Deacon Mark Shiner is Catholic Campus Minister at Colgate University. This column is adapted from a reflection he wrote for the students of Colgate’s Newman Community.
By Deacon Mark Shiner | Guest columnist
Our present moment is not the first time that God’s people have suffered through a difficult and dangerous era, and it won’t be the last. But we are living through a moment that is truly extraordinary: a time when, for the sake of public health, we are being asked by officials to practice “social isolation” and to refrain from attending Mass.
Many Catholic dioceses have suspended public Masses now, and if we are to believe health officials, all other dioceses should follow suit. For committed Catholics, not being able to attend Mass and receive communion is going to be one of the bigger devastations of this pandemic — this is a terrible loss in the middle of such a difficult time, and our separation may get worse before it gets better. But just like God did not abandon his people when the temple was destroyed, God does not abandon us now. You are still his child and his disciple, and you are still empowered by his grace to live a life of communion with him and with others. God binds himself to the sacraments, but his love and grace are not limited by them; He is with us and calling us even now.
To what is God calling us in this moment? I am convinced that the best way that most of us can love God and our neighbor right now is to stay indoors and go out as little as humanly possible. But I don’t think we should be idle. Despite the challenges and stresses of this moment, do what you can to treat this time like a retreat — a time to withdraw and prepare for the future. Avail yourself of whatever silence your station in life allows you. Learn, or re-learn, to pray. Watch Mass on TV or online, of course. But do more. You will need it. Start praying the Daily Office or the Rosary. Learn to really pray the Jesus Prayer or Lectio Divina. Drive past a church and, from your car, make a spiritual communion with the Lord. Grab a little notebook and actually write down the names of all the people who have asked you to pray for them, and then pray for them daily until you hear that their prayers were answered. Pray for Catholics in remote regions who only get to go to Mass once a year or those whose lives are marred by bigotry and violence. Pray for your priests, especially the elderly ones. Choose a health care worker you know and commit all your prayers and sacrifices to the Lord on behalf of that person’s health and safety. Pray for the dead and the dying and the sick and their families. Pray for those for whom home life is difficult or painful. Find a prayer partner to check in with by phone every day or once a week. Ask your pastor for the name of someone who is homebound and do the work of checking in and praying with that person. Join or create an online Bible study. Read some of the classics of Christian spirituality — so many of them are online.
And, by all means, find ways to be generous and to do good. Make donations to local charities and to your parish. If you can afford it, go online and buy gift certificates for your favorite locally-owned businesses. Find small acts of kindness you can do for the people you are stuck in the house with. Write a letter to an old mentor or a friend or a kid you love. Record one of your favorite pieces of music and post it online. Teach online lessons or take lessons from an unemployed artist or musician. Encourage a student whose life has been wildly upended and whose new home may have been taken from them. Make recommendations to friends for funny or uplifting books and pieces of music. Keep asking yourself, “Given our circumstances right now, how can I best love the people around me?” Or better, ask God that question.
There is a church in Venice named Santa Maria della Salute that was built to thank God and the Blessed Mother for the ending of a terrible outbreak of the plague in 1630. It is an amazing place, built of sorrow and loss but also of hope, which is faith directed toward the future. The Venetians created something beautiful even in that dark time. Maybe we can all begin to imagine and plan for the tribute we will pay to Jesus and his Mother when life finds its new normal. We can start making our own lives and communities more connected and more beautiful now. And one day, weeks or months from now, we will gather again to worship and rejoice with each other and with the angels and saints and all the company of heaven. What will be our Santa Maria della Salute? Perhaps it could be a church full of saints who know how to pray and how to love.