The question posed by COVID-19

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On Ash Wednesday, I attended the St. Francis de Sales School Mass in Spooner. Our pastor, Fr. Phil Juza, asked the students to answer a question – if Advent is a time of preparation for Christmas, what is Lent a time of preparation for?

It’s a good thing I didn’t raise my hand because the answer that popped into my head was wrong, although it was indicative of more than my attitude towards Lent.

It didn’t take long for the students to land on Easter as the correct answer, but for the rest of Mass I was reflecting on why Good Friday was my instantaneous answer. And the even bigger question was – did that answer surface in mind, or did it speak of what was in my heart?

Teeter-tottering to unravel my love-hate relationship with “the cross,” the coronavirus stormed onto the stage of my Lenten drama.

Just like that, Lent “got real” for all of us. With an ever-extending end-date for social distancing guidelines, it feels like Easter might get swallowed up altogether by this storm of uncertainty.

No one has been spared from some form of devastating change of plans, family relationship dynamics or the visible shattering of daily routine by this seemingly invisible force.

For those with school-age children, a large majority are trying to juggle multiple new demands on their time, technological and mental resources. For those beyond child-raising years and in retirement, the separation from grandchildren, social circles and community involvement is leaving their mental and emotional health vulnerable.

For the immune-compromised and aging persons we are most trying to protect from COVID-19, at what point do our protective measures take a longer-lasting toll on their well-being?

In our corner of the world, we will likely not experience the levels of logistical compression or crushing frontline losses urban epicenters have been dealt. Even without crossing a county line, we have more open space than those in other countries can imagine or remember as they manage with a balcony’s worth of exposure to the outdoors.

The immediate availability of eggs and bread has been an adjustment, but many of us have second fridges and freezers. How many around the world have mere days’ capacity refrigerators? Having enough toilet paper may not even make their top-10 worries.

Although toilet paper hasn’t been in my family’s top 10, either. With a bin full of old rags in the garage and an abundance of newspaper, my husband’s biggest fear is plugging the septic pipes.

Canceling holiday travel plans and family get-togethers has been disappointing. Dealing with a little too much together-time with my four children has been exhausting. However, we have reconnected with immediate family via video calls – things we haven’t done in months because we can’t find the time in our busy routine. We have been honing our adaptability to each other’s need for space and flexing new muscles of teamwork and perspective.

Nonetheless, it has felt like an unnerving roller coaster with stomach-churning turns.

At the same time, it has been so much more than a magnanimous response of resolve.

What I have seen in and around the diocese has been nothing short of incredible initiative and persistence, wrapped in a protective shield of sacramental hope and divine grace. We live in strong small communities that know how to rely on each other, even when we have to do so six feet apart and mostly through pixelated screens.

We are blessed with a shepherd bishop and pastoring priests who have tirelessly sought ways to reassure us that Jesus Christ – body, blood, soul and divinity – is still very much present among us, still able to spiritually confer the grace of communion with him even during this sacramental drought.

Often, the most terrorizing seconds on a roller coaster are the upward clickety-clacks, slowing as the peak approaches. Some people love the adrenaline rush of barreling downward. I am not one of them.

That said, I have survived roller coasters. I have made it through white-knuckled and heart-jolting twists and turns, both on two tracks and my own two feet; sometimes through my own choices, but more often than not through circumstances completely outside my control.

From what I have seen so far – in our local, diocesan and universal Church as well as our faith-filled families and supportive communities – we are not only surviving, we are thriving amidst this pandemic.

Not negating by any means the real crisis on hospitals and the war-time demands of time and resources faced by doctors, nurses and medical staff around the country (and much worse in other parts of the globe), but there are also the daily reports of individuals and companies putting themselves at the service of combating this virus and putting all hands on deck for those caring for our sick and dying, from those sewing needed face masks for local clinics to engineering students inventing and auto-makers innovating seat-cooling fans to be used as personal protective equipment.

The turning point for me – the one that has kept me feeling securely fastened and eyes wide open on this roller coaster – was a radio commentary by Al Kresta of Michigan’s Ave Maria Radio.

He acknowledged the adjustments being made globally to address the pandemic, but mentioned that “perfect love casts out fear.” Without pause, he added that fear can also cast out love.

“We know we are not called to live in fear. We are called to live boldly, but prudently,” he concluded.

Ironically the first Sunday we had to go without communal participation in Mass was Lent’s Fourth Sunday, the Laetare or “Rejoice” Sunday.

As my family gathered around the television watching Bishop Barron’s livestreamed Mass, I was distracted by my mental image of the U.S. map of the coronavirus’ geographic impact; except it wasn’t light red dots and overlapping darker red circles.

What I saw was our little part of the world – the Diocese of Superior in northwest Wisconsin, identifiable even from space under Lake Superior’s coastline – with circles of light. Bright lights pulsing and emanating outwards, not from our church buildings, but from activated and ignited domestic churches.

Luminous and radiant Catholic believers and families, united in desire for our Lord, communing in shared and other-centered sacrifice, hungering for the Eucharist like we have never before.

It doesn’t look like these unique Lenten sacrifices will end with Easter, but we will still be given the grace to share in Christ’s resurrection, to accept the redemption of mankind won for us by Christ on the cross and to allow our wounds to be shot through with divine and glorious light.

If we can maintain human goodwill and earnest resilience, cooperate with spirit-filled senses of boldness, prudence and surrender, we will pass this test. We will move forward accompanied by loss and grief, many lessons learned the hard way, but it is my hope and prayer that, even today, we can answer the multiple choice question presented by COVID-19 without hesitation.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic crisis: a. a teeter-totter between life and death, faith and despair; b. a roller coaster of emotions, uncertainty and unintended consequences; c. a launchpad for ingenuity, community resilience and family renewal; or d. all of the above?

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