Teaching in the Midst of Crisis

“The question that arises right now, more powerfully than any other, is, ‘What can conquer our fear?’…What kind of presence is capable of conquering the deep fear that grips us at the depths of our being?”

I read these words by Fr. Julian Carron, President of the Communion and Liberation movement, when the coronavirus was in the midst of ravaging the Italian region of Lombardy. Doubting that the virus would disrupt life in America as much as it would across the Atlantic, I didn’t realize how much his questions would resonate with my experience in the weeks to come.

My high school juniors, to whom I teach religion and philosophy, began asking me about what we would do if the coronavirus made its way into our area in New Jersey. I quickly dismissed their questions, telling them not to concern themselves with problems that had such a small probability. But as we received the announcement last week that our school would be ceasing in-school instruction and would turn to online classes indefinitely, I realized my nonchalant optimism would no longer be an adequate response.

My normally playful and at times goofy students began looking to me with a glint of confusion, even terror in their eyes. I could hear the vulnerability and neediness in their voices. Even the students who are usually dismissive of me began to expect some kind of answers or guidance.

“When are we going to come back? How long is this going to last?”

I lost count of how many times I repeated the phrase, “I don’t know.” I was faced with my limitation as an authority figure and my inability to gloss over the deep sense of uncertainty that began to overshadow us all.

What does it mean to be an authentic leader to young people, to be a true educator, in times of crisis? I felt myself swaying between different modes of response. I could play the sedated optimist and tell them everything would be fine soon enough. That this will pass and everything will be back to normal again. But to do so would be to lie to my students.

I could cast out the darkness with simplistic pietisms, saying to trust in God and pray that everything will be fine. And yet a simplistic, sentimental deity becomes more and more useless as the situation becomes more and more grim.

Perhaps the safest and most realistic option is to push the ideal of productivity, taking advantage of technological innovations to keep the workflow as normal as possible. I can strive to maintain my lesson plans without having to do away with too much of it in the hope of distracting the students from the radical disruptions from “life as usual.”

But my own fear, frustration, and uncertainty kept me from resorting to any of these superficial responses. Instead of clinging onto the surface of things, I began to peer beyond and wonder, “What does this all mean?” The series of questions that followed once we left school led me to begin to reflect more deeply on what it means to be an educator.

An email followed from my headmaster, a Benedictine monk, the next day reminding us that as members of a Christian community, our position in the midst of chaos and uncertainty is one neither of despair nor of invincibility, but of trust and curiosity. He reminded us of the Israelites walking through the Red Sea, being led forward through calamity. Our job is to “keep walking forward,” looking for ways we can learn from the change in our educational format and for opportunities to be innovative and inspire creativity. “Let’s allow ourselves to be surprised by how the Mystery can reveal new discoveries and opportunities in the throes of crisis.”

My headmaster’s attitude toward our new circumstances brought to mind the words spoken by Pope Francis to a group of Italian teachers back in 2014: “I love school because it is synonymous with openness to reality. At least it should be! Yet it does not always manage to be so, and so that means that the structure needs to be adapted a little.”

My first venture with online teaching the following Monday forced me to decide, will my attitude toward this be one of hardness or receptivity? Will I try to adhere to my usual plans as closely as possible, or will I go into this looking to discover something new about how to educate…with openness to what the Mystery has placed in front of me?

The Pope continued, “We do not have the right to be afraid of reality! School teaches us to understand reality. Going to school means opening one’s mind and heart to reality, in the wealth of its aspects, of its dimensions. And this is so very beautiful!”

But how can one find beauty in such difficult times? How can one find hope in a crisis? Instead of covering over these questions with mere optimism, industriousness, or despair, I decided to ask these questions whole-heartedly as I turned on my camera for my first lesson. I prayed to be able to learn something from the experience, and from my students.

As I began the lesson, I found myself surprised by how cooperative my students were, more so than usual. The timing of our lesson was about half that of the usual class period, so I found myself becoming more animated and theatrical as I bounced from question to question. As I started experimenting with different methods of conducting class discussions, students who rarely ever participated were suddenly attentive and enthusiastic. I was amazed by how such drab circumstances opened the door to new discoveries.

The pope explained: “Teachers are the first ones who must remain open to reality-with minds still open to learning! For if a teacher is not open to learning, he or she is not a good teacher and isn’t even interesting; young people understand that, they have a ‘nose’ for it, and they are attracted by professors whose thoughts are open, ‘unfinished’, who are seeking something ‘more’, and thus they infect students with this attitude. This is one of the reasons why I love school.”

