There is the story of the avid golfer who goes to the fortune teller desperate and curious to know if there are golf courses in Heaven. So, Rosie Lee gazes into her crystal ball and announces: “I have good news and bad news!”
“What’s the good news?” asks the enthusiastic golfer.
“There are loads of beautiful courses in Heaven…lush greens, gorgeous fairways, luxurious settings and 5-star club houses” she answers.
“Wow that’s brilliant” replies the golfer and then asks, “What’s the bad news.”
“You tee off on Wednesday morning!” comes the reply.
No one can predict the future! Last year we Xaverians in Preston were planning big things. We had organised the calendar for the year ahead and one of our initiatives, in line with the Church in England and Wales, was a series of talks on “the God who Speaks”. We were hoping to develop sessions each month where we could identify where and how God speaks to us today, and what is it that God is saying. “The God who Speaks” was the theme for the year 2020 and, rather than it being torpedoed, I believe, it probably has become a more poignant and relevant theme than anyone could have imagined. No one could foresee in December where we find ourselves today individually, communally and globally. Where is the “God who speaks” in all of this?
A familiar phrase from scripture, found in Matthew 16:3, Luke 12:56 and one which was used by Pope John XXIII when he convoked the Second Vatican Council, in the statement Humanae Salutis (1961) and also in Pacem in Terris (1963) is the command to read the “signs of the times”. It came as a rallying call for the Church to be more attentive to the world if it wants to remain faithful to its mission and to be relevant to all God’s people.
In both Scripture passages Jesus remonstrates with the crowds and with the Pharisees for failing to “interpret the signs of the times” and in “failing to understand the present times.” The same message “read the signs of the times” is found in four Vatican II Documents and was the revolutionary motto at that Council. Pope John XXIII called the Council in order to place the Church into the modern era and to make Christ’s mission more meaningful in “these present times.”
So, what are some of the signs we must read in these present times? Well, I have come across certain references to the pandemic as God’s retribution! This is not reading the signs of the times and certainly not reading the God manifest in the person of Jesus. It is myopic madness and let us put that partially sighted viewpoint, that blind spot… where it belongs.
With Pentecost we end the Easter season, and leader who has tried to read the signs, Pope Francis, likens the pandemic to the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus that “threatens to bury all hope.” However, like the women at the tomb, we cannot allow fear, anxiety, sadness and loss to rob us of hope. And, like them, we too are asking: “Who will roll away the stone?” It is God’s love that will! But the Pope insists that “an emergency like Covid-19 is overcome also by “the antibodies of solidarity.” It’s God’s love and our love working together! Pope Francis expresses the hope that, in the light of the resurrection, “we would encounter the necessary antibodies of justice, charity and solidarity” to change the world. He calls for the building of “a civilization of love,” which he described as “a civilization of hope,” contrary to one marked by “anguish and fear, sadness and discouragement, passivity and tiredness.” The pope continues that this civilization “has to be built daily” and requires “the commitment of everyone.”
So Covid 19 calls us to see the need for solidarity…the only way forward. All of us, I am sure have witnessed great signs in the coming together of so many to do so much for others. It does indeed gladden the heart! But this global emergency has also shown us more and evermore clearly the blatant signs that we are living in an ill-divided world, an unequal society, an unjust reality. Daily we read of the infections and deaths and it stares us in the face. In the UK we see greater death rates among the poor, higher risk among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities (BAME), key workers, dubbed heroes, on basic wages and forced to use food banks, a sudden realisation that “we need immigrants”, clear evidence of “one rule for the privileged and one for the plebs”…and so it goes on! If we look globally, especially the “developing world” this disparity stares us in the face. If the virus has done anything it has opened our eyes to this reality that we have to create a different normal, to denounce unashamed injustices of our time and to build that civilization of love and hope that is inherent to our faith and intrinsic for our future.
So, let’s not concern ourselves with opening of Churches but rather the opening of the Church to these present signs. Let our worship cease to be comfortable but confrontational, let our liturgies be more than faith motivation but faith in action, let our participation of the sacraments, where we open ourselves to God’s grace, lead us to be God’s grace, and let our Church services become real service in the proclamation of God’s Kingdom and the rebuilding of a better world.
And that better world calls us to see the signs of the times and read the messages coming from our world. Pope Francis has also said that nature is responding to how we have maltreated her and says that nature never forgives; “if you give her a slap, she will slap you back!” I am sure we have all seen pictures of the difference the global lockdown has made to our planet! Unblemished skies, clearer rivers and seas, smog less cities, a re-sighting of wildlife, an increase in endangered species… all evidence that we have been slapped. However, the crowded beaches strewn with litter, the fly tipping, the unnecessary travel… have also been familiar sights and evidence that we need to open our eyes wider and let the slap sting us into action.
5 years ago, this week the Pope penned his beautiful encyclical “Laudato si” and in it he illustrated our connectedness with the earth and our duty to care for our common home. He has also said that “a Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work, that work born of God’s love for us.” Perhaps during the sacrament of reconciliation, amid our many sins, it is time to reflect on this individual and communal transgression. I know I need to!
Covid 19 is calling us to recognise the signs of the times and challenges us to be in solidarity. Solidarity with our brothers and sisters, especially the “least of these” and solidarity with our Mother Earth. As we get through this “vale of tears” may it soften our hearts and open our eyes to see where, when and with whom, we need to be in solidarity. May it give us real 2020 vision.
The opening little joke reminds us that we cannot predict the future, but we can reshape it and surely that’s good news!
Jim Clarke, s.x.