A resident of Scarborough Retirement Residence shares his gratitude for frontline workers. Michael Swan

Inspired by love and grounded in hope

By 
  • June 24, 2020

Prudence, courage, temperance and justice won’t stop a virus. When it comes to microbiology, the cardinal virtues are largely irrelevant. 

As Canada slips by 100,000 COVID-19 infections, having breezed past 8,000 deaths, we have learned the pandemic cares not for our virtues. The sick and the dead include good people and bad, the virtuous and the damned.

As we open up our economy, demanding haircuts and restaurant meals — despite the risks of sparking a new wave of the virus — we might be tempted to forget that this virus has taken from us far greater things than baseball games and vacations abroad. 

In May, the Jesuits lost seven good men of prayer at their infirmary in Pickering, Ont. At the end of April, as the virus was beginning to take hold among the 22 men living there, Fr. Gilles Mongeau asked for permission to go and help out.

“What I remember of my choice to go to Pickering is that yes, the risks were present to me, but they were not my focus. If they had been, I could not have done my job,” Mongeau told The Catholic Register in an email.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “The principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them.” 

In sussing out the virtues of courage and fortitude, Aquinas wanted most of all to distinguish them from mere bravado. The 13th-century theologian’s hero didn’t stride into battle and conquer. His hero refused to fight. His hero carried His cross and was willing to accept death.

That’s a sort of heroism, a brand of courage, we have seen over and over through the COVID-19 period. Ambulance drivers, personal-support workers, first responders, homeless shelter workers, priests, doctors, nurses, volunteers, cashiers, migrant farm workers and many more have gone to work every day and done what they can for others. Some of them have died. Those who died and those still with us have given themselves to the daily toil of life with little thought of their reward. 

They expect their paycheques, but mostly they work out of a sense of duty inspired by love and grounded in hope.

Call it the Catholic work ethic. Our response should be deep gratitude.

When he volunteered to go to Pickering, Mongeau was right-hand man (formally, his job title is “socius”) to the Jesuit provincial superior in Montreal. He is responsible for the smooth functioning of Jesuit communities and institutions across Canada. Until the summer of 2018, Mongeau was a theology professor at Regis College in Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading experts in the 20th century French movement known as resourcement theology. He is also a noted scholar of the writing of St. Augustine of Hippo.

None of Mongeau’s very considerable education prepared him to be a personal support worker in a long-term care facility. So, to be there for his brother Jesuits required courage. But before the issue of risking danger even arises, Mongeau’s trip to Pickering required love — the desire, even need, to be there with someone. Love will not allow us to stand apart while those we love face a crisis alone. 

“When I asked the provincial to let me go, what was foremost in my mind, the focus of my intentions, if you will, was to do the work that was necessary to help the Jesuits in the infirmary get better. I went, not to be courageous but to wash toilets and floors,” he recalled.

By the time he got there the job had already changed.

“I was there to help wipe bottoms and change adult briefs and wash bodies and carry them out after they died,” he said. “And pray with the dying.”

Love, of course, is the greatest virtue — even if those other four are called cardinal virtues. But love is proven in perseverance, persistence, endurance. 

Mongeau and younger Jesuits who also volunteered with him were transformed into frontline workers. They faced the doubts, fears, exhaustion and even helplessness that all frontline workers have dealt with through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like any of us, Mongeau is qualified to pray. He also has the experience and training to encourage and lead and organize. There in Pickering with a team of young Jesuits still studying for priesthood, he found himself doing that as well.

As with any frontline worker, from hospital respirologists to delivery drivers, for Mongeau and his young team courage consisted of getting up each morning and doing their job. This is not courage in the Hollywood sense of recklessness in the face of death. Nobody was standing on the ramparts while arrows wizzed by. But they had the courage to stick with it, to remain true, to keep the faith.

“That, I think, properly transposed to the case of employees, is what is going on in the hearts and minds of so-called frontline workers,” said Mongeau. “The ones who couldn’t get their minds off the risks and dangers quit and went home. The ones who stayed took reasonable precautions and focused on cleaning floors and bodies and toilets and giving medication and smiling and taking temperatures and so on. 

“But they weren’t thinking about being courageous or virtuous. And they did not begrudge their colleagues who quit (or question) their decision to leave, or think them cowards. They made no judgments, but nodded their heads with understanding and got back to work.”

Among the best things St. Francis of Assisi never said is this: “Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in His sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received, but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage.”

High school valedictorians have been attributing those words to St. Francis for some time, but just like the Peace Prayer of St. Francis (actually written in 1912, 686 years after the saint died), Francis never said them. But were he with us today he might. 

Pope Francis has insisted over and over that work is an essential part of human dignity. Doing your job isn’t just about the money, says the Pope. It’s about playing your part in the human drama, especially when death is waiting in the wings.

“When work is detached from God’s covenant with man and woman, it is separated from its spiritual qualities,” Pope Francis said in 2015. “When work is held hostage by the logic of profit alone and human life is disregarded, the degradation of the soul contaminates everything: even the air, water, grass, food ... the life of society is corrupted and the habitat breaks down.”

Work undertaken despite danger, discouragement, uncertainty and even the weariness of it all ought to inspire our gratitude. It’s worth saying now, through the rising mists of this pandemic, that we thank all those around us who have worked. A heart-felt thank you is owed them while we hope for something new, something better, on the other side of this global crisis. 

Our future will be as good as we find the courage to hope for. May our courage never fail. May love keep us mindful of others and courage send us to work.

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