by Tom Drury
During this time of pandemic, it is fair to say that human beings across the globe are undergoing a rather singular experience of suffering. As Catholic Christians, our belief is that God in Jesus Christ has drawn irrevocably near to human beings. In theological terms, this belief is commonly referred to as Incarnation, and this holy mystery is fittingly celebrated at Christmas. It was indeed around the time of this past Christmas that COVID-19 was initially reported in our world. And now we find ourselves in the thick of summer – in the thick of unimaginable sickness, death and devastation, on levels both physical and emotional, both social and economic.
As somebody who aspires to be a Christian, and having been given the privilege of studying theology at length, I would like to share a few reflections in terms of how I’ve been thinking about our ongoing circumstances. We recently celebrated the feast of Thomas the Apostle. Hence, it probably won’t surprise you that I tend to spend extra time reflecting on this day each and every year! This year though, during this time of pandemic, the words of St. Thomas are especially paradoxical: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). St. Thomas, the “doubter” as he’s usually nicknamed, is undoubtedly struggling. He wants to believe in God, in God’s saving power in Jesus, yet faith alone doesn’t seem to suffice.
Salvation is a gift of faith
Is this an unreasonable position? On the one hand, it would appear so. Salvation is, by definition, a gift of faith and nothing else. That is to say, it is freely given by God and thus must be freely received by humans. Salvation comes about by grace; it is not the “result” of some-thing. In fact, as the Second Vatican Council and recent popes have greatly underscored, salvation is God Himself. We might furthermore state, it is the experience of God in our lives that is salvation. So our doubting apostle may actually be acting quite reasonably in the Gospel. Jesus as God incarnate is the necessary basis and guarantee for any Christian’s belief, for the earliest apostles and for us. A living and saving faith in Jesus likewise compels, even demands, experience, real relationship, a true being-in-contact with Jesus.
As recent events have demonstrated, the implications of this dogmatic principle are undeniable for Christians, and perhaps especially Catholics. Because of the public health precautions required in the process of combatting the pandemic, the Church has been impacted at its core. With renewed attendance at the Liturgy of the Eucharist being made possible within just the past few weeks after months of lockdown, Catholics find themselves needing to engage in soul-searching about the very nature and purpose of discipleship in today’s world. Among several questions we could ask is this, pointedly: how and why is the Church necessary? Nor is this simply a question of particular sacraments, not even as concerns the reception of Holy Communion.
The Church as the supreme Sacrament of Salvation
The Church itself is the supreme Sacrament of Salvation (Vatican II). Solemnly identifying itself as the Body of Christ (Vatican II), the Church in today’s world, its credibility and thus its mission to continue to evangelize, are at stake. God has not ceased being God. Catholics believe that God is unceasingly at work in the world today, in the power of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus lives today in the power of God the Holy Spirit, which is the gift of both the Father and the Son to human beings, until the Kingdom is definitively fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven. As the great theologian Karl Rahner expresses it, it is precisely
“[W]hen the Christian understands the church as the historical concreteness of the presence of God… she experiences the church as the place for the love of both God and neighbor. Both “loves” are experienced in human life when they are taken seriously as a given, as something which a person cannot simply produce himself.”
The Church, as an indispensable meeting place of hope
It is my conviction that this time of pandemic stands as just such an opportunity, for not only individual Christians, yet the Christian church in its integrity as Christ’s (sacramental) body, living and true, to renew it decisive and indispensable commitment in and for the world. It is fundamentally a commitment, as Rahner articulates, to make possible love of God, that ultimate calling which is not possible without love of neighbor. It is Divine Love that must be experienced and taken seriously in the fragile and often heart-breaking human present of today, in our own families and in our own parish, which is our most immediate family as Christians.
During this time of pandemic, while acting prudently and diligently, Christians are rightly justified toward leaning into the structures of our churches all the more deeply, disavowing any disembodied ideal or preference for strictly “virtual” solutions to our society’s present need for healing and rebuilding. This is our belief as Catholics, and both faith and reason, theological and otherwise, supply ample warrant for it. Kathleen McMannus, another brilliant theologian, provides the following insight that
“Suffering enables us to imagine what we are hoping for. The fullness of life for which we long—salvation—comes to awareness in counterpoint with the concrete reality of suffering… We just know that we must work for something different.”
A vision of church like that described above, a vision of church as God’s indispensable meeting place of hope, akin to the “field hospital” of described by Pope Francis and inspired by the Spirit of God, is imaginable. And it is perhaps especially so in times like these. No doubt, it is very much needed by people in every corner of the globe, where the suffering of pandemic has taken hold. God is with us. May we make good on the surpassing grace entrusted to us in our life-in-Christ and work alongside the Lord by turning renewed hope into renewed lives, body and soul.
Tom Drury teaches Religious Studies in the Middle Year Program of St. Ann Catholic School, West Palm Beach, Florida.
Featured Image Compliments of Gustavo Fring, PEXELS