Archives for category: Pope Francis

Fr. Santo, chaplain of a hospital in Bologna, witnesses a great desire for God among the sick, doctors, and nurses during the Covid emergency.

Fr. Santo Merlini

My name is Fr. Santo Merlini, I belong to the Fraternity of Saint Charles and since 2013 I’ve been the chaplain of Sant’Orsola Hospital. The situation of the pandemic has called me to a new step and a new beginning, in the span of a few days the hospital has assumed a new face and I wasn’t able to do my work in the same way I could before, in front of many people sick and alone, in front of so many that die without their loved ones. Different wards of the hospital had to equip themselves in order to confront a situation for which they weren’t prepared, so that the surgical, ENT, emergency, and other departments transformed into COVID wards, having to rethink the entire department. Then in the span of a few days they put in place exceptional intensive therapy to respond to the growing need.

Little by little, even without knowing these departments being that I worked prevalently for the pediatric and OB wards, I searched for ways to enter in, pushed by our Bishop whom I thank for sustaining and encouraging me. I speak with him almost every evening and he is very concerned for the many patients who are alone, he pushes me to not stop in front of the difficulties that I encounter.

I began to visit the COVID intensive therapy patients and I was immediately struck by the doctors’ and nurses’ desire to take a short break to say a prayer. At my invitation to pray the personnel stopped, making the sign of the cross to pray with me. Finding almost all of the patients in a sedated state I blessed them and I pronounced the formula for extreme absolution. Then little by little I am getting to know some of the head nurses in order to organize my time and activity in the department. I began to enter into some COVID wards, only some, but it’s an important start while sometimes I receive calls from other wards from people who desire to receive the comfort of the sacraments.

Entering into the COVID ward is very tiring, you need to undergo to many laborious procedures of dressing and undressing, often even more than once in the same ward to go from one room to another. When you have all of those clothes on you sweat a lot and the two masks that you have to wear make it difficult to breath. It’s a struggle that I share with the doctors, nurses and social workers that have to wear those clothes for many more hours than I do. But I was struck by the desire for God that I found in the people that I visited. Almost all of them desired to say a prayer with me, the many elderly but also the younger patients, that are much more that we would expect. It’s not true that the virus only affects the elderly.

Sometimes we think that there’s no more faith, that no one desires to pray anymore. I hear it said often even by people of the Church. In these past few weeks I’ve seen that there’s a great desire for God, a desire that emerges strongly in the fragile condition of an illness that forces you to be alone for many days and surrounded only by suits and masks that make those around you unrecognizable. I was struck by the witness of one patient’s suffering – an over-eighty-year-old that lost her husband, him as well for the coronavirus, with which she had been together since they were 16. They spent an entire life together but at the moment of their separation they found themselves alone, in two different wards. While the other day a sick woman continued to ask me “God didn’t forget me, right?” I was there to tell her and the other patients that God hadn’t forgotten them, that in fact through their suffering they are closer to Him.

To make myself recognizable I draw with a marker or tape a cross on my scrubs and in this way people recognize me as a priest. Some patients, upon seeing me, have said “Finally!” I administer the collective absolution to the eldest or most critical patients, inviting them to confess themselves as soon as possible.

This work is asking me to sacrifice from a personal standpoint as well, the first of which consists in having gone to live by myself, depriving me of the companionship of my brothers Fr. Peppino and Fr. Marco. The fact that I’m doing this work for obedience, not for a desire to be heroic, comforts me. It wasn’t my idea to enter into the hospitals, and a year ago I would’ve never thought to find myself in a real and true battlefield, in which I have to defend myself from the attack of the mortal enemy: the virus. I feel myself one who simply responds to his obligation. I find, however, a great support in the presence of some doctor and nurse friends, with whom I share different moments of my day and especially a moment of prayer together every day. We are careful to respect the distances as the rules say: a distance, though, that is eliminated by the decisiveness of our prayer. Their presence reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not the only one risking my skin to bring a little bit of comfort to the sick. There are the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, but also all of the cleaning and maintenance staff that heroically risk getting sick in order to put their lives in service of the sick.

Downing Street London

So the Lockdown continues and there’s a few lessons I’m learning; Lockdown Lesson #1.

The lessons are less about immediate survival, though that is one benefit. They are about refining my approach to llfe so I’m prepared once the Lockdown is eased. Lockdown is an opportunity both to take stock and take action over how I choose to live my future. I don’t need to replicate my past; I have a golden opportunity to change the way I live for the better.

Lesson #1 was triggered by an article published on the app Medium. It was a biographical reflection from someone who, as part of the university programme, opted to sign up for a season in a buddist temple. It was a momentary decision, and didn’t arise from a longing for silent contemplation. In brief they left early, driven mad to distraction through their dislocation from their life experience.

