In February 2020, during Bishop William F. Medley’s pastoral pilgrimage to India and Myanmar (also known as Burma), there were murmurings of a respiratory virus – which made some people choose to start wearing facial coverings. This photo shows Fr. John Thomas, Fr. Timothy Khui Shing Ling and Bishop Medley wearing masks while attending a dinner in Myanmar. They little suspected that in a few months this suggested precaution would become one of the symbols of a global pandemic. COURTESY OF FR. JOHN THOMAS
We’ve come this far by faith
History shows that humanity is fascinated by predicting the future. Literature and fairy tales have created images such as crystal balls and reading tea leaves to portray this fascination.
Of course even our Sacred Scriptures are read the through the lenses of prophecy. The scriptural prophets are best read not as foretelling future events, but as bold voices speaking God’s truth to people too often distracted from God’s ways and God’s messages. But every year, in particular during the seasons of Advent and Lent, we read the prophets and trust that God was indeed speaking to generations to come of promise.
In our year-to-year and day-to-day lives we might well be relieved that we cannot foresee with certainty future events. How different our lives might be if crystal balls could show us dates and certain details of our lives. We may become so obsessed that the spontaneity and joy of living would be compromised. Imagine our lives dictated by the countdown of years, days, hours and minutes we have left to live. Yes, we all know we will die – but such specific certainty would not serve us well.
I think of these reflections in relation to all that unfolded over the past year in regards to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. One might say that virtually every reflection we have shared over the past year has been impacted by the pandemic.
I for one am pleased and relieved that I could not know, from the first emergence of the COVID-19 virus, just how drastically this would affect our society, our Church, and each of our lives. Naively, I suppose, I took comfort in thinking that some of those early dire predictions were surely overstated.
My first exposure to what was unfolding in the world came in mid-February when I was traveling home from my pilgrimage to India and Myanmar. When we entered the massive airport in Qatar on the first change of planes on the 26-hour of flights back to the U.S., almost everyone was wearing a mask. And indeed every service personnel was doing so – which told me that they clearly may have known something that I did not know. When we arrived in Houston to change planes to come home to Nashville, there was just a smattering of mask-wearing people. Foolishly, I felt relieved.
It was March 4 in the Diocese of Owensboro that we first began to communicate some cautions to pastors and parishes about our liturgies. In the coming days of March we would seemingly be updating those cautions every few days, each time hoping and believing that these actions would suffice to keep everyone safe and secure.
It was March 13 that I announced that the traditional obligation for all Catholics to participate at Mass on Sundays would be suspended. To me, and I think most bishops, this was a very extreme move – surely justified, but on that day I would not have envisioned even more extreme actions.
It was a good thing that we could not foretell the future. Only days later, Governor Andy Beshear called upon churches across the Commonwealth to suspend public worship. My first directive on this matter expressed the hope and belief that we might resume public worship by Holy Week. In fact, that suspension carried until May 20. As totally unsettling as all that was, somehow, for most of us, it was a little easier to absorb in smaller, uncertain increments.
When we could come back to public Masses it was with a raft of restrictions about assembly size, wearing facial coverings, and maintaining distances between one another. Again, I thought these restrictions might be required for a few weeks.
Here it is March and those restrictions remain in place with frankly the end date yet to be named. Though I am pleased that healthcare scientists could anticipate the severity of the pandemic, it is good that I did not know that more than 500,000 Americans – and more than 2,000,000 people worldwide – would perish due the virus by March 1. It was best to take it one day at a time.
I am reminded of one of my favorite hymns from the African American church, “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.” I will take faith over foretelling future any day. It puts us all where we belong: in the hands of God.
Most Reverend William F. Medley
Diocese of Owensboro
Originally printed in the March 2021 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.