Sunday, August 02, 2020

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress . . . or Covid-19?

Jerry Sittser

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 2, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145:8-18; Romans 8:35-39; Matthew 14:13-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Eighteenth Sunday 2020]

In his book, They Shall Be Comforted, Fr. Joseph Nolan, who taught theology at Boston College for many years, writes about a man named Jerry Sittser, who lost his wife, mother and daughter in a horrible car accident.

I thought of Jerry as I prepared for this homily, because I think he's someone who has come to understand deeply the words of St. Paul in today's second reading from Romans 8: “What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword?  No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.”

Not surprisingly, after he lost these three people who were so close to him, Jerry received many letters of condolence and support from concerned friends and loved ones.  Often these letters contained the idea that what happened to him was grossly unfair and horribly unjust.  Jerry struggled with this idea for some time, but he finally came to this conclusion:

Over time I began to be bothered by the assumption that I had a right to complete fairness.  Granted, I did not deserve to lose three members of my family.  But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. . . . Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths; but I did not deserve their presence in my life, either.  On the face of it, living in a perfectly fair world appeals to me.  But deeper reflection makes me wonder.  In such a world I might never experience tragedy; but neither would I experience grace, especially the grace God gave me in the form of three wonderful people whom I lost. . . . So, God spare us a lifetime of fairness!  To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world with absolute fairness.  A fair world might make things nice for us, but only as nice as we are.  We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied.  A world with grace will give us more than we deserve.  It will give us life, even in our suffering.

This is what St. Paul is telling us when he says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The only thing that separates us from Christ and his love is mortal sin.  And, praise God, that doesn’t have to be a permanent separation!  That can be dealt with very quickly and very effectively in the sacrament of Reconciliation—if we have the good sense to go to confession when we need to go and have the opportunity.  (Here at St. Pius, of course, we have the opportunity every Wednesday afternoon at 5pm and every Saturday afternoon at 3:30pm—or anytime by appointment.) 

But other than that—other than when we’re in the state of mortal sin—every situation we face in this life is an occasion where God's grace can bring forth good fruit.  Jerry Sittser, in the midst of his pain, has experienced this truth personally.  Through Christ he has conquered, by allowing the Lord's grace to sustain him—and enlighten him—in his hour of need. 

He’s experienced a true victory here—a spiritual victory over the confusion and the anger and the despair that would threaten any one of us, if we lost three loved ones in such a sudden and tragic way.

Applying this now to ourselves and to our common experience since mid-March.  Here’s an interesting question: If St. Paul were physically present in our world today, would he add one more item to his list in verse 35?  Would he say, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword—or Covid-19?”

He might.  He certainly could.  The coronavirus would definitely be a valid addition to his question!

Sadly, I’m sure there are many Christians in the world right now who have turned away from the Lord since this pandemic began: people who have allowed their anguish and their distress to either weaken or destroy their faith.

And that’s a tragedy.

But others, thanks be to God, have responded in exactly the opposite way.  They haven’t allowed this terrible virus to separate them from Christ and his love, rather they’ve used this situation as an opportunity to grow in their relationship with the Lord, and in their relationships with other people—especially, in many cases, the members of their own families.

And many have rearranged their priorities as well—something that Pope Francis suggested in an address he gave on March 27, at the very beginning of the crisis.  Addressing God at one point in his talk, the pope said that “it is not the time of your judgment, [Lord], but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others."

Those who have followed that advice since late March, and who’ve drawn closer to the Lord and others, have experienced victory in their lives—the same victory St. Paul talks about in this text: victory over anguish and distress and anger and fear—and all those forces that threaten to drag us down as human beings (even when we’re not in a crisis!).  And they’ve experienced this victory even if they’ve had the virus and died from it.  Yes, the virus defeated them physically, but it could not—and did not—defeat them spiritually.

And since our souls and not our mortal bodies will live on forever, in the end the spiritual victories we win in our lives will be the ones that will matter the most.