Religion

A Key Coronavirus Question: Do We Want God?

A tapestry of Pope John Paul II hangs at the Vatican during canonization ceremonies in 2014. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)
John Paul II, a cry from the heart in Victory Square, and us.

‘We want God.”

Do you remember when Pope John Paul II went back to his native Poland, about eight months into his pontificate? The Communist officials couldn’t not let him in — he was too beloved. But when they did, they didn’t stand a chance. And, as Pulitzer Prize winner Peggy Noonan, author of John Paul the Great: Remember a Spiritual Father, has written, from the moment he arrived there, “the boundaries of the world began to shift.”

Despite the government’s attempts to keep Poles from getting too emotionally invested in the visit, the people lined the streets to see him. During his first Mass there, in Victory Square, the crowd thundered the declaration that “we want God,” stopping a powerful homily with a cry from the human heart so deep and insistent — and resilient — that the coming victory over the evil of Communism was beginning to be seen, in the victory of Christ over death.

It was the vigil of Pentecost, when the Apostles were given the Holy Spirit to set fire to the world. And the Poles were ready, too. Their Polish pope was a sign like no other that freedom was coming, that God was not leaving them orphaned in their suffering. In his sermon, Pope John Paul II said: “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe, at any longitude or latitude of geography. The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man. . . . The history of the nation is above all the history of people. And the history of each person unfolds in Jesus Christ. In him it becomes the history of salvation.”

He went on to say: “It is right to understand the history of the nation through man, each human being of this nation. At the same time man cannot be understood apart from this community that is constituted by the nation. Of course, it is not the only community, but it is a special community, perhaps that most intimately linked with the family, the most important for the spiritual history of man.”

He was talking about Poland, but he could have been talking about us, today.

On Ascension Thursday in New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced plans for getting the Church back opened, making clear to anyone in doubt that the Church is essential. That needed to be said. For months now, supermarkets and liquor stores have been opened, but many church doors have been locked. Not all of them, but none of them have had regularly scheduled public Masses. In Poland, as I understand it, they didn’t close churches or cancel Masses, but they had more Mass so people could continue to pray the greatest prayer in person, be full participants, and still follow the universal social-distance guidelines.

They know what they want.

Do we know what we want? Do we know what is most important to us? It takes a time of loss sometimes to help us realize. Cardinal Dolan and other priests will tell you that they have been hearing from people how deeply they long to be present at Mass again, to receive the Eucharist, to go to confession. They miss the sacramental life of the Church. I confess I don’t even know who I am without it. Of course, during this time, there have been myriad opportunities to connect with the Mass virtually. But that isn’t the same. It isn’t the same, of course, because of the community aspect of gathering for Mass as the Body of Christ. But there also is the fact of what Catholics believe: in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Now, over recent years, we’ve learned from Pew and elsewhere what was probably obvious to anyone who has been in a Catholic church in recent decades or knows fallen-away Catholics: Many don’t get the doctrine. Whether they never learned it or they chose to reject it, some don’t believe in the Real Presence. Of course, if you do believe it, you would walk over hot coals, or broken glass, as they say . . .

Will the reemergence of the Church from quarantine change something? Over the past weeks and months, there has been a clamor for the sacraments. An open letter to bishops pled early for some creativity so that an “Easter people” could celebrate the season properly, albeit prudently. It was one of many 2020 U.S. versions of “We want God.” For sacramental encounter with Him is essential for loving as we ought.

These days have left people on edge, needless to say. Can the gradual reopenings of churches — most slow, perhaps, in the Northeast — lead us to a spiritual reawakening? This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Pope John Paul II. Can the courage of his people who suffered the tyranny of Communist atheism be an inspiration? To courage? To a new Pentecost? To loving people out of loneliness and anxiety?

We want God, don’t we? Let’s get back to churches, to come to know Him better in His sacrament of mercy, especially, and show Him to people who need Him.

This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.

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