Don’t waste this time – ‘Be converted!’

In the days since Pope Francis’ March 27 Urbi et Orbi, I keep going back to the images in my mind. Was it not haunting? Watching our very frail-looking pontiff walking alone through a dark, rainy, cold St. Peter’s Square just about ripped my heart out. It was the perfect metaphor for the entire world in the past several weeks. Dark. Quiet. Frightening.

I have been alone in my house for the better part of the past three weeks. My entire routine has been taken away. I am an extrovert who lives alone, so I have generally made it a point to be on the go. In my “normal” life, I drive around the city selling real estate. I work out at a studio. I attend daily Mass. I stop by to help my parents. I visit family. I plan special time with my nieces and nephews. I usually pick up the healthiest lunch I can find “on the go”, and I eat dinner out with friends more evenings than not.

Now I sit at home. I can’t eat out. I can’t go shopping. My gym is closed. My parents are on lockdown, and I haven’t seen them in three weeks. My only contact with the rest of the world is virtual — phone, text, Facetime. I’m a hugger who hasn’t had a hug in a really long time.

I’m not complaining, and I’m not making this all about me. It’s just that we’ve all lost our normal. No more sports. No more concerts. No more parties. No more social life, period, except the occasional Facetime happy hour. And, for many, no work, and thus no discretionary money to indulge in those habits even if they were available.

People keep asking why God is doing this to us.

I don’t know that God so much “does things” to us as he allows the natural consequences of a sinful, post-Fall world to play out.

But it occurs to me that maybe the Almighty is allowing us to be uncomfortable for a while, to remind us of what is really important.

Most of what has been taken from us isn’t bad. Sports and shopping and parties are all, in and of themselves, morally neutral activities. And the love of money may be the root of all evil, but none of us can go very far without having at least some of it.

But how many of those things have become gods in our lives? How many of them have taken time, and energy, and enthusiasm, that could be better re-channeled into our relationship and service to the real God?

We have all been forced to slow down — a lot — in these past few weeks. Many of us are having to structure our lives in a completely different way. And we’re finding it shakes up our assumptions about how we needed to live before.

As for me, I have discovered that the world doesn’t come crashing to a halt when I stay at home. I can even eat here.  I have saved money and lost weight — often while still sharing the meal with my friends via Facetime. And I am reminded that, when I am home alone, I am really not alone. God is here with me. And he likes it when I acknowledge him.

I don’t know why God is allowing this, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is active in it. I believe he wants us to be different coming out of this than we were going into it. He wants to give us this time to really examine our regular lives, from the outside, to see what we have been taking for granted, what we have made too important, and what needs to change.

To me, the heart of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi message was this: “This Lent your call reverberates urgently: ‘Be converted!’, ‘Return to me with all your heart.’” Stripped of so many of the distractions that take up our days, we have the opportunity to do what he is always calling us to do — to turn to him, to get to know him, to return to him with all our hearts instead of just the little slivers of our time and our hearts we generally allocate to him.

God loves each of us individually, so the impact and the changes are going to look different for each person. I would encourage you, then, to really make an effort to turn to him in this time. Turn off the Netflix, walk away from Facebook. Spend quiet time with him. Read Scripture. Read spiritual books.

And, most important, talk to him. Every day. Ask him what gifts he has for you in this time. What does he want you to see? To change? What specific aspects of your life does he want you to re-evaluate? Who is he calling you to become, on the other side of this pandemic?

It is my great prayer that everyone — myself included — comes out of this crisis closer to the God who love us. And with a better sense of the priorities he would have for our lives.

In the meantime, be safe.

COMING UP: Full transcript of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi blessing amid coronavirus pandemic

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Below is the full text of Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi blessing delivered on March 27, during which he prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.

“When evening had come” (Mk 4:35). The Gospel passage we have just heard begins like this. For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.

It is easy to recognize ourselves in this story. What is harder to understand is Jesus’ attitude. While his disciples are quite naturally alarmed and desperate, he stands in the stern, in the part of the boat that sinks first. And what does he do? In spite of the tempest, he sleeps on soundly, trusting in the Father; this is the only time in the Gospels we see Jesus sleeping. When he wakes up, after calming the wind and the waters, he turns to the disciples in a reproaching voice: “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (v. 40).

Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.

The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities. The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.

In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Lord, your word this evening strikes us and regards us, all of us. In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” Lord, you are calling to us, calling us to faith. Which is not so much believing that you exist, but coming to you and trusting in you. This Lent your call reverberates urgently: “Be converted!,” “Return to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others. We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves. In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we flounder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them. Like the disciples, we will experience that with him on board there will be no shipwreck. Because this is God’s strength: turning to the good everything that happens to us, even the bad things. He brings serenity into our storms, because with God life never dies.

The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side. The Lord asks us from his cross to rediscover the life that awaits us, to look towards those who look to us, to strengthen, recognize and foster the grace that lives within us. Let us not quench the wavering flame (cf. Is 42:3) that never falters, and let us allow hope to be rekindled.

Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity. By his cross we have been saved in order to embrace hope and let it strengthen and sustain all measures and all possible avenues for helping us protect ourselves and others. Embracing the Lord in order to embrace hope: that is the strength of faith, which frees us from fear and gives us hope.

“Why are you afraid? Have you no faith”? Dear brothers and sisters, from this place that tells of Peter’s rock-solid faith, I would like this evening to entrust all of you to the Lord, through the intercession of Mary, Health of the People and Star of the stormy Sea. From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace. Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies and comfort our hearts. You ask us not to be afraid. Yet our faith is weak and we are fearful. But you, Lord, will not leave us at the mercy of the storm. Tell us again: “Do not be afraid” (Mt 28:5). And we, together with Peter, “cast all our anxieties onto you, for you care about us” (cf. 1 Pet 5:7).

Featured image: Vatican Media