Jesus and Social Distancing

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The Pool of Bethesda by Robert Bateman (1836–1889), Yale Center for British Art / Public domain

Since Italy has been suffering horrible effects of the coronavirus, the daily Mass celebrated by Pope Francis has been televised. This was begun because so many churches are closing to help mitigate the public health crisis.

This morning Mass is a quiet event with no more than 10 people in attendance. The Pope leads the Mass. An older vowed religious sister reads the first pericope and the responsorial Psalm, and a priest reads the Gospel in Italian. The Holy Father offers a homily, typically with no written notes.

After the Mass, there is a time of Eucharistic Adoration that lasts for about 10 minutes.

Because I’m usually awake at midnight Mountain Time due to my chronic illness, I tune in. Like millions of others, I make an act of spiritual communion and find consolation in the source and summit of the Catholic faith.

I have also received a thorough spiritual education from Pope Francis. He offers each Mass for groups of people suffering various consequences of COVID-19. Patients, doctors, healthcare workers, the elderly, parents and children, and people suffering economic hardships have all been in his daily prayers. These offerings have made me more aware of those who are wrestling with this plague.

His homilies are short and direct, and you can read them or watch them. Once, he spoke about three qualities for prayer: faith, perseverance, and courage. Another time he told people to make their confession to God and then seek a priest as soon as the quarantines are over

On March 24, 2020, Pope Francis made comments related to the day’s Gospel from John 5:1–16. This contains the story of Jesus healing a man at the Pool of Bethesda. A man who was unable to walk for 38 years felt apathy when Jesus asked him if he wanted healed. He complained that others always got into the pool before he did, and no one would help him.

I felt empathy for the man. I suffer from chronic pain in my legs and feet, and I find it difficult to get up and do things for myself. I use a cane and a walker, and I recently purchased a wheelchair. Sometimes I feel left out of life because I am mostly confined to the house.

But Pope Francis made a comment that shook me.

The attitude of this man makes us think. Was he sick? Yes, perhaps he had some paralysis; although, it seems he could walk a bit. However, he was sick in his heart; he was sick in his soul; he was sick with pessimism; he was sick with sadness; he was sick with apathy. This is the illness of this man: “Yes, I want to live, but . . . he was there. However, his answer should have been: “Yes, I want to be healed!” His answer to Jesus’ offer to heal him is a complaint against others. And so, he spent 38 years complaining about others, and doing nothing to be healed.

A piquant Pope Francis went on to observe that after the healing, the man felt neither joy nor gratitude. He walked for the first time in his life, but felt no happiness, no thankfulness, no excitement. Pope Francis noted that the man went on to live a “grey life, but grey from this evil spirit that is apathy, sadness, melancholy.”

At first, this message seemed sharp for the time and in contrast to the pontiff’s other recent homilies. People are suffering and dying. Maybe he could have made a comment about the fact that the man had been alone for 38 years without help; therefore, we should not abandon our sisters and brother in their time of need. Or he could have made a distinction between social distancing that is for the good of others as opposed to social abandoning of people who are sick or disabled.

But during the Eucharistic Adoration, the pope’s words sunk in. I have been chronically ill for many years. At times I am grateful for the lessons of humility and dependence that my disease has taught me. However, when I examine my conscience honestly, I see a heart filled with resentment, anger, and complaining.

I felt like the Pope was talking directly to me.

His was the sin of surviving and of complaining about the life of others: the sin of sadness, which is the devil’s seed, of that capacity to take a decision on one’s life, and yes, to look at others’ life to complain. Not to criticize them but to complain. “They go first, I am the victim of this life”: complaints, these people breathe complaints

To compound matters, my mother died twelve days ago. The coronavirus lockdowns have made it impossible for me to fly back to Ohio to mourn with my sister. My illness, my mother’s death, and the virus have combined to increase my complaints exponentially.

Of course, there is legitimate grief. And no one would ever suggest that depression and anxiety (I am treated for both) are moral faults. But I have felt the way that Pope Francis is describing. This is self-pity, which is little more than a distorted form of pride.

It surprised me, and I did not realize I was in its power until I head Pope Francis’ homily.

Following the advice from his earlier homily about confession, I acknowledged my sin before God and promised to go to sacramental confession as soon as possible — which I look forward to for two reasons.

First is to hear the reassurance of absolution:

God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Second is to receive spiritual advice from my confessor who always provides sound wisdom. I’m eager to learn what he suggests.

I don’t know how this homily struck other people who heard it. I wonder, though, what prompted this interpretation from the pope. Is this the traditional interpretation? Was it a way to encourage people with a message of developing fortitude? Or maybe it was directed to people who feel entitled to society continuing as it was before? He could have been addressing people in the Vatican, bishops around the world, or a situation unrelated to coronavirus.

One of the lessons I’ve learned of the self-isolation and social distancing comes from a single line in the Gospel reading. “One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him…”

Jesus saw the man.

In our social distancing isolation, Jesus sees us. He does not leave us alone, even in the direst circumstances. Christ knew the man had been lying alone for a long time — ill, weak, dirty, and depressed.

Even if he had given up hope and had become bitter toward others, his circumstances, or God, Jesus noticed him and spoke to him. Jesus did not abandon the man by the Pool of Bethesda, and he does not forsake us. Jesus sees us.

Written by

A former elementary educator with a physical disability. @disabledsaints

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