Really? Giving thanks in a time of pandemic?
Honestly? “Thanksgiving” in the pandemic year 2020? You must be kidding!
The leaders of our provinces and our country are begging us to refuse to gather our extended families and friends for the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings, for fear of spreading COVID-19. It’s hard to miss these moments when dear members of our families traditionally gather. Many of us are already at the end of our isolated ropes – frustrated and fed up with hanging on, alone and masked, for far too long.
If you’ve recently ventured back into your house of worship, you see far fewer attendees and fear that the already-declining numbers of congregants may further plunge. Those who’ve given their lives to religious vocations in both consecrated and lay livelihoods wonder if there is any future for public religious gatherings at all.
A veteran Catholic priest friend recently confided his deep anxiety – if not depression – with the state of matters ecclesial. The very few novices attracted to congregational religious life are pious, but do not share his conviction with social engagement. He sees the American bishops, and almost ½ of Catholic voters there, willing to support a President whose narcissism grinds, and whose values cannot easily align with the training he received in seminary. It is not easy to wonder if a life’s work has come to naught, and worse, be confined to quarantine where there is little that can be done about it.
I get the impression that our new “pandemic normal” is draining energy from a lot of people. Beyond the economic stress (especially difficult for low-wage workers) there has been plenty of worry over kids returning to school, elderly persons in care, and growing rates of mental health crises.
In this strange context of pandemic, climate chaos, faith community and economic paralysis, on October 4th Pope Francis decided to release an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. This 90-page reflection is not meant for easy or quick reading. In noting that the pandemic erupted as the document was being prepared, the pope bluntly starts by saying that, “Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.” (#7) Rather, Francis hopes that “we may prove capable of responding with a new vision of fraternity and social friendship that will not remain at the level of words.” (#6)
In 2013, at the beginning of his pontificate, I thought that its leitmotif would be the concept of “mercy.” With this third encyclical, I now read Francis’ motif as “fraternity.” He is anxious that people of faith initiate “social processes of fraternity and justice for all.” (#180)
In some ways, we read little here that is new. The document reads as a summation of those themes Francis has elucidated in the past: his revulsion with the “throwaway culture,” (#188) and his calls to move us from our “comfortable and globalized indifference”(#30). We are convinced once again of the rights of migrants, the bidding to build bridges rather than walls, the criticism of “magic theories” of unfettered markets (#168), that “hunger is criminal” (#189), our pressing need to respect Indigenous popular cultures (#220), and end the modern slavery of human trafficking (#188), war and capital punishment (#265-7).
But the most moving passages are found in Francis’ reflection on the parable of the Good Samaritan. We may be very familiar with the story, and recall other popes using this theme (like St. John Paul II in Veritatas Splendor, 1993.) But Francis ensures the parable comes newly alive on deeper levels when we realize “all of us have in ourselves something of the wounded man, something of the robber, something of the passers-by, and something of the Good Samaritan.” (#69)
This provides a worthy reflection for our Thanksgiving weekend, and beyond. In all the uncertainty of this pandemic moment, acknowledging the suffering of thousands of families who have suffered pain, injury and loss, and who may now be forced to spend this holiday alone, where do we find ourselves standing in the Good Samaritan story?
I need to remind my privileged self that the homeless poor, the unprotected migrant, the abused child and the exhausted frontline worker cannot enjoy the luxury of cynicism about the future, nor can they stop struggling to survive, even as the pandemic rages.
The most striking words I take from the entire encyclical are when the pope posits this sentence: “The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” My faith life gathers new depth, and I can truly give thanks, when I deepen my commitment to those we are sent to serve.
By Joe Gunn – Centre Oblat – A Voice for Justice