However, reflecting on Lockdown, they wrote;

‘Although I am living at home with my mom, being with my own thoughts this closely, for this many days, can be excruciatingly uncomfortable. In some moments of antsiness and boredom and low self-esteem, I would rather do anything other than sit here. I want to grab for things I am convinced can make the loneliness better ― productivity which leads to validation from others, busyness which keeps me moving just fast enough so I don’t have to acknowledge that I feel sad, scheduling back-to-back virtual hangouts so I can quell the small voice inside that tells me that people don’t like me.’

A list of distractions which alone can only create stress if forming the bedrock of daily living. They recalled the fact that on entering the buddist temple they had to surrender their mobile phone. This experience was like having a limb amputated. It struck a chord. How often do I reach for my mobile phone and idly flick throung news stories I’m not that interested in or endless Facebook newsfeeds for no apparent reason?

mayhem and madness

More troubling is that I do this whilst already distacted by some Netflix offering that fails to hold my attention.

This spoke to me. My mind is restless and demands constant stimulation. Yet, my active mind is never the space in which I shall find peace, tranquility or self realisation. It is always demanding I feed its restless energy, and in fact is driving me rather than actng as a valuable part of my persona. My brain thinks therefore I do; the tail very much wags the dog!

Silence, or wakefulness and watchfulness as I prefer to describe it, is not the ability to control the mind, but the refusal to follow where it chooses to lead. I start my day with 30 minites silence ahead of morning prayer,. I know my mind will seek to hijack and sabotage such minutes of pure watchfulness, but all I say is do your thing and I’ll remain present whilst disinterested in any thoughts you want to distract me with.

Like a spoilt child, my mind hates to be ignored. So it takes discipline and learning to leave it to its own devices, whilst I quietly contemplate the Divine, aware of the traffic noise my mind generates yet no longer engaged and thus distracted by it. This is the great learning that comes from entering the silent land.

So, Lockdown lesson #1; take your mobile phone, press the off switch and give it a rest. Whilst a useful device for certain purposes, like the brain, it soon demands my complete servitude. I live to please its every interruption and command. Yet, my will is neither fuelled by my brain nor my mobile devices. My will is the expression of my preferences. I determine the life and landscape I occupy.

Of course as a contemplative my phone seldom rings; few people feel the need for the services of a contemplative today. Besides which, poorly managed interruptions really defeat the very essence of the contemplative life. Separation is an essential part of my reality.

But I feel for all of us the rediscovery of the on/off switch for our mobile devices might be the quickest route to rediscover how best we might manage the restlessness that directs our lives. As we resume life beyond Lockdown this may give us a fighting chance to resist the temptation to subcontract our self-esteem and validation to external forces that both drive and rob us of the essential qualities that make us each unique.

The key is to move from being a victim of thoughts (the commenting, chattering mind) to being their witness (the heart’s stillness) . . . What we have observed of fear can be observed of practically any struggle with afflictive thoughts and feelings. We must move from being a victim of these thoughts to being their witness. Typically we spend many, many years being their victim. We are imprisoned by the chattering mind. Gradually we learn to distinguish the simple thought or emotion from the chatter and we discover an inner stability that grows into the silence of God.
Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation

 

 

Receiving mercy lies beyond my capababilities. It is always initiated by another. I am subject to their determination. Where justice is quite literally to receive my just deserts, mercy is an act of compassionate forgiveness in place of just punishment. Usually born of love, mercy has the capacity to change my perspective about myself, the world and ‘the other’, who extends mercy to me.

In a world that prefers to celebrate a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude to life, mercy can appear a weak and unhelpful intervention. It is often represented as a failure to punish misbehaviour appropriately. It never seeks to look beyond the act of misbehaviour to the reasons that gave rise to it.

The essence and power of mercy is illustrated in the oft quoted parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ encouragement to all of us is that the human response is to follow the example of this Samaritan. Perhaps, as the world struggles to address this global pandemic, it’s a time to remind ourselves that we are global citizens. This was something we were reminded about in the, ‘One World: Together At Home concert‘ last night.

Not to confuse matters, but as disciples of Jesus we are truly global citizens, for our citizenship, as St. Paul reminds us, is in heaven, and so the world is our stage. St. Paul also explains that material, sexual and ethnic distinctives are subsumed through are being joined to the resurrected Christ and thereby drawn into the company of heaven. This is often not our experience as our feet and fears remain rooted within our localised space; our experienced reality.

Within the Roman Catholic church, today is ‘Divine Mercy Sunday‘. A relatively recent addition to the church’s calender and one born of the revelations to a Polish nun, Saint Faustina. She had a short but impactful life, dying aged 33 in 1938. You may have natural suspicions over

Faustina Kowalska

revelations, yet I like this whole story for it is diarised conversations with Jesus and talked through with a spiritual director at the time. The whole account available on the public record.

