By Federico Lombardi
Many of us have had the experience of being seriously ill at some point in our lives, or even just having a well-founded fear of being sick. If we didn’t give in to panic, we experienced a period that marked us spiritually, usually in a positive way. We realized that things and projects that seemed so important to us were ultimately contingent and transitory – that there are things that pass away and things that last. Above all, we became more aware of our fragility. We felt small before the world and before the great mystery of God. We realized that our destiny is only partly in our hands, even though medicine and science can do wonderful things. To use an ancient word, we became more humble. We also prayed more, we became more sensitive and attentive in our relationships with others, we were more grateful for their attention and for their human and spiritual closeness.
But then, as our strength returned and the risk was overcome, these attitudes gradually diminished and we returned more or less to how we were before: sure of ourselves, concerned above all with our own plans and with immediate satisfaction, less attentive to finer things and to our relationships... and prayer returned to the side-lines of our lives. In some ways, we must recognize that in sickness we had become better, and that when we became strong, we soon returned to forgetting God.
The pandemic is a widespread and shared illness. It is a common experience of incredible and unexpected fragility. It puts into question many aspects of our lives and of our world that we had taken for granted. This causes great suffering and upheaval. But is it only an evil or is it also an opportunity?
In the preaching of both John the Baptist and Jesus, there is a word that occurs frequently and forcefully: “Convert”. It is not a word we like. It questions us and frightens us because we sense that it is not an innocent term. Throughout the whole time of Lent - which has accompanied this pandemic story from the beginning (an extraordinary coincidence in our Christian life!) - we have heard and felt the call to conversion. We have heard the great penitential prayers of the Old Testament (Esther, Azariah...), and the prophetic cries that have always interpreted the misfortunes and sufferings of the people as a strong call to conversion, to return to God... We must not see the misfortunes of the world, in which so many innocent people are involved, as a punishment from a vengeful God. At the same time we must not be so naive and superficial as not to realize the human responsibility intertwined with what happens, and not to remember that the history of mankind is steeped from the beginning in the consequences of sin. If this were not the case, what need was there for Jesus to die in order to lead us, and all creation, back to God?
Sooner or later this pandemic will pass – at a very high cost – but it will pass. We're all in a great hurry right now and we're all longing for it to be over. We want to start again, to get back on the right track. This is only normal. Solidarity obliges us to hope that the weakest among us will be spared further suffering. Hope urges us to look forward and charity must be industrious. But will we be converted, at least a little, or will we immediately begin to tred the same path as before?
A fundamental Christian understanding of the Encyclical Laudato sí tells us that in order to answer the great questions about humanity's future we must recognize that we are created beings, that the world is not our possession, but is rather a gift, that we cannot think of dominating it and exploiting it as we wish, or else we will destroy it and ourselves with it. Only on the basis of greater humility before God can reason and science build and not destroy. We want to start again quickly. We say that many things will change. Perhaps we think we have learned many lessons - who knows - about the health care system and school systems, about the digital realm and its possibilities... Even medical science will make further progress... But mostly we seem to think of answers primarily in technical terms, in terms of greater efficiency and organizational rationality.
That is all well and good. But the pandemic is also a call to deeper spiritual conversion. A call not only for the Christian faithful, but also for all men and women, who remain creatures of God even when they do not remember Him. A better life in our common home, at peace with creatures, with others, with God – a life rich in meaning, requires conversion.