Exodus 90 - Day 60*
It’s crazy to think how fast everything has changed in the last 10+ days. I originally had planned to post something last Thursday to mark my arrival at the two month mark in Exodus 90. But then the power was shut off at the seminary while the utilities company did major repairs. Then the next day, the coronavirus pandemic made itself felt at Mundelein Seminary. At 9 AM, the decision was made to cancel in-person classes at the seminary for the rest of the semester. All students were to leave campus as soon as possible, leaving no later than Wednesday of this week. In the space of fifteen minutes, the seminarians and I went from thinking we had another 45 days together to, for some men, having less than 45 hours together!
I spent most of Friday in a kind of daze. I was stunned by the suddenness of it all. As a priest, I am called to exercise a spiritual fatherhood for the people in my community. That fatherhood requires an investment of self in those I serve. I have to be available and vulnerable in order to authentically love others as Jesus loves. That kind of love asks a lot of me, and at no point is that emotional investment more apparent than at the moment of transition. When I had to leave each of my parish assignments, I grieved. I was torn up about leaving good people who loved God and who had shown that love by loving me. In those farewells, however, I had weeks, sometimes months, to prepare myself for the moment of departure.
In this moment, however, there was no time to prepare at all. Suddenly the halls of the seminary were abuzz with men making plans to return to their home dioceses, with staff standing listlessly in the hallway as the school year came to an abrupt end, and with deacons scrambling for boxes to pack up their lives as they prepared to leave seminary for the last time. These deacons were looking forward to ordination to the priesthood, the beginning of a life for which they had spent years of preparation. But for me, there was no preparation to say good-bye to these men who I would see only briefly, if ever again. I had thought I would have weeks yet to talk with these men. The class of 2020 means a lot to me – it’s the first I taught as a seminary professor. They are the first to leave Mundelein Seminary bearing, for good or for ill, the fruits of my instruction in homiletics and preaching. And they were leaving before I could have a chance to tell them how proud I am of them, how much I’m going to miss having them around, and how excited I am for what the Lord Jesus will be able to do in and through their ministry as priests.
I was feeling all the things.
Fortunately that didn’t last. After a second hour of prayer Friday night and then a good night’s sleep, the sorrow lifted. I was able to spend time with friends and family over the weekend which helped even me out and remind me that this was going to be part of my ministry as a seminary priest. In the parish, I had been doing the leaving. Now I was part of the group being left behind and I have made peace with being only a temporary part of the seminarians’ lives. This is the work the Lord God called me to do for His Church. I give Him thanks that I’ve been given the opportunity to get to know so many good and holy men who are willing to give their lives in service to God and His Church. And even if I don’t have a chance to say good-bye in the way that I had hoped, I take consolation in the fact that I did right by all my students. I gave them the best of what I had, encouraged them, challenged them, and looked for nothing in return other than what God sees fit to give me. And in this moment, He’s given me the challenge of an abrupt end. This too I will accept and will give thanks to Him for it, even if I am not quite ready to do so at the moment.
Truthfully, thanksgiving is hard to come by in these days of travel restrictions, social distancing, and online learning. The Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Chicago has canceled all Masses until further notice. My home diocese of Joliet has done the same, though with a little more optimism that we might be back to normal sooner rather than later. What seemed to be other countries’ problems have come home for Americans in a big way. I was talking to a former student earlier today whose entire school is under quarantine because just one of his classmates was in contact with an infected person. Similar stories are not hard to find, unlike toilet paper. Earlier today I caught myself judging whether the four rolls I have in my bathroom will be enough to last me the rest of the week. It was then I realized that I have no idea how much toilet paper I use in a single week – no wonder people are grabbing so much of it! With all the anxiety, uncertainty, and fear surrounding us in these days, I know I’m not alone in finding it difficult to lift up my heart in prayer and thank God for His many gifts.
Almost as if to answer my own doubts and fears, God gave me a chance to preach to folks in the grip of fear – including myself! I was the presider at Mass last Saturday morning at St. Mary’s in Lake Forest, where I’ve been regularly assisting this semester. The Gospel reading for last Sunday was from Luke 15 – the parable of the prodigal son. Did you ever notice what it takes for that younger son to come to his senses? Yes, he longs to eat his fill of the pig slop in the trough while he’s making less than minimum wage on some farm far, far from home. But he winds up in that position because a terrible disaster strikes right after he was horribly misspent his inheritance. A famine strikes the land and the younger son suddenly finds himself in dire need. He couldn’t recognize it before because life was continuing as normal. Everything was going his way. It wasn’t until the rug was pulled out from under him that he realized just how precarious his life-situation was. It results, of course, in his repentance and ultimately his reconciliation with his father.
After reading that Gospel passage in our viral circumstances, I am convinced that God allows disasters to befall us in order to pull us up short, to make us realize that we have misspent our inheritance of the good things God has given us. We realize just how precarious our position is. We can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that nothing is wrong simply because we are comfortable and can meet all our physical needs. God allows us to come to the point of crisis so that we cannot distract ourselves from the problem. The normal rhythm of going to Mass has been stopped. Even March Madness has been taken away from us! We are pulled up short by this pandemic. What will we do? Will we come to our senses, realize that we have taken the Father’s generosity for granted, repent of our prodigality, and seek to be taken back – not on our terms, but on His? Or will we simply stick our heads in the pig trough, eating our fill of the slop because it’s just the best we can get in this situation and we just have to settle for it? I would rather keep my humanity intact by humility, which has always been the only way to preserve my integrity.
It was a homily that I preached to everyone in that church. It was a homily I preached to myself. I’ve continued to reflect on that Gospel passage and I’ve been experiencing more peace in my prayer than I’ve known of late. I hope that many people will let God bring them to their senses, ease their anxieties, and lead them back home. I hope that all of us will have great case for rejoicing and celebration, for although we may feel lost, we have been found. Though we may feel dead, we have been brought to life again.
Please know of my prayers for you and your loved ones during this difficult time. In your kindness, please pray for me and all my seminarian students as we chart our course for the rest of the semester. And, of course, please pray for my Exodus 90 fraternity. What a time to give up drinking.
St. Josemaría Escrivá, pray for us!