A man walks past a sign during a news media tour of quarantine facilities for treating COVID-19 at a hospital in Montreal. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Luke Stocking: In the face of our fears we need signs of peace

  • March 21, 2020

I had a coronavirus earlier this year.

Not THAT coronavirus. It was just a common cold, which is one of the many types of coronaviruses out there.

I don’t think much about the common cold, but that other coronavirus, whose scientific name is SARS-CoV-2 (increasingly referred to as COVID-19), occupies my thoughts. How is one to act? What is the right thing to do?

On a recent Sunday I played a game of paper-rock-scissors during the sign of peace. I turned to the parishioner behind me and extended my hand. There was a pause. I made a fist for a fist bump instead (not actually sure that this is more hygienic). As I made the fist, he extended his hand. Seeing this, I went to extend my hand again. As I did, he made a fist.

“You guys went back and forth like five times” my son laughed afterwards.

Eventually I said, “I’m going to just shake your hand,” and we did.

You shouldn’t do that now though. Shaking hands at the sign of peace is out as of March 10 in the Archdiocese of Toronto, where I live.

We may be washing our own hands these days more than shaking others’, but we should certainly not cease to extend signs of peace in such times. We should be signs of peace in all that we do and trying to show signs of peace by preventing ourselves from falling into the various temptations that crisis invites.

When there is something frightening in the world like a new and spreading virus, people trot out all their other fears.

Fear governments? “COVID-19 is a biological weapon of the (U.S.) (Zionist) (Chinese) government.”

Fear homosexuality? “COVID-19 is God punishing society for tolerating homosexuality.”

Fear for your money and wealth? “Sell all your stocks! Buy all the toilet paper! Invest in hand sanitizer!”

Fear other cultures? “Stay away from Asians (and also Iranians) (and also Italians) they all have COVID-19” … so on and so on.

Fear is not just for conspiracy theorists and bankers. It affects all of us. It is natural. We need to be aware of what fears arise in us as we experience a global moment in which a virus has spread to over 100 countries.

Signs of peace are needed to see us through this. Peace is needed to prevent racism, hatred, panic and just plain bad decisions. Let’s pray for peace within ourselves to meet and encounter all our fears.

Peace is not an excuse for irresponsibility. It is not to say, “carry on as normal.” It simply means acting from a place that is ultimately not rooted in fear but in care and concern for our brothers and sisters.

I was tempted to dismiss caution at first. I was guilty of the idea that since neither I nor my family were personally at risk (being all relatively young with robust immune systems), I didn’t need to worry and could even make fun of people who did. It was pointed out to me that while I may not be at risk, my actions (or lack of action) could endanger people who are — elderly, infirm or otherwise.

My attitude was not one of care and concern for others — so I changed it. I wash my hands more often (which is just a good hygiene practice anyway) and follow the advice of public health officials where I live. I listen to people’s fears and pray for all those affected. I am trying to act from a place of peace.

When we act with concern and care for others, we see that such times are not only occasions for fear, but also for the very best the human spirit has to offer. We see glimpses of God’s plan for humanity. 

Pope Francis recently published an open letter in a newspaper in the northern Italian city of Padua to express his care for the people suffering there and elsewhere. In it he said that “even in these moments, God is speaking to us.” That voice is not one announcing a condemning punishment, but rather inviting us “to see what men and women of good will are capable of.”

As it turns out, Padua is focused on volunteering this year with the theme Ricucire insieme l’Italia (Sew Italy together). Commenting on this, the Pope said, “Sewing is a verb that recalls stitching and mending, operations that are most necessary after a tear, an injury. Today we are subjected to the temptation to throw away rather than repair, to break up rather than mend: it is the fate that we reserve not only for objects, but also for people, especially the most defenceless.”

We need to resist these temptations in the face of COVID-19. Rather than bring out fear let’s bring out the best we have to offer and answer the Lord’s invitation to see what we are capable of.

(Stocking is Development and Peace Deputy Director of Public Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions.) 

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