I just got back from Easter Vigil Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican with Pope Francis – because, why not?, when all the livestreaming world is your only option. (“Presided over by the Holy Father in a nearly empty basilica,” the Vatican English language translator, Sister Bernadette, said on the livefeed.) And as I have been for weeks – and years – I was moved by the Holy Father. His homily took us right to the heart of what we’re experiencing. The darkness. The fear. The hesitancy to sing Alleluia!, even though not only is that what is liturgically called for now, as Holy Saturday passes away – and this “Lentiest of Lents” as it has been called, but it is exactly what we need to say and hear and believe with all our hearts.
Or at least that’s where I am.
The pope talked about the women who loved Jesus so. And talked about the women who love Jesus so. As in today. As you may have picked up along the way, I’m friends with many women religious – sisters and nuns – and I happen to know that some of them are as without Mass as anyone right now in these quarantine times. And yet they pour themselves out in prayer still. They are on the phone with people suffering and then-some. (And, women, of course, are not alone in pouring themselves out, reaching out — take the Franciscan friars in the New York metro area who have a hotline for people in need of COVID-19 emergency spiritual care.) I see, too, many mothers post on social media what their families have been doing these past days, really kindling the fires of faith in their domestic churches. They are, as Pope Francis put it, sowing seeds of hope with gestures of love and care and prayer.
Hope is not optimism or empty words when we have nothing else to say or want desperately to make things better. The hope we’re talking about at Easter is a gift from Heaven we could not earn on our own, as Pope Francis put it. Jesus is the giver of this hope, of all hope. Easter is how we can be sure He says with credibility DO NOT BE AFRAID. We acquire, Pope Francis said, at Easter this fundamental right of hope. It’s planted in our hearts. Even from the grave, He brings life. Jesus emerged for us to begin a new story. He can remove the stones in front of our hearts, too. God is faithful. He entered into our pain, anguish, death. He wants His light to penetrate into the darkest corners. Darkness and death do not have the last word. Be strong. Have courage!
Courage, he continued, is not something you can give yourself. You receive it as a gift.
Receive it. Beg to receive it! (I added the second, maybe preaching to myself.)
Ask Jesus: Come to me amid my fears.
With you, Lord, we will be tested but not destroyed.
Nothing can rob us of the love God has for us.
The Lord goes before us, he said, walks ahead of us. Take some consolation in this. That Jesus goes first! Remember we have been lead and loved by God. We are born and reborn.
And we cannot keep this message of hope confined to our churches. It must be brought to everyone. [Conveniently we can’t be in our churches right now….] We who have touched the word of life must give it. Be messengers of life in a time of death! Sing the song of life, silence the cries of death!
He went on to insist on an end to war and abortion.
Fill empty hands.
His words brought me to two streets in Manhattan I haven’t been on for a while now. Margaret Sanger Place, where the flagship Planned Parenthood is and St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Will often sits at the corner, and Patrick right outside Saks Fifth Avenue across the street. Where are they? Do they have light, as they are light? They sure have shown me hope on days when I was plenty preoccupied and distracted with the world. (Patrick and I hugged just days before things started shutting down. Will such things ever happen again with the new protocols of life?)
This Coronavirus Easter is happening because death too often is our way. Even when we fight it, are we doing so with total light and love?
As he ended his homily at the Easter vigil tonight, Pope Francis said: Cling to Jesus like the women did — Jesus risen.
He offered a prayer: We turn our backs to death and turn to You, O Lord.
What does this mean in a time of Coronavirus? It is still Easter and we cannot go to church! The greatest prayer there is, the Mass, we can’t be physically present for.
It’s a matter for prayer. It’s going to look different for each one of us, according to our roles. We each have our roles, that’s for certain. And it’s a new story today of love renewed.
I once asked the late Cardinal George if the Church was in renewal. It was after the first round of scandals, and I was seeing young people on fire with the faith and giving him all kinds of other examples. He said with a fatherly wisdom that the Church is always in renewal. I see that more and more every day, but especially on account of this damned Coronavirus. It is from hell, and we cannot be paralyzed by it. We cannot stop loving. We cannot stop being and showing hope.
Think and pray about that as you launch into Easter Alleluias – out of tradition and obligation or from the heart. Say it. And pray that you can overwhelm all the world you inhabit with it in the most supernatural ways. That’s the message of Easter for us in a particular way this year: There’s darkness and sickness and death, but that’s not it! That’s never been it! But have we been living as if it is?
My Easter prayers for you, whomever you are and whatever you believe. Peace. Courage. Hope!