by Rod Minns
Travelling through time with Covid-19 has been a wild ride on a river of beautiful as well as dangerous rapids. We’ve had some fun with idiotic conspiracy theories, probed the incomprehensibility of the bishops’ total embrace of government restrictions, been grateful for wonderful online experiences of the Lord’s Presence, and spanned the infinite array of opinions everywhere, including mine in Week To Week With The Bishops’ Decision, updated May 29.
But there’s one view of COVID-19 that hasn’t received much attention: God, our Father is chastising or disciplining us.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: “Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? (Heb 12:7).
God’s love for us is often shown as “fatherly”. I like the Jerusalem Bible translation. “Has there ever been any son whose father did not train him.”
I remember my Dad’s training and my coaches’ training. Then I remember Heb 12: 11: “Of course, any discipline is at the time a matter of grief, not joy; but later, in those who have undergone it, it bears fruit in peace and uprightness.”
So why are we, especially the Church, reluctant to see COVID-19 as our Father’s way of bringing us closer to Himself through discipline or chastisement? Sometimes a child will only learn when you take away his cookie.
Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t feel embraced, understood, and cuddled by God, especially on the way to the confessional, and sadly even after absolution. So anyone who suggests we’re going through a chastisement doesn’t immediately leap with joy as Hebrews tells us.
How about Jesus in the garden asking His Father, our Father, to spare him from crucifixion. That’s consoling and inspiring because we’re the same. Unlike us, though, He surrendered to the Father’s will. Consider also what we heard on Good Friday during the Pandemic: “But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed.” (Is. 53:5)
Through sorrow and trial all the while clinging to Christ we experience a joy that surpasses understanding.
How often in the Church’s life and time have we heard the call to unite our sufferings with Christ? That is, taking on a little of the “punishment that makes us whole”.
The writer of Hebrews placed this line immediately before his words on fatherly discipline:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. (Heb 12:4) Perhaps Covid-19 has been provided as a means of increasing our efforts to battle sin through a humble and freeing awareness of it. The supreme love of our Lord’s yes to death on a cross freed us from sin and gave us what we have celebrated all Easter, His Resurrection, and finally today, Pentecost.
I haven’t come across this theme of the Father disciplining us through the pandemic in Catholic media or in digital homilies. However, Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins has often reflected on this passing world and the brevity of life in connection to the pandemic.
In his Easter Vigil homily, when he told us the Eucharist is our closest encounter with the Lord until we meet him face to face “…from the moment of our death whenever that may be…” he paused a bit adding “and we’re called to think seriously about that these days and I hope it smartens us all up…” That’s getting close to saying the Lord is disciplining us through a virus, to bring forth an awareness of what truly gives life.
The Milan Plaque
The great Cardinal Archbishop of Milan St Charles Borromeo had to deal with the plague of 1576. In his Memorial, he writes: “City of Milan, your greatness reached the heavens; your wealth extended to the confines of the universe world… Then, all of sudden, from Heaven comes the pestilence which is the Hand of God, and, all of a sudden, your pride was crushed” (Memoriale al suo diletto popolo della città e diocesi di Milano, Michele Tini, Roma 1579, pp. 28-29).
The Saint carved his words from a deeply prayerful heart where God’s mercy thrived. While he saw the plaque as God’s chastisement for the sins of the people he knew and preached that chastisement is a synonym for the Father’s great Mercy: “He wounded and healed; He scourged and cured; He placed his hand on the rod of chastisement and offered the staff of support” (Memoriale, p. 81).
Lily Of Quito
Another great story on the theme of sacrifice and mercy comes from the life of the Lily of Quito, St Mariana of Jesus. She was born in Quito, Ecuador in 1618. When Mariana was twelve she became a recluse in her aunt’s house guided by her confessor, a Jesuit priest. She ate very little, slept three hours a night and spent much time in prayer.
In 1645, Quito experienced earthquakes and epidemics of measles and diphtheria. Finally, the volcano of Pichincha erupted after being dormant for over 80 years.
During Lent Mariana’s confessor, Father Alonso de Rojas declared from the pulpit of St Mariana’s parish church that all of the disasters were the result of sin and a call of God to the people to repent. He offered himself to God as a victim and asked that he might die to save others.
Mariana was present for this sermon. She rose and boldly said that she would take the place of Fr Rojas as a victim for the sins of the people. She asked Our Lord to accept her offer, “in defence of her country, her compatriots and her kindred… that she might be chastised for everything in the city which deserved chastisement.”
As the earthquakes and epidemics subsided Mariana became seriously ill for two months. On May 26, 1645, Ascension Thursday, she died and entered the Father’s eternal home.
Sometimes the Lord reaches into our lives and surrounds us in the midst of tragedy. It’s not a good idea to reject the notion of chastisement, discipline, or the need for repentance and conversion in the midst of catastrophe because Divine chastisement comes with the soothing hand of Mercy.
We enter a season of repentance every Ash Wednesday which happened to coincide this year with Covid-19’s world tour. No coincidence there.
Priests everywhere, celebrating Mass, called us to repentance and conversion through prayer and solitude directed toward God during this pandemic. Their voice seemed at times to be washed away by a faith-deprived contemporary media, fixated on staying safe, but the Lord in His complete authority over sin and evil has been using Covid-19 to draw us closer to himself.
Our World In Data didn’t have the numbers experiencing conversions and transformations during the pandemic, but I’m confident in Christ’s ability to draw people to himself. He’s the Master.
For our journey beyond Pentecost Sunday, 2020, Catherine Doherty feeds us richly from Soul Of My Soul:
“Prayer is twofold. Not only does God give us the grace to believe and ask for help, but He also draws us to Himself more surely than anything we can imagine. Our prayer and the desire for God come together in a brief moment of union, which only whets our desire for more. It is an insatiable taste of that which we seek–union with God. It will give us the courage to say yes to the next devastating situation that comes along.”