The nub of the revelations is that Jesus is merciful and desires that we actively and practically consider those both known and unknown to us and bring them to God in prayer. This is so that they might enjoy God’s mercy; For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. I like both the simplicity and the inclusiveness of this prayer.

It has proved really helpful to Jayne and me here in the Oratory. This is a home of prayer, whose routines are ordered around our daily rhythm of prayer. For quite some time I was struggling with how to respond to God’s request that we carry the world at the heart of our Oratory life. This discovery opened the way. Now I say the Chaplet of divine mercy every day in my attempt to ‘Go and do likewise’, as Jesus directed.

Prayer softens the heart, breaks the stranglehold of both cynicism and despondency, and consequently gives birth to a lifestyle that seeks to act out mercy in practical ways everyday. It demolishes self centredness brick by brick and generates a servant heart, where, again to quote St. Paul, we are able to put others interests above our own.

Mercy

The purpose of mercy is never to ‘let someone off lightly‘ but to open their eyes to a realm of social interaction within which the sacredness of life is revealed. Unlike material goods there is no objective price that can be placed upon a human life, something a pandemic brings home with a stark reality. Each life is priceless. It’s value set through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a costly and personal sacrificial act.

Perhaps in this season of anxiety we can take some moments to remind ourselves that we are no more nor less valuable than our neighbour. That the geatest demonstration of my humanity is when I live with others in mind, or as Ron Sider said in his 1978 classic, ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’, we are to live, ‘totally available to and with unlimited liability for one another’. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to bring the truth of this message home to us. So let’s not lose it going forward. Start with a simple, easily memorised, prayer;

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

And then, as Lockdown lifts, lets act out that prayer in our interactions with, as well as in our thoughts towards, others.

As media and others press government over when to loosen the Lockdown Rules, how is God reshaping our understanding of how we, the colony of heaven on earth, emerge?

Clement of Rome

Walk like a Christian

I, together with my friend Stuart, am looking at the Pre Constantinian church in some detail. Form the few surviving texts, it’s encouraging and challenging to discern how those first Christian comunities lived. Let me quote from St. Clement of Rome writing to the church in Corinth, perhaps as early as 65 CE.

‘…a complete absence of self assertion were common to you all…giving was dearer to your hearts than receiving…you paid careful heed to His words, treasured them in your hearts, and kept his sufferings constantly before your eyes.The reward was a deep and shining peace, a quenchless ardour for well-doing, and a rich outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon you all.You were full of aspirations to holiness…you harboured no resentments; any kind of faction or schism was an abomination to you. You mourned for a neighbour’s faults, and regarded their failings as your own. Never did you grudge a kindly action; always you were ready for any deed of goodness. In the beauty of a pure and lovely citizenship, whatever you did was done in the fear of God, and the statutes and judgements of the Lord were engraved on the tablets of your hearts.’

In the economic ‘crisis’ introduced through the Lockdown, many churches, charities and Christian events have been looking to find some safe economic harbour to secure their future. Yet, this is an opportunity to take stock. The future will require a people of faith who have the courage and the conviction to return to living after the pattern of those early Christians.

‘It’s no longer I who live…’

These first followers knew no earthly security. They banked upon Christ’s message of hope alone. They lived to illustrate the truths they gave voice to. They enjoyed no earthly security. I ask myself can I dare to live in that way? If not what do I truly believe of the Christian message I espouse and claim to practice? As Bonheoffer stated in his ‘Letters and Papers from Prison‘,

We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

A message for those on the front line

So it was that I was struck by what Pope Francis wrote to all those working in popular movements and organisations in encouragement and support of those on the margins of our society. That number may greatly increase following the economic hit of Lockdown. I quote,

If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing problems afflicting the marginalised“.

Is this not the same ‘invisble army’ that St Clement describes? Is it not the same ‘invisible army’ that you and I, as disciples, are members of?

As Pope Francie goes on to say,

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

Practical response

Perhaps the best we can do during Lockdown is to engage in a serious audit of our lives with God. Here we can determine our lifestyle choices, how best we might live in service of the belief we hold, once we emerge from Lockdown. There will be enormous pressure to resume business as usual. There will be a great temptation to turn a blind eye to the many casualties who stumble out of Lockdown. A significant opportunity will present itself to recalibrate the life and message we as church present to a troubled post pandemic world.

I’m remeinded, in this American Presidential election year, of the ianaugral address of President John F. Kennedy,

Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country‘.

This is the very moment when we, the church, we who have chosen to shoulder the cross of discipleship, to carry the reputation of God upon our shoulders, must decide how we might live if we are to make any sense in the world and become something other than a clanging cymbal of futile sounds with no impact upon the eveils of our world.

