Msgr Charles Pope pulls the fear card in his latest NCReg essay here. I read a link posted by a social media friend. From his intro:
My pastoral concern is that we as a nation and as a Church have succumbed to excessive fear, which bespeaks a spiritual problem.
So, my question: is it really fear? And if it is, of what are we afraid?
One of the signs of fear is the fight or flight response. Fearful people don’t just lock the doors and turn off the lights. They go into a bunker, imagined or real. They bring out the firepower and the finger is on the trigger. Sometimes they operate under the cover of night and darkness and poke at adversaries from anonymity, camouflaged to blend in with the surroundings. Like a flounder, except predatory.
Growing up, one of my sister’s favorite rejoinders was, “It takes one to know one!” And maybe that bit of childhood rings true in some situations.
Let’s get into our time machine and travel back just one year. Crowds gathered freely; airports were hives of activity; planes were packed with travelers and concert halls were packed with eager listeners. Restaurants were full of diners and churches with the faithful.
It would be one thing if these group activities were all for some common good. And many were. But is the overseas and cross-continental travel of the privileged always a sign of health? And about those concertgoers, was Las Vegas on a few people’s minds? Apparently, we were not afraid to sacrifice country music fans or school children to the god of the gun after or before those inevitable incidents. And those happy diners? Every so often, someone would grumble about their bill and stiff the wait staff working at sub-minimum wage.
“But Father! This is a very different virus. It’s extremely potent. We have to do this!” Again, I am neither a doctor nor a scientist. But I am a priest, and as such I think we must count the other costs.
There are, of course, other costs. This touches on the meaning of sacrifice. Many human beings, even saints, struggle with it. We will even criticize the Messiah, the Son of God to avoid it:
Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” (Mt 16:22)
Let me offer some personal testimony. Msgr Pope is not a parent of children. He has only ever functioned in a family as a child of parents. He has never had a familial responsibility in a domestic church, only a parish. It’s a different sort of responsibility, and no less of one. But another perspective might help us look beyond fear.
Responsible concern for loved ones is birthed from prudence, a virtue. It’s an important value, and a difficult one for many of us. So, when my daughter was furloughed from her job, I was more relieved than fearful about the state of the thrift store economy. When she returned to work last month, I did not stamp my foot down in fear and say, “No way!” I said an extra prayer, thinking of her. There is an important distinction between concern, and even occasional worry, and outright fear. Parents understand that. Children grow into it.
The good monsignor complains about news coverage, but the conservatives and the 1% are also making their case. Like Msgr. Pope, I also read and view outlets with which I disagree. So I’ve witnessed pressure to get back to the pre-pandemic times, the good (like attending Mass) and the indulgent (flying, cruising, and other life in the fast lane).
As a priest, and a leader, it is incumbent on Msgr Pope to find new ways forward. This is really true for any serious Christian. Faith suggests our opportunities have not disappeared. Only shifted. They were going to have to be shifted anyway. Before the virus, more than ninety percent of US parishes were shrinking. Immigrants, both parishioners and ordained priests, prop up the numbers somewhat. But eventually, the world immigrants will be among the most desired of people in the family of nations. Many schools struggled, and were balanced on a thin edge of viability. For many institutions, that balance will be lost. Perhaps some fear is how vulnerable many of our assumptions and life’s trappings really are. Things will be exposed. We might not be ready.
New ways, I don’t pretend to see them all. But I trust they are out there. The important thing now is to get out and find them. Or at the very least, get out of the way for those who are motivated to do so. It is a nice thought to be able to enter a time machine and go back. Thing is, time and the Reign of God do not work that way. The only way out is forward. And that will likely entail difficult things, like sacrifices. It can also be productive, like less name-calling on things one does not understand.