Out of a desire to keep my thoughts “unfinished,” I reached out to several of my coworkers after the first day of online classes to exchange ideas. I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and openness to learning. Inspired by the headmaster’s exhortation to start looking for new ways to “create community” from a distance, one of the drama teachers proposed a conference call to do play readings with students just for fun. Another teacher invited a group of students to eat lunch with her over video conference just to check in with each other. Their creativity was contagious, and new ideas were soon percolating in my mind. The next day, I sent out emails to my students in philosophy club to start discussing Camus’ The Plague and to the students in our campus ministry to call in to do a novena using the Pope’s prayer to Mary for the end of coronavirus.

As I refer back to Fr. Carron’s letter, I am starting to see how much I need his questions and insights to guide me as I continue to ask what it means to be an educator to young people in the midst of a crisis:

“Young people need to see people whose lives, here and now, show the signs of God’s victory, of His true and contemporaneous presence, and therefore a new and different way of facing circumstances, one full of hope and an otherwise unimaginable joy that is channeled into an indomitable industriousness…What we need, therefore, more than any reassuring speeches or moral instructions, is to tap into the people who embody the experience of this victory, that there is a meaning in life proportionate to the challenges. Nothing could be simpler, because in times like this, when hysteria dominates, people like this are so uncommon that they stand out.”

The burden of being an authentic authority figure to these young people rests on my capacity to point them to a solid and lasting sense of meaning upon which they can stand even when their world is being violently shaken by uncertainty and fear. I know that I have no answer of my own to give them. All I have is the beauty that I see emerging within the companionship of my coworkers and the monastic community that guides us spiritually.

While all this beauty hardly eliminates the tragedy and extreme suffering brought on by this pandemic, I’m finding that my certainty of the Incarnation is deepening more and more. That Christ enters into the flesh is not a lofty theological idea, but a lived reality happening in front of my eyes. And in a paradoxical way, I’m grateful that this crisis is helping me to rediscover what it means to be an educator. I pray to keep Christ’s victorious presence in the center of my gaze as I continue learning from these circumstances.

Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.


It’s Not Demonic to Close Churches to Protect Human Lives and the Vulnerable

In First Things, RR Reno writes, “There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” Is this sentimentalism? Or is it the care for the human person that Jesus showed by healing the sick? Jesus identifies his mission as the promotion of life in abundance (John 10:10). The Catechism states that our vocation is life in the Holy Spirit, expressed by divine charity and human solidarity (CCC 1699). The Holy Spirit will not abandon us even while churches remain closed.

His colleague Matthew Schmitz writes, “Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life.” Why this dualism between earthly and eternal life? Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), so care for our health is a spiritual duty. While it is true that bodies do not have an absolute value (CCC, 2289) this immediately follows: “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good” (2288).

Church closings ensure public health as a safeguard for the most vulnerable. If the quarantine were lifted and the coronavirus spread, we don’t have the capacity to care for the sick and the dying. Such a disregard for the sanctity of life and the common good would be sinful.

Schmitz says that since breweries and supermarkets remain open, churches should be too. But churches are not places for consumption; parishes are not places where sacraments get dispensed. We go to church to gather and that is the exact risk of spreading the coronavirus. One can pick up beer or buy groceries without interacting with anyone else, but liturgy literally means “the work of the people.” It is a corporate event: we pray together, sing together; by standing and sitting together, we demonstrate our communal worship together. We don’t go to church to “get” the Eucharist; we go to church to be reminded who we are before our God, what God has done for us, and to petition God’s presence and power. Augustine tells us to “become what you receive” in the Eucharist: churches form us as the Body of Christ.

Do I miss Eucharist? Absolutely. And this experience puts me in touch with millions of Catholics all over the world who cannot count on receiving the Eucharist on a daily or weekly or monthly basis because they cannot get to a church or the Sacrament cannot get to them.

I am consoled by the Catechism, as it reminds us the Mass is a cosmic event, taking place across space and time. It unites us with the whole church—past, present & future—so that we participate in every celebration of thanksgiving, past, present, and future (nos. 1367-1372). The Catechism also reminds us that our conscience—the Vicar of Christ—must be ordered to the good of all (2039). We are responsible for each other (2259) and for establishing peace and justice, including the commutative justice of rightly relating to each other (2304).

Healthcare experts tell us that quarantine is necessary for the preservation of life and that this time is the most essential for protecting the vulnerable and preventing the overloading of our healthcare system. It would be sinful and barbaric to reject this counsel. God knows what’s in our hearts and the impact of our decisions on others, especially the least among us (with whom Jesus identifies in Mt 25:31-46). God is not offended by us being unable to celebrate Eucharist, especially when we do this for the good of the People of God. Because love of God is also love of neighbor (John 15:12). God holds us in this difficult time, sustaining us by the grace that is always and everywhere present, reflected in the imago dei of each and the community of persons that reflects our Triune God (CCC 1702). We can and should be witnesses of the essential nature of being church, even while the buildings are closed. According to Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”

Stay home. Save lives.


