Every time in history has its trials, but the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is one that stands apart because its impact has been so widespread. I have been asked to reflect on having hope during this time of suffering, especially the hope that comes from our Catholic faith.
You may be aware that the Blessed Virgin Mary is often represented by the moon, since she has no light of her own but reflects the light of Jesus, just as the moon reflects the sun’s light. As we gather to celebrate the Lunar New Year and look with hope to the coming year, we should also look at Mary’s example of faith and hope in God for how we should approach the pandemic and 2022.
The Blessed Mother’s life is filled with times when she showed us that faith nourishes hope amid difficulty. As young woman, Mary was betrothed to Joseph and visited by the Archangel Gabriel and asked if she would carry and give birth to the Son of God. She was told that she had to travel to Bethlehem for a census when she was expecting to give birth any day. And when she did deliver Jesus, it was not in a house but in a stable for animals. And yet, she treasured these things in her heart and pondered them, rather than complaining or doubting.
Shortly after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had to flee in the night to the safety of Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath at his rule being threatened by Jesus. We know that the story didn’t end there for Mary. Surely there were other moments of trial as she raised Jesus, and of course, the greatest moment of trial was her standing at the foot of the Cross. These moments tested her faith, hope and charity.
Perhaps no other story of Our Lady is more appreciated among Vietnamese Catholics than her appearance to those who sought refuge in the jungle of La Vang from the fierce persecution of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh in 1798. We know that thousands of Vietnamese Catholics gave their lives for the faith in those years, and it is after them that your parish is named. As the refugees hid in the jungle of La Vang, the also suffered from illnesses, but every night they gathered to pray the Rosary. It was to these poor, faithful people that Mary appeared with her son, comforted them and instructed them.
Mary shows us the way to hope begins with faith in Jesus and reliance on him for strength and grace. This is essential for us to understand not just for navigating COVID-19, but even more importantly, for living as Catholics in a rapidly changing culture.
Pope Francis has called the time we are living through “not just an age of change but a change of eras.” Indeed, we are quickly moving into an era that is seeing societies cast aside Christianity and believing that they can build a utopia themselves. We are witnessing the spread of ideas that sort people into categories of those who are victims and those who are oppressors, and it is very often Christians and our beliefs that are viewed as oppressive.
But this is not the way to life, it is the way to division and misery. Only Jesus Christ can free us from the shackles of sin and help us see and love each other as brothers and sisters. Mary shows us that the way to happiness and freedom from sin is to seek Jesus and grow in intimate friendship with him. Only he, through the Holy Spirit, can lead us to the Father, and only he can unite a broken humanity. Unlike the new secular religion of “wokeness,” Jesus Christ offers us the chance to repent and be healed; he does not condemn and humiliate. In him, every person can find healing, purpose and true community.
Like the numerous times in Vietnam’s history, the Church is being persecuted and we can expect that to continue. Jesus declared this fact to his disciples as he approached his own Passion and death: “Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:32-33)
We are not alone. We have our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Communion of Saints and the grace of God in our hearts. As we embark on a new year, let us look to Our Lady of La Vang for her motherly protection and ask her to pray that we can grow in faith, hope and charity, so that we can be luminous examples of disciples of Jesus in a world desperately searching for hope.