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Faith in a time of crisis

Opinion

The spread of the COVID-19 virus has created a situation of crisis in Australia and around the globe. Many countries are suffering from an exponential rate of infection with extraordinarily high numbers of deaths, affecting especially the sick and the frail elderly. This is a public health emergency of a scale we have not previously known. It is also an event of great personal tragedy for the gravely ill and their families, and for the bereaved.

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We live through these days in Australia with an increasing number of cases, while working hard to contain the virus’s impact. There is a shared sense of vulnerability in the community, and one of fear.

Every citizen is faced with the question of how she or he can best live through this profoundly challenging time. For people of faith, the question is: what does God call us to? The crisis itself can challenge our faith. We might easily ask how a good God can allow suffering and death on such a massive scale? When struggling with this troubling question, it is important to keep in mind that Christians know God as Creator of all that is. That is, God transcends all things and is their source and ultimate fulfilment; God is not an object or an element within the created world. So, God does not send viruses; they are a dimension of the biological limitations of our created world.

For Christians, the surest understanding of who God is and how God acts in the world is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ healings, his parables, and his meals with outcasts show us that the character of God is one of radical love and boundless compassion. It is a love that is personal and interpersonal, giving priority to the poor, the sick, the lost, and the hurt. In particular, Jesus’ commitment to love even when threatened with suffering and death shows us that God enters into and embraces the suffering of a suffering world. God is in solidarity with us; God shares our sense of vulnerability. Pope Francis constantly reminds us that “God’s mercy is infinite; God will never tire of being merciful” (The Joy of the Gospel, #3).

What, then, does God call us to in this challenging time? Christians have long summarised the practice of Christian life in the three “theological virtues”—faith, hope, and love. They’re called theological virtues because through them, we participate in the life of God. First, our faith—that is, our ongoing encounter with the God whom Jesus reveals—orients us in a stream of divine love that transforms us over the journey and becomes our deepest identity. So, prayer is essential: it is a time of listening, of reflecting on God’s word in the scriptures and allowing God to speak. The cancellation of Sunday Eucharist is a great loss to many Catholics. In the meantime, the diocese and some parishes have provided prayer and liturgical resources on their websites. Second, Christian hope is not a theory about the future, nor a vague wishing, nor is it merely optimism; it is the practice of being led into the future. Hope is our openness to God’s presence transforming all of creation, ultimately into a new heaven and a new earth. So patience might be a necessary expression of our hope during this time. The second reading at Mass a few weeks ago reminded us of that: “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

And third, the theological virtue of love. When we love, we act so that others and ourselves might flourish, whether that “other” be a spouse, our children, a friend, wider family, the Earth, or the community itself. Christians see our actions for the flourishing of others catching us up into God’s life. Only through God’s gift are we able to love, and the ultimate goal of our love is God in God’s self. One of the most important theologians of the twentieth century, German Jesuit Karl Rahner, puts the connection between love of one another and love of God most strikingly. He says that our embodied, social nature as human beings means that the explicit love of our neighbour is our primary act of the love of God. We experience the love of God primarily through loving one another.

So, the Christian virtue of love will be central to our living through this crisis. If the whole community is to flourish, we will need to practice social distancing seriously, and to observe the hygiene practices mandated by the Chief Medical Office and the Prime Minister. We will need to care for the elderly, the sick, and those who are isolated, perhaps through phone conversations or Skype-like technologies, or perhaps through doing their shopping. Watching out for one another will need to take new forms in this time. Each of these acts of love catch us up into the mercy of God and make our lives part of that story of divine mercy.

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