And then it struck me! No it did not strike me like the bolt from the blue! I half expected it, like most of the world did. Why wouldn't anyone not expect it, when one knew that people were falling like king-pins, in their thousands, even in their millions. There would be nothing surprising if I happened to be one of those!
I could not help thinking about our Holy Father, Pope Francis who often speaks about the Church of Christ being a tender and merciful mother to one and all, specially to those who are the weakest, like the children, elderly and those who are the last we think about. Our beloved Holy Father has often made it clear, and he continues doing it, by the heart-warming statements that he comes out with about his expectations of the Church.
He has, practically, laid out the mission for the Church, for her ministers and for all the baptized. He has often said that, in our times, the Church needs to be like a ‘field hospital’, always available to the needy and the suffering.
Pope Francis has said: "I dream of a Church that is a mother and shepherdess. The Church must be merciful, take responsibility for the people, and accompany them like the Good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel."(quoted by Cardinal Walter Kasper, in “MERCY”, p10.)
I said above that the virus did not strike me like the bolt from the blue, but that "I half expected it.” That is, perhaps, a little too far-fetched and over-audacious to say. But I was certainly not surprised when I got picked up by Madame Corona.
I was certainly not living like some people who, out of fear of Covid, are living in their cocoons as if they have already said "good-bye" to this world of the living, before they breathed their last!!
I do not know how such people can be counted as Christians, disciples of the Good Samaritan. They seem rather to be well qualifying to be counted among the disciples of the Levite and the Priest of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk.10:25ff). Their behaviour is very similar to the behaviour of the Levite and Priest, who shamelessly and unscrupulously walked away from the poor man lying injured on the street. It would seem that they would have it written on their foreheads, and perhaps even on their consciences that they are not their neighbour's keepers!!
People suffering from Covid have, sometimes, been so badly stigmatized, that they are treated like the lepers in olden times. I do not claim to have been a great apostle to the Covid patients, but in my own little way, I was trying to do a little ministry in favour of some people who, I knew, were longing to receive Jesus in the Eucharist after weeks and months of Spiritual Communions.
I knew they were more desirous of receiving Jesus than I myself was, and many of my priest-brothers were. Was I not chosen, consecrated and sent to do this service to God's people? How could I, then, find an excuse to leave such people unattended and abandoned?
I knew my little effort was like a drop in the ocean, but drops do fill the ocean. Whatever little I was able to, I tried to do, of course, taking the necessary precautions, like wearing the mask, keeping the prescribed social distance, etc. I am certainly not advocating throwing those reasonable and necessary measures to the four winds. We must take those precautions seriously, no doubt. But once we do that, we must not fail to see and recognize the man on the street, and his needs, even through the masks! And we must remember that the Commandment of love always binds us. And then, finally we must remember that our lives are in God’s hands. Some people have blamed me for what I did, and for holding these views. But I did it all keeping in mind the teachings of the Lord, the Good Samaritan. I preferred to be blamed by some people to being blamed by the Lord.
Valiant soldiers of the divine master
Very recently, I got news about an 83-year old priest-friend of mine who died of Covid in the Archdiocese of Milan. A thorough gentleman and dedicated pastor who dedicated his life to the sheep Jesus had entrusted to him. May his soul R.I.P.
And this priest-friend of mine, Don Bruno, who sacrificed his life for the people in his care, should remind us of the many others who died, in those first days and weeks of Covid, especially in the Diocese of Bergamo, North Italy.
I am singling that area out because I am somewhat familiar with that area, having rendered some pastoral service in the region. Those brave shepherds did not run away when they saw the “wolf” coming. They were well aware that they had been chosen to follow the spirituality of the Good Samaritan, not that of the Priest and the Levite of the parable. And so they died answering the call of Jesus.
Today I see that many shy away from their duties towards their brothers and sisters, because they are too scared for their own lives. Am I wrong when I say this? Honestly I wish I were! But I do not think so. I am writing what I am writing basing myself on my observation and experience.
I have also had the feed-back of some of my brother-bishops, priests and religious, both men and women. Only recently talking to a bishop-friend of mine, I was sad to hear what he was telling me. He was telling me about how priests and religious are being neglected by their confreres and community members, sometimes even by their superiors. They seem to care two hoots about them, because they are too afraid to get infected.
The big question to be asked is if they have given up the spirituality of the Good Samaritan, to embrace the other one, of the Priest and Levite, which puts self before the neighbour, and even before Jesus, the Good Samaritan. Just imagine what would happen if Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity Sisters were to close shop, and leave the dying to die on the streets.
Corona virus: A lost spiritual opportunity?
