How should we respond to the COVID pandemic?
January 20, 2022
Archbishop George J. Lucas reflects on how the Catholic faithful can find hope and strength to endure the ongoing COVID pandemic by coming together as a faith community, showing respect and care for one another, and knowing that God is ultimately in control.
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Q. With the COVID pandemic still lingering, how can the Catholic faithful still see the hand of God working through our tribulations, and how are we called to respond?
As COVID continues week after week, month after month, I think it might be good to reflect on what the disciple of Jesus Christ is supposed to be doing in the midst of all this, and what is an appropriate response for us individually as disciples, and as a community of believers.
We were in the throes of COVID in the spring of 2020, when it all started, which brought about worldwide infections, masks, death, vaccines and government mandates. Just when it appeared the world was finding its way through the dark woods, the spawning of two variants, delta and omicron, seemed to take us back to 2020. We’re seeing a record-setting number of cases, hospitals being pressured, health care workers under a lot of stress and the return of mask mandates.
And I think the normal human reaction is, “Let’s just get it over with already.” And so, it is wearing us all down, it’s a grind. And in one sense, we could say, “Well, we’re going back to where we started.” But when we started, I think there was an energy and a freshness about trying to deal with this. Now, I think we’re really getting tired. What we have to acknowledge, which seems obvious, is that this has really affected every aspect of our lives. So, it’s affected the way we work, and the way we shop, and the way we go to school, and the way we go to church, how we gather as family and friends, whether and how we can travel.
And then the question of how we live and act together is a real challenge for the field of public health. We think not just about what’s good for us and how to manage risks for ourselves, but also, we know that we’re part of a human community, part of a community of faith, and certainly part of the larger human community in the towns, the cities where we live. And because we’re dealing with something that’s contagious, we have to be thinking about one another, as well as thinking about ourselves.
Q. Do you think we’re in a situation of “one step forward and two steps back?”
That’s one way of putting it, but I think a frustration is that we feel that we aren’t moving forward, that we really aren’t making progress. One thing that’s clear, even to a layman like me in terms of diseases, this is very unpredictable. So, we can’t just say, “Well, OK, we’re going to now do this for four weeks” and then we’ll be at a certain place and don’t have to turn back or retrace our steps. It’s been unpredictable and, as I said, it’s affected every aspect of our lives. It’s hard to get a rest from it.
There’s been no vacation from COVID, and there have been times or moments when there seemed to be a little less concern, for the time being, but then it ramps up again, and these days we know more and more people who contracted the virus, and it continues to be the case that some people are affected very seriously about it. So, we have to take it seriously.
Q. It certainly continues to be very unpredictable two years later. How do you think parishes and schools have handled this roller coaster ride?
In many ways, very well. I’m always edified by how people look out for one another and really try to be considerate of the needs of others, especially those who might be in a particular danger or are particularly susceptible to illness, because of the other complicating factors they might have, or because of age. At the same time, I have to say, though, I observe that within communities of our parishes and schools, we’re also feeling the stresses and the temptation to be divisive and to give in to divisiveness. And sometimes we do give in to it. It’s part of the nature of a contagious illness like this, there has to be some separation among us. We tried to do that in a variety of ways that are both sensible and effective. But we know that the divisiveness that enters the human heart and the human spirit, that’s really from the devil, that’s not simply a coping mechanism for dealing with a pandemic.
The devil tempts us in isolation to think of only ourselves, to be fearful. We can also be tempted to not be respectful of others who might have a different approach to things or a different opinion on things. And back to what I said at the beginning, there’s a particular responsibility on the part of disciples of Jesus Christ to approach this challenge, which none of us has been looking for, which we all wish was over, but to approach this challenge from a position of faith, a position of generosity, a position of love of neighbor that Jesus really calls all of us to demonstrate.
Q. This pandemic can make us feel powerless. How can we learn to live with this lack of control?
I think it’s been an opportunity for us all to learn humility. No matter who we are, none of us has the solution for this. There’s been no quick way out of it. And anybody who claims to have the answer, and that we don’t need to have any other data, or we don’t need to learn anything else, that’s just not true. We like to be in control, and in many ways up until now, we’ve been able to control our environments and our social interactions in ways we’ve gotten used to, and that have been comfortable, but COVID has thrown a lot of that up in the air. Humility is good always, but we stand before God as creatures who are in need of healing, in need of divine guidance and wisdom. And I think I speak for myself, but I also encourage others to realize that to pray for and to look for humility in the face of all this could benefit us individually, but also as a community.
