Photo by Peter Ringenberg
Like most everyone else in the Notre Dame community, I left for spring break on March 7. I went to spend the week with my aging father and to provide some respite for his caregiver. I fully expected to return to a normal-functioning Notre Dame on March 14, looking forward to welcoming 14 students to an evening of “civil discourse” the following Monday in Baumer Hall, the new dorm where I live with the men of Dillon during its renovation.
On March 11, somewhere in the middle of making a pot of coffee, getting the clothes out the dryer, taking out the trash, running to the store for bread, making the next meal — I have no idea how people work and run households at the same time! — I saw an email from Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., announcing major changes at Notre Dame. I read the letter several times and tried to take in all that it would mean. I could not fathom it. Someone emailed me saying that the campus had started to feel like a ghost town. After I returned, I felt it too. It was like a ghost town.
I have been trying to find balance between being vigilant and letting this pandemic consume my every waking second. Another way of saying this is that I try to follow all the necessary rules and behaviors to defend myself from infection — knowing those actions contribute to preventing the virus from spreading to others — and still live a somewhat normal life.
During these days with more free time since there are almost no students on campus, I hope to share a few thoughts about what life is like at Notre Dame now.
I have walked through the halls of Baumer past every room with a miraculous medal of Mary in my pocket. I pray the rosary as I walk, and I ask Mary to bless each student who lives in that room. The miraculous medal was given by Mary as a grace and which, during a 19th-century cholera pandemic, was the source of many miracles of protection and healing. And I pray, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” I entrust the life and health of every student in Baumer Hall to Our Lady.
One day I did a meditation in Baumer’s basement laundry room. There are clothes folded on the tables and in the washers and dryers. The owners of all this clothing fully expected to return to campus at the end of spring break and finish their laundry. I sat there and thought about my own mortality. I am always trying to get everything on my to-do list done each day. The laundry room with clothes everywhere is a powerful reminder that I will die one day without getting everything done — and that’s okay. The world will go on just fine. God will still be in control. I hope that I will have done my small part.
It also made me think of my virtues and vices, the wheat and the weeds of my life. There are some sins that I have turned a corner on, some that I am trying to, and some that I know God will turn the corner on after I die. I believe that God will remember all the good I have done and will launder the rest to make it good. My life before God looks like that laundry room — some washed, dried and folded, but others waiting to be washed, or left in the washer and dryer, unfinished. No matter. God will take care of all of it.
I was thinking that I could rewrite the parable of the sower and the seed. A man went out to sow seed. Some seed here, some seed there, paying no attention to the quality of the soil and what he would reap. The new parable would sound like this. A person went to do their wash . . .
I have read more about COVID-19 than is healthy! It made me think about this: For several years now, I have been saying that our society has made “wellness” and “salvation” into the same thing. But this is not true and can never be true. I fear that society has led young people, including our students at Notre Dame, to believe that wellbeing and salvation are the same thing. A person can be “well” but have no sense of what it means to be saved. When I was growing up, salvation was an important word. Now, we don’t hear it that much. There are things that might make me “well” but would be harmful for my salvation. All sorts of therapies can be helpful for a person’s wellbeing, but they could never replace the Eucharist, necessary for our salvation.
We hope and pray that scientists will find a vaccination and a cure for coronavirus as soon as possible. Please God, may this happen. Finding a vaccination or a cure, however, will not ensure salvation, which only comes from God. Perhaps the current climate that we are living in can be an opportunity for us to depend on God for salvation. Perhaps the circumstances will invite us to know real freedom — freedom that comes from the presence of God and can never be taken from us. Let this pandemic be an invitation from God for us to seek that true freedom, which only comes from him.
I have also been thinking about what role the Church should play during this pandemic. The Church knows a lot about responding to people’s needs in times of plague. The Church has always done so with charity and love and dedication and commitment. Not a few saints — St. Charles Borromeo, St. Roch, St. Damian of Molokai — have died while ministering to the sick during plagues and pandemics.
At the current moment the Church’s response looks too much like the response of civil society. Hunker down, take cover, don’t go anywhere. I understand this at one level. We must obey the rules that civil authorities impose on us; sacrificing certain ordinary and frivolous activities that could help spread the virus is an expression of care for the most vulnerable among us in the face of a deadly contagion. We must also obey the Gospel which never calls us to self-preservation, but always to lose ourselves in the service of the other. As the current pandemic unfolds, the Church has to be courageous in responding to the needs of the faithful. The Church is in the business of tending to peoples’ souls. I will have to figure out what that means for me as a priest.
How bishops and priests respond to the faithful at this difficult time could be the beginning of restoring trust in the Church’s leaders after the clergy sexual abuse crisis. If the Church does not respond as the Gospel impels us to, it could mean losing that trust forever.
In a letter to the Diocese of Rome clergy on March 13, Pope Francis wrote, “The government has the duty to guarantee care and material sustenance for the people but we have the duty to do the same for their souls. May it never be said: ‘I’m never going back to a church where no one came to find me when I needed help.’”
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Father Joe Corpora works in the Alliance for Catholic Education and Campus Ministry, and is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. He has written two books of reflections on this experience, The Relentless Mercy of God and Being Mercy: The Path to Being Fully Alive, both published by Corby Books.