When Corona virus first hit the world, especially the Northern Regions of Italy, several people were very badly hit. I remember the frightening news about a number of priests losing their lives serving the sick and the infected. At that stage, the Diocese of Bergamo, which is the diocese of good Pope John XXIII, lost a big number of priests. Obviously, they died like valiant soldiers of Christ, doing what their Lord and Master had Himself done, and doing what He expected of them. They did not seek their own safety, but stepped forward to die serving the people they had vowed to serve.
At that time, urging the priests to remain faithfully at their posts serving the people, and fulfilling their duty, Pope Francis in his inimitable style, had told them that at this difficult time, the people would get their "pizzas" by ordering them on-line. And so he had urged the priests not to deprive the people of their spiritual-pastoral services, their spiritual "pizzas".
We are all aware of the many doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, front-line workers, as they have been called, who died caring for the many people infected by corona virus. Many of them have actually been good examples for us to follow, especially for us priests and religious. They knew it was their call of duty, which had to take precedence over everything else, including their own lives. Why is it then, that today many people, even priests and religious beat the retreat like the Priest and Levite of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, instead of being true and faithful to the Good Samaritan Jesus?
For Heaven's sake, it is not my intention to imply here that there have not been those in our midst who have been good disciples of the Good Samaritan. Of course, there have been such. I know sisters who have handed their private hospitals to the State, to make them available for the service of the Covid-infected patients, thereby even incurring heavy financial losses.
I also know some who have sacrificed their lives, and died serving the patients. What I am deploring is the fact that there are many who have chosen to follow the Levite and the Priest, rather than practice the spirituality of the Good Samaritan.
I really wish there were not so many of their ilk. In fact, it is beyond my understanding how a disciple of Jesus can choose to walk away from the people who are crying for mercy, refusing to be the Good Samaritan, and preferring rather to walk in the foot-steps of the Priest and the Levite.
In my thinking, the Corona virus could well be a golden opportunity of renewal and grace for the Church. We are living in a world in which there are few Samaritans, whereas the world is full of people who are desperately in need of them. How could the Church of Christ abandon such people on the streets, and yet claim to be the Church of the Good Samaritan? In my opinion this just cannot be tolerated.
Corona virus is one virus and plague that has hit the world very badly. But we should not forget the fact that, in history, there have been many other viruses and plagues that have snuffed out the lives of millions of people. The Church has proved herself, on all those occasions, to be at the fore-front to help the infected and dying people. As a result many of the Church personnel have offered their lives, dying in the service and care of the stricken people.
Very recently we celebrated the memory of St. John Capistrano. He was a saint who lived and worked in Italy, when the bubonic plague was sweeping the world. It is estimated that the plague had killed one-third of the population and nearly 40 per cent of the clergy. The saint, exhausted with his strenuous life fell prey to the plague, and died.
St. John Leonardi is another saint of the Catholic Church, who died after being infected by a plague, while visiting and serving the sick. More recently, we have had Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first canonized USA citizen. Lovingly called “Mother Cabrini” by the Americans, she is understandably, very popular in the USA.
Born in North Italy in 1850, she was considered too sickly to join the local religious Order. With her burning zeal and energy, however, she founded her own Congregation, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. She established 67 religious houses with more than 1500 daughters. She rendered a tremendous service to help the immigrants into America. She herself ended up crossing the Atlantic 30 times, finally dying of malaria in Chicago in 1917. These and so many other saints died because they were consumed by the holy Will of God, which made them fearless in the face of plagues and illnesses. All that mattered to them was to walk in the foot-steps of the Divine Master, and be good Samaritans to the suffering and dying.
The Corona virus could well be a sign coming from God, a sign for our times, to remind us that it is time for the Church to pull up her socks, and meet the challenge to be what she is called to be, a sign and sacrament of the Love of God for mankind, particularly in our times. It could well be a new grace for priests and religious, particularly, to discover new and relevant ways of forming our members in formation. How nice it would be if these had been trained to take care of the Covid patients?
My call is intended to be a wake-up call for those who are fumbling before a choice between the choice of the Priest, the Levite and of the Good Samaritan. My task is to affirm that there are no choices.
Those suffering from Covid-19 today are like the man lying injured on the street, rescued by the Good Samaritan. We have no other choice but the choice of the Good Samaritan. The fear of being affected is no reason to stay away from the infected. We would certainly not like to hear those terrifying words of Jesus; “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me; naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… as you did it not to one the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mathew: 25:43 ff.) And Mathew concludes: They will go away into eternal punishment….(Mathew 25:46).
(Bishop Alex Dias, was Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Port Blair from 1985 to 2019. Currently he is based in Goa)