Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto.
Ever since COVID-19 entered our lives a few months ago, everyone I have spoken with has shared how uneasy this situation makes them feel. All of us feel uneasy when thinking of the uncertainty of illness and the fear of suffering and death.
This reality of our human condition is expressed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church at number 1,500, which states: “Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, [we] experience powerlessness, limitations and finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.”
That this illness gives us a glimpse of death, I think, is what makes many of us feel so uneasy about the current situation. It seems to me that this uneasiness we all feel in the face of uncertainty, sickness or the fear of death, can best be described by the word “dis-ease.”
In the face of this dis-ease, the question that many of us ask is, “Why?” Why does God allow us to suffer dis-ease and why does God do nothing to intervene during these situations?
St. Paul alludes to the answer in this Sunday’s second reading from his Letter to the Romans, writing: “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, so death spread to all people because all have sinned.”
Adam and Eve’s sin broke the relationship of communion that existed between God and humanity. Because of this, men and women began to experience dis-ease with their existence in the world.
To explain what I mean by this, I need to take us back to the Garden of Eden. In the Book of Genesis we see Adam and Eve living in communion with God. They fear nothing and are at peace with Him before sin entered the world. Some have even raised the question: would Adam and Eve have “died” if they had not sinned? St. Paul seems to suggest in today’s second reading that they would not have died.
What does this mean?
I think we need to look to Mary, the Mother of God, to understand. Most theologians believe that God did not create Adam and Eve to spend eternity in the Garden of Eden. They, like us, were created for Heaven. At some point, these theologians say, Adam and Eve would have passed from this world into Heaven. However, they point out that they would have entered Heaven without anxiety and fear. Their passing would have been more of a transition from this world to Heaven.
Because we are born with original sin, we do not have the same communion with God that was originally enjoyed by Adam and Eve. This means that our journey from this world to the next is not a smooth transition. We experience death as the termination of life in this world and with uncertainty about the world to come. Because of sin, it is not even certain that we will pass directly from this world to the next. We are confronted with the reality that God will honour the free choices of those who choose to exclude themselves from His kingdom. It is this uncertainty that is at the heart of our dis-ease.
If we wish to understand what God intended for us, we need to look to the example of Mary, the Mother of God. To save humanity, God created her without sin through the Immaculate Conception, so she might become the Mother of God. He did for her in advance what He hopes to do for each of us through baptism. Having been born without original sin, Mary lived her life in communion with God and is the one who brings Jesus into the world. Because she was born without original sin, and remained free of sin until the end, she passed directly from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven and was crowned as Queen of Heaven without having to await the judgement of the living and the dead that will come at the end of time.
God does for Mary what He had hoped to do for all of us from the beginning. God does for Mary what He will do for us if we accept the salvation that comes to us in Christ, His Son.
This is also what St. Paul told us when he wrote: “For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.” As Paul tells us, Jesus came to restore us to communion with God.
As a parish priest, there are two very powerful occasions when I witness that presence of God being in communion with His people.
One occasion of this presence is at communion during Mass. As people receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus comes to dwell in them through the power of the Holy Spirit. No matter what burdens, disease or suffering we might be bearing on our hearts, when we approach the Lord at communion, Jesus comes to be with us and to strengthen us so we can go back to live our lives in the world with Him. He is Emanuel, God with us.
The second powerful occasion of this presence that I see as a priest is during the last rites with a dying person. Here, when a Catholic partakes in their last Confession, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick, Christ comes to the side of that individual who is about to pass from this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. In the face of that individual’s uncertainty and fear, Jesus comes to her/his bedside and says, as He did to the repentant thief on the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”
This is what I think Jesus is speaking about in today’s Gospel when we hear Him say: “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both the soul and the body in hell.” If our faith is in Christ, we know from His words that “even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid, you are of more value than sparrows.” Even in the face of death, we can have faith in Christ’s words that “Everyone who acknowledges me before humans, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”
If Christ is with us, we can be confident that ultimately nothing that can prevail against us.
At this point, I think it is important to clarify. Jesus says: “Do not be afraid.” He does not say: “Abandon your common sense.”
Life is a gift. We need to use our common sense to preserve and protect that gift and the gift that is the life of others. Not being afraid does not mean I throw myself into oncoming traffic and think that God will protect me. We still need to protect ourselves and others from unnecessary risks. This is why Joseph and Mary fled from Herod after Jesus’ birth and took Him to the safety of Egypt for several years. They were using common sense. Just as in the face of COVID-19, we are to use our common sense to protect the gift of life.
Each one of us – regardless of race, colour, sex or land of origin – is made in the image and likeness of God. We are made for communion with God. Adam and Eve enjoyed this communion, until they turned their backs on God. Since then, the fate of humanity has been to live apart from God’s grace and to attempt to rely on our own willpower and efforts to save ourselves.
This leaves all of us feeling dis-ease in the face of illness, pain and situations that we cannot control. In the face of these situations, we experience our powerlessness, limitations and finitude. We come to know that this world is not our true home. This can fill us with dis-ease.
It is in these moments that we are invited to turn to the only one who can save us from the uncertainty of death and deliver us, through faith, to communion with the living God here and now. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the only true remedy to any dis-ease that we will ever experience. He is our salvation and He offers salvation to all who will take it. It is so simple, we need but accept Him as our savior and all our di-ease will be overcome. He is always true to His Word and His Word is that: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before humans, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven.”
May we all place our faith in Him and know His salvation.
On this Father’s Day weekend, I would like to wish all of the fathers of the parish, especially my own, a very happy Father’s Day. I will remember all fathers, and the deceased fathers of our parishioners, at all of our Masses this Sunday.
Happy Father’s Day!
This reflection is based upon the readings from this Sunday’s Mass—Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Jeremiah 20: 10-13; Romans 5: 12-15; and Matthew 10: 26-33.