Q. What about the internal, psychological and spiritual effects of this pandemic?
We’re still trying to gauge those. We’re spiritual people as well as physical, and what’s going on in our hearts and our minds and our souls is as important as what goes on in our bodies in response to the challenges of COVID. This is an opportunity for us to be prayerful, to pray individually, but also to pray as groups, so that we can come to understand together more clearly how God would want us to respond within our families, within our schools and parishes, within our community, at the workplace.
We have to take account of one another, we’re challenged by our faith to be respectful of each other, and when we sense a divisiveness or a lack of respect, it’s important to reflect on that prayerfully, and ask the Lord’s help to see our way through, to living and working together in a way that encourages respect rather than encouraging division or lack of respect.
Q. How do you think schools and parishes can continue to have that respect and integrity for one another?
It’s been challenging. It’s really been challenging for anybody in a position of leadership because we don’t have a roadmap for how this should go, and none of us has ever been through it before. So, whether that leader is a pastor or a principal, whether it’s a parent or somebody who is responsible for others at work, we’re all doing our best to decide what’s the next step forward.
Within the Church we have people that are given responsibility for the oversight, for the guidance of particular apostolates, so we have pastors who are appointed to really stand in the person of Jesus himself at the head of the parish community. It doesn’t mean a pastor or an archbishop has all the wisdom that can be had, but we all try to consult with those who have a wider understanding of things regarding the pandemic. But in other aspects of our life together, we have to invite everybody to come together and to move forward as best we can. That may have to do with public health and may have to do with how we use our facilities together and so forth.
I think it’s been a particular challenge in schools. There seems to be a growing agreement that it’s really important that students be in school, in the classroom, if that’s at all possible. I’ve really been proud of our Catholic school principals, in particular, for looking for the ways for that to happen, that can be safe and effective. Not everybody is always in agreement on the details of that. And I think it’s important that, first of all, we respect the role of our principals, who are very well qualified and have great experience in running excellent schools, and in taking great care of our students while partnering with parents.
We all know there are some very strong feelings about aspects of how we deal with COVID and it’s not always possible for each of us to have our way, especially when we are working together in what we might say is a communitarian effort, which really almost everything in the Church is. So, if we belong to a parish, if we are participating in the life of the school, we have to be willing to express ourselves about what we think would be good and helpful, but then always be ready and humble enough to work together and follow the lead of those who have the responsibility of leadership.
We know that a situation like this is unpredictable. We may have to pivot a little from time to time. Sometimes things have to be tightened up, sometimes things can be loosened. We would all have hoped that the necessity of pandemic restrictions, some that seem unpleasant to us, that those might have passed by now, but we’re not there yet. So, I just would encourage us all to respect those who have been rightly given roles of leadership in our parishes, in our schools and in our other apostolates. And to know that it’s never part of the mandate of the Gospel to be disrespectful or hateful to someone else. We can have disagreements, but we must do that respectfully. And then ultimately, if we’re going to be part of communal effort in the Church, like a parish or a school, we have to get on board and move ahead with everybody else.
Q. You’ve mentioned in the past that the Lord might be offering us something in this moment. And that reminds me of a prayer: “Lord, what can I do for you at this time?” Can you talk about that?
For me, that’s always kind of half of a prayer that I think of. So, what can I do for you and also what are you offering me at this time? We know that the Lord is in this. We celebrated the feast of Christmas not long ago. It’s a reminder to us that in God’s plan, he sent his Son to immerse himself in our life, in the joys of our lives, and also in the difficulties. Jesus is not absent from our current situation, and he doesn’t expect us to act like he is, that we’ve never heard the Gospel before or never known that we need to love one another and be patient with each other.
So, I think the Lord is offering us an opportunity to reflect again on the Gospel, on what it means to be his disciples and his friends. And he’s asking us, in the practical details of our lives, particularly when we feel stressed or challenged, to live in a way that expresses our faith in God, but also our desire to treat one another as brothers and sisters in the Lord.