On Wednesday, Pope Francis gave a beautiful and poignant blessing to the world and prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic. It was incredibly powerful, and I encourage you to read the full text here.
Amid his beautiful analogy in which he compared us facing this pandemic to the Apostles in the ship being broken apart by the storm, Pope Francis said the following: “(quoting Jesus) “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 judgment, but of our judgment: 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.”
I found this call so powerful, and also so appropriate for the season of Lent. This season is meant to be a time of repentance, a time when we do exactly as Pope Francis said and spend forty days in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. However, how often in most years do we simply let things slide? Maybe we resolve to pray more, to put more time into reading the Bible, to fast from the comforts and conveniences that sap us of our spirit, to give more of our time, talents, and treasure. But then, ultimately, life gets in the way. In our modern world, it is so easy to be like the seed that fell among the thorns, choked out by the anxieties of daily living and the deceptions of chasing wealth above all else. (Matthew 13:1-23)
Not this year. This year, tragically, our lives have been turned upside down. Our very health and livelihoods are more threatened as each day passes, and many people are suffering at the hands of cruel physical and economic hardship. I think it is important to reiterate that this is not God’s judgment of us. Ours is a loving, kind, merciful Father, who wants to give us the good gifts of bread and fish, not stones and snakes (Matthew 7:9-11) So, why are we facing this suffering? Why are we going through this?
One of the great things about sports is how they can paint a reality about life in terms that are concrete and easy to understand. In 2018, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team became the first team ever to be a one-seed that lost to a sixteen-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The world of college basketball was turned upside down, and it was at Virginia’s expense. After that devastating loss, Head Coach Tony Bennett quoted a TED Talk over the course of the next season. He said, “If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it can buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone any other way.” For his Virginia basketball team, that adversity bought them a ticket to winning that very same tournament the following year and becoming National Champions.
I don’t know why we have to face this current suffering and adversity, but I do know that we can use it right. Millions of people are facing consequences far worse than losing a basketball game. However, in both the heartbreak of ending a promising basketball season with a loss, and the fear of death and hunger that many now face, there is a shared element of suffering. It is in this suffering that we can learn from the example of Virginia basketball’s redemption, because the potential reward for using this current adversity right is far greater than a National Championship. It is our own personal redemption. It is our healing and the healing of broken relationships. It is our turning to God and it is our salvation.
How will we use this time? Will we use it to spend quality time with our family? Will we strengthen and build the most important relationships we have on this Earth? Will we surprise ourselves with our generosity? Though we may be struggling, will we see the other struggling as well, and out of the charity and compassion in our hearts reach out to help? Will we turn away from the bad habits and vices in our lives and pursue the good? Will we take this time to enrich ourselves, to grow, and to learn? Above all else, will we learn to pray again? Will we learn to trust in God again? Will we remember our loving Father who eagerly waits every morning for us to awake so He can hear from us? Our Father in Heaven who cherishes those moments when you tell Him how your day went before you fall asleep. Will we pour our hearts out to Him, not only lamenting all the evil and suffering in the world, but also confessing all the wrong that is in our own hearts? Will we ask His forgiveness? Will we try to be more like His Son, every day, with every breath we take?
I pray that this pandemic ends today, or as soon as possible. I pray for life to return to normal, but I also pray that when the world gets through this pandemic, that we will use it right. I pray that we will “run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25) I pray that we will all trust in God and His promise “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) In so doing, I pray our current adversity will buy all of us a ticket to a place we could not have gone any other way