I have included the full text of the Pope’s address, which I commend for a reflective reading and a provocation to prayer. Do let me know, stcuthbertsoratory@gmail.com, how you are arising from the ashes of the pandemic lockdown, and be assured we are praying here in the Oratory for a bright and blessed future.

Pope Francis’ Easter Sunday Letter, 12 April 2020

To our brothers and sisters of popular movements and organizations 

Dear Friends,
I often recall our previous meetings: two at the Vatican and one in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, and I must tell you that this “souvenir” warms my heart. It brings me closer to you, and helps me re-live so many dialogues we had during those times. I think of all the beautiful projects that emerged from those conversations and took shape and have become reality. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, I think of you in a special way and wish to express my closeness to you.

In these days of great anxiety and hardship, many have used war-like metaphors to refer to the pandemic we are experiencing. If the struggle against COVID-19 is a war, then you are truly an invisible army, fighting in the most dangerous trenches; an army whose only weapons are
solidarity, hope, and community spirit, all revitalizing at a time when no one can save themselves alone. As I told you in our meetings, to me you are social poets because, from the forgotten peripheries where you live, you create admirable solutions for the most pressing
problems afflicting the marginalized.

I know that you nearly never receive the recognition that you deserve, because you are truly invisible to the system. Market solutions do not reach the peripheries, and State protection is hardly visible there. Nor do you have the resources to substitute for its functioning. You are looked upon with suspicion when through community organization you try to move beyond philanthropy or when, instead of resigning and hoping to catch some crumbs that fall from the table of economic power, you claim your rights. You often feel rage and powerlessness at the sight of persistent inequalities and when any excuse at all is sufficient for maintaining those privileges. Nevertheless, you do not resign yourselves to complaining: you roll up your sleeves and keep working for your families, your communities, and the common good. Your resilience helps me, challenges me, and teaches me a great deal.

I think of all the people, especially women, who multiply loaves of bread in soup kitchens: two onions and a package of rice make up a delicious stew for hundreds of children. I think of the sick, I think of the elderly. They never appear in the news, nor do small farmers and their
families who work hard to produce healthy food without destroying nature, without hoarding, without exploiting people’s needs. I want you to know that our Heavenly Father watches over you, values you, appreciates you, and supports you in your commitment.

How difficult it is to stay at home for those who live in tiny, ramshackle dwellings, or for the homeless! How difficult it is for migrants, those who are deprived of freedom, and those in rehabilitation from an addiction. You are there shoulder to shoulder with them, helping them to make things less difficult, less painful. I congratulate and thank you with all my heart.

My hope is that governments understand that technocratic paradigms (whether state-centred or market-driven) are not enough to address this crisis or the other great problems affecting humankind. Now more than ever, persons, communities and peoples must be put at the centre, united to heal, to care and to share. I know that you have been excluded from the benefits of globalization. You do not enjoy the superficial pleasures that anesthetize so many consciences, yet you always suffer from the harm they produce. The ills that afflict everyone hit you twice as hard. Many of you live from day to day, without any type of legal guarantee to protect you. Street vendors, recyclers, carnies, small farmers, construction workers, dressmakers, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady
income to get you through this hard time … and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once
so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.

Moreover, I urge you to reflect on “life after the pandemic,” for while this storm shall pass, its grave consequences are already being felt. You are not helpless. You have the culture, the method, and most of all, the wisdom that are kneaded with the leaven of feeling the suffering
of others as your own. I want all of us to think about the project of integral human development that we long for and that is based on the central role and initiative of the people in all their diversity, as well as on universal access to those three Ts that you defend: Trabajo (work), Techo (housing), and Tierra (land and food).

I hope that this time of danger will free us from operating on automatic pilot, shake our sleepy consciences and allow a humanist and ecological conversion that puts an end to the idolatry of money and places human life and dignity at the centre. Our civilization — so competitive, so
individualistic, with its frenetic rhythms of production and consumption, its extravagant luxuries, its disproportionate profits for just a few — needs to downshift, take stock, and renew itself.

You are the indispensable builders of this change that can no longer be put off. Moreover, when you testify that to change is possible, your voice is authoritative. You have known crises and hardships … that you manage to transform — with modesty, dignity, commitment, hard work and solidarity — into a promise of life for your families and your communities. Stand firm in your struggle and care for each other as brothers and sisters. I pray for you, I pray with you. I want to ask God our Father to bless you, to fill you with his love, and to defend you on this path, giving you the strength that keeps us standing tall and that never disappoints: hope. Please pray for me, because I need it too. Fraternally,

Vatican City, Easter Sunday, 12 April 2020

 

 

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