Quote of the Day

Pope Francis: “In the context of the pandemic that threatens human life and the global economy, today we reiterate the teaching of #EvangeliumVitae to transmit the culture of life to future generations: an attitude of solidarity, care, and welcome.



The Unfinished Work of Saint Óscar Romero

Two unfinished Masses are linked to the legacy of Saint Óscar Romero, pointing to his unfinished work to see Christ in and be Christ for the poor, marginalized, and excluded.

Forty years ago, Óscar Romero was murdered while he celebrated Mass in the Divine Providence cancer hospital chapel. The Gospel was from John 12:23-26: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant may be with me where I am.”

In his homily, Romero quoted from Gaudium et spes, asserting that building a “better ordering of human society” is “of vital concern to the kingdom of God … a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace” (no. 39). He continued:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us all view these matters at this historic moment with hope, that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy … This holy mass, now, this Eucharist, is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.

The archbishop proclaimed these words while a car idled outside the chapel and an assassin trained his aim on Romero’s heart. Romero stared at his killer and uttered his last words: “Let us join together, then, intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer for Doña Sarita [it was her memorial Mass] and ourselves.”

At that moment—at 6:15pm—an assassin, a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, fired a single bullet that ripped through Romero’s aorta and by 6:26pm he was declared dead.

A first Mass never finished.

The following Sunday, more than 250,000 Salvadorans gathered in the square outside the cathedral in the capital. It was Palm Sunday, and they were laying to rest their beloved “Monseñor Romero,” whom they recognized as a saint.

After a peaceful procession through the streets and prayerful start to the liturgy, soldiers began shooting into the crowd. Bombs interrupted the homily and people began to flee. It’s unclear how many people were killed, but eye witnesses report that more than 80 Salvadorans lost their lives.

A second Mass never finished.

Last week I was in El Salvador and got to spend time with Lolo Guardado, who was baptized by Romero and who was still a boy when Romero was murdered. In Spanish, Lolo told us that even though he is shy and still trying to heal from the wounds of El Salvador’s civil war, he tries to live up to the legacy of Romero’s courage. Lolo recounted stories of Romero as a “friend and good shepherd.”

Lolo, who survived a massacre that killed hundreds of women and children and wiped out more than sixty percent of his family, told us how Romero inspires him to discover his voice, tell his story, and speak the truth of the brutal effects of so many years of fear, hatred, and violence in El Salvador. In moments of uncertainty, Lolo told us, he can hear Romero urging him onward: “Adelante!” Lolo acknowledged, “If I do not speak up, it is not as though the rocks will speak for me. I must speak for myself.”

Lolo insists that Romero is alive in his commitment to sentir con la iglesia (to feel with the church), especially the unfinished work to draw near the poor, the vulnerable, the nonpersons. The ones made to feel invisible, the ones without security, voice, or agency.

Lolo described Romero’s bravery and cool-headedness during a late-night standoff in May 1979 at the Church of the Rosary. He brokered a peaceful exit that soldiers betrayed, firing bullets through the glass and metal doors (the bullet holes remain visible today), killing dozens who are buried in a mass grave in the floor of the church. My students and I were moved by the bullet-pierced tabernacle, which still hangs on the back wall of the church.

Thomas Merton referred to the church as a “body of broken bones” but in El Salvador, bullet holes and embodied wounds direct our gaze to the “crucified people” past and present. A Salvadoran woman named Anita shared her work to honor the legacy of Romero and so many other Salvadoran martyrs. She assured us, “Where there is a wound, there is God.” Romero is so beloved because he was so attentive and responsive to the wounds of his people.

As we remember Romero on the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom, there may be a temptation to domesticate his legacy. It’s important to honor his words and actions, verifying the record of what inspired and sustained him.

Romero’s unfinished work is a call to grow ever deeper in faith, hope, and love by sharing our life with those who suffer, people who question if they count, matter, or belong. In 1977, Romero insisted, “A church that is fulfilling its duty cannot live without being persecuted.” We cannot run from difference or discomfort; we cannot be afraid to disagree or convince ourselves that the kind thing to do is remain silent, to avoid rocking the boat. Less than a year before he was killed, Romero claimed, “The Gospel that the Church preaches will always provoke conflicts.” Jesus promised as much (Matthew 10:16-36). This is not a challenge to a select few; it is part of our shared call as disciples, a responsibility on all our shoulders. It comes with being church together, a reason for us to support each other and hold one another lovingly accountable to a Gospel that requires we never become complacent with an unjust status quo.

Romero’s unfinished work is to live out a faith filled with courage, compassion, and solidarity. To become a church that is genuinely of and for the poor. To have our hearts moved by those whose humanity is questioned, whose dignity is undermined, whose freedoms are constrained. And to work for a world that rights wrongs, heals wounds, and creates the conditions for each and all to freely and fully flourish in right-relationships.

