviness of the gravestone that imposes itself on the future and that threatens…to bury all hope.”

It is here that I return to the grace I received on Good Friday: In his life on earth Jesus never wavered from his mission: to reveal to us the true nature of our humanity. In doing so Jesus invited us to share in the unity he has with the Father, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9).

Jesus taught us the divine nature of our humanity in the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are those…”), in parables (e.g. The Good Samaritan) and perhaps most significantly in the actions of his life (e.g. in washing the feet of the apostles). We hear his constant message: “This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Adapting is what we do

Brother Joe Steen (center) works with builder-parishioners Tom Charron (left) and Cliff Jablonski, planning for a new St. John Paul II church, under construction in Grainger County, Tenn.

What will our lives look like post-pandemic? I can say with certainty that Glenmary’s mission will not change—to witness to those in our missions, to those in each of our lives the divinity of our human nature: compassion, forgiveness, mercy, joy and hope.

As Glenmary missioners we embrace the image of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the lost one.

And as missioners we are uniquely prepared for the change and challenges that a post-pandemic world will present. Adapting to change is a part of missionary life. Missioners search out the signs of the times and adapt accordingly.

As Glenmarians we have adapted and adjusted our missionary effort over the years according to the signs of the times. There remains a constant and clear mission. Father Bishop, Glenmary’s founder, states this best in a 1948 letter to his young missioners: “Love the poor, the sick, the helpless and attend to them. They are God’s aristocrats. He loves them. If you are known in your community as the contact for all the poor and unfortunate of the place, you could not have a more honorable title on earth or one that would make you more welcome in the courts of heaven” (1948 mid-winter letter).

Perhaps in a post-pandemic world we can do this by realizing Brother Levis Kuwa’s dream of setting up a free medical clinic in one of our mission areas. Or the dream of Brother Jason Muhlenkamp and Pastor Darrell Alexander in Blakely, Ga., to be able to comfort a family who has just lost everything to a house fire: “We are here to help you in this situation. I know it looks like you have no hope…but you do.”

Perhaps in this new era Brother David Henley and Glenmary’s vocation team will be flooded with inquiries from men who want to dedicate their lives to the people of rural America. In this “civilization of hope” perhaps Father Don will find those in Glenmary’s new mission site, in Tennessee, to be open and receptive to the presence and establishment of the Catholic Church.

A friend gave me this advice about writing this article: “Try to have a happy ending. Everyone I know needs a little encouragement and a reminder that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

So I will conclude with this: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). You are the light at the end of the tunnel. You are now the image of the invisible God in the world. The light, the divine is in youlet it pierce the darkness of this pandemic world we find ourselves in!

As people of faith let us never lose sight of the fact that in the darkness and uncertainty of the tomb, the light shone forth to conquer the darkness for all time. We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!

This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.