In a digital age, it’s easy to give our attention to a person or cause and then swipe or scroll on to something completely different. Screens can become portals for distraction, escape, and entertainment, tempting us to ignore, deny, or even erase suffering – whether our own or others’.

Romero’s legacy is a challenge to be present to those pushed to the peripheries, to listen and learn from them. To help them discover their voice and develop it so they can speak their own truth and be heard. To build relationships rooted in mutual respect and responsibility such that the lines that distinguish “us” from “them” are erased by the bonds of cariño (tender affection), confianza (sacred trust), and conjunto (togetherness).

40 years removed from his last breath, it will grow easier to put Romero up on a pedestal, to light a candle in his honor, and to remember him for saintly piety and the selfless sacrifice of his life as a witness to his love for Jesus Christ and the people of El Salvador. But we cannot dilute or whitewash Romero as if he were predestined to sainthood, wholly set apart from the rest of us. He experienced struggle, doubt, and fear. He could have chosen to be silent or to sidestep his prophetic words to denounce injustice and violence. But he didn’t. Telling the truth came with a price. To continue the unfinished work of Saint Óscar Romero is to follow his example by telling the truth of reality, analyzing the root causes of injustice, mining sources of moral wisdom from Scripture, tradition, logic, and human experience, and working for justice on the personal, social, and structural levels.

Jon Sobrino, SJ, insists that while the Church honors Romero by recognizing him as a saint, “It is not the Church that graces Monseñor, but Monseñor who graces the Church and elevates it.” Romero calls us to an ever deeper love of God and neighbor, a love of God expressed by loving our neighbor, especially the one in greatest need. As the words of his prophetic homilies continue to echo from the past to the present, he urges us onward: “Adelante!”

Romero’s legacy—including but not limited to the two unfinished Masses in March 1980—reminds us: “Each one of you has to be a microphone for God” knowing that “no one can kill the voice of justice.”


Italian Priest Who Gave Respirator to Younger Patient Dies of Coronavirus

via Fr. James Martin:

Fr. Giuseppe Berardelli, a 72-year-old priest in Bergamo, Italy, who gave a respirator (that his parishioners had purchased for him) to a younger patient (whom he did not know), has died from coronavirus.
“Greater love has no person than the one who lays down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13)
He is a “Martyr of Charity,” a saint like St. Maximilian Kolbe, who in Auschwitz volunteered to take the place of a condemned man with a family, and was killed.
Don Giuseppe Berardelli, patron of those who suffer from coronavirus and all who care for them, pray for us!

 


How Do We Build a Culture of Encounter During a Global Pandemic?

Embed from Getty Images
Millennial writer Marcus Mescher was recently interviewed on his new book at Crux:

Yes, the world needs more kindness, but kindness is not enough to resist social sin, restore right-relationships, and deliver on the demands of justice at the personal, social, and structural levels. Many of my students describe a mentality of “I do me, you do you.” This sounds nice at first, but it undermines moral norms and promotes the abdication of social responsibility. By foregrounding the “ethics of encounter” with examples of social division and unjust inequalities, I point to the need to break through our homogeneous lifestyle enclaves and social network bubbles in order to draw near to the “other,” listen and learn from them, especially those who have been pushed to the margins, made to feel invisible, or erased from our personal and collective consciousness….

As you say, many of us were suffering from isolation and loneliness well before the arrival of the novel coronavirus caused us to dramatically isolate ourselves. Especially in light of your insights in this book, how should we think about living out a culture of encounter in our current moment?

We were born to bond; our brains are hard-wired for connection. Social distancing – necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus – is exposing more of us to the isolation and loneliness that many American adults have been feeling for years. We need community, which does not mean we should ignore precautions about COVID-19. On the contrary, it underscores the importance of the common good that reaches beyond borders.

The coronavirus highlights the need to sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the most vulnerable members of our communities. In a crisis like this one, there are temptations to panic, to blame, and to hoard. Long before the coronavirus reached our communities, we have been operating from a framework that presumes scarcity and feasts on cynicism.

In this cultural moment, the “culture of encounter” calls us away from self-concern and apathy in the face of others’ suffering. We can and should use our digital tools and networks to check in on friends, family, and strangers. We have a special obligation to those who endure social isolation due to age, illness, disability, poverty, and any deprivation that increases insecurity.

Christian discipleship orbits around agapic love that wills the good of the other more than the good of the self (Philippians 2:3). At the same time, self-gift should not necessarily become self-annihilation, which is why I dedicate a chapter to the process of discerning what courage, mercy, generosity, humility, and fidelity look like in our lives. Civilizations are judged by the wellbeing of its most vulnerable members. This will be a telling moment for how well we live up to American values like “liberty and justice for all” in addition to Jesus’ command to love each other as we have been loved (John 13:34).

You can read the full interview here.