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New book aims to help Catholics find Christ in the coronavirus pandemic

January 17, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Victoria, Canada, Jan 17, 2021 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- When Father Harrison Ayre looks back on 2020 and the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the phrase that immediately comes to his mind is ‘dazed and confused.’ 

“I look back and I think to myself, ‘Oh, I could have put [that] more pastorally here and there,’” Fr. Ayre said. “But I’m also quite forgiving of myself in that regard because I think we were just all dazed and confused and no one knew what to do, because virtually everyone has no experience with a worldwide pandemic to base this off of.”

Fr. Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria in Canada, and co-host of the podcast ‘Clerically Speaking.’ His diocese initially suspended public Masses in March of 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Despite the early days of lockdown being a challenging and scary time in so many ways, Father Harrison remembers something else that happened during that time.  

“For me personally, it was actually a time of great spiritual renewal,” he said. “My prayer life was never as good as it was in those three months of kind of initial lockdowns and closures. It was a really a time of intimacy with the Lord, and praying – really interceding for the Church.”

A big part of that spiritual renewal involved the Bible. 

“The Bible is not just a historical document that tells us about the past, but rather it’s something living. God is speaking to the Church today through the events of scripture. Scripture is always pumping, alive.” 

The situation of global lockdown caused Fr. Ayre to read certain Bible passages with fresh eyes. For example, the story of Israel’s exile to Babylon, in the Old Testament. 

“They lost the temple, they lost the kingship, they lost their land…Everything that made them, the Jewish people, the chosen people of God, was removed from them,” he said.

“And in that process of that absence from everything, they actually came to a deeper appreciation of who God was and it purified them…It helped them see that God is not just the God of our land. This is the God of the universe. This is the true King. And they came back with a renewed energy and a renewed life into their vocation to be the light to the world.”

Fr. Ayre said the Church is a new Israel, and we can look at the events of Israel to help us try to understand what is happening in the Church today. 

“This is not new in the history of God’s working with his people. He does this with Israel,” he said. “This has happened in history before too in the Church, with other plagues and churches closed down. This is not a unique moment. This is how God often acts to bring us to an even deeper vigor.”

“There’s a deep hope here for renewal, for the Church, if we can open our hearts to listen.”

Fr. Ayre’s experience of spiritual renewal is something he hopes to share with the world through a new book – “Finding Christ in the Crisis: What the Pandemic Can Teach Us.” He co-wrote the book with Michael Heinlein, his editor at the Our Sunday Visitor publication Simply Catholic.

Fr. Ayre said the book was inspired by conversations he and Michael had during the initial lockdowns.

“We were just noticing … reactionism to a lot of things that were happening, instead of quiet receptivity,” Fr. Ayre said. “Sometimes there were perhaps some unhealthy attitudes manifesting itself. That’s not always a bad thing, per se. It’s not a judgment, it’s just a revelation.” 

As the two talked more and more about it, they decided to create a series of articles that could publish on the Simply Catholic website. But Fr. Ayre said it didn’t seem like it was enough. 

“As we kind of talked about more and more, we said, ‘no, this needs to be like a resource that you can hand out to people.’ We just want this to be a tool to help build hope and to build up the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.”

“Finding Christ in the Crisis” was published in the fall of 2020. The book was written in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but Fr. Ayre hopes it can serve as a resource for Catholics navigating other crises in the life of the Church. 

“The Church is not immune to crises,” he said. “And so we just hope and pray that this is asking that big question, ‘where is Christ in this?’”

Fr. Ayre emphasized that we can be realistic about the difficulties of this time, while still maintaining the virtue of Christian hope. 

“I think there is a balance there… But when we do feel down or alone or discouraged – that those feelings won’t go away, per se, but the Christian faith says that this is where the cross is at work,” he said. “Often that’s the place where Christ actually might be showing his closeness to us.”

“But the cross is still a cross. When we say that the cross is really the source of hope as a Christian, it doesn’t remove the pain of the cross. It just inserts God’s presence into that pain.”

“When we’re feeling discouraged alone, angry…It only becomes a problem when we don’t do that rooted in Christian hope, which is not wishful thinking. But rather to say, I recognize the presence of Christ here. When I’m discouraged, Christ is suffering that with me because he has taken on our humanity to suffer this with me. When I’m feeling alone, the Lord is alone with me, so that I’m actually really not alone.”

“Finding Christ in the Crisis” is available on Amazon and Our Sunday Visitor. 

This interview originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the interview below, beginning at 3:30. 

 

CNA Newsroom · Ep. 89: Taking Back the Year


[…]

No Picture
News Briefs

Pope Francis: The greatest joy for every believer is to respond to God’s call

January 17, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Vatican City, Jan 17, 2021 / 06:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Sunday that great joy is found when one offers his life in service to God’s call.

“There are different ways of carrying out the plan that God has for each of us, which is always a plan of love. … And the greatest joy for every believer is to respond to this call, to offer all of himself at the service of God and his brothers and sisters,” Pope Francis said in his Angelus address Jan. 17.

Speaking from the library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, the pope said that each time that God calls someone it is “an initiative of His love.”

“God calls to life, He calls to faith, and He calls to a particular state in life,” he said.

“God’s first call is to life, through which He makes us persons; it is an individual call because God does not make things in sets. Then God calls us to faith and to become part of His family as children of God. Lastly, God calls us to a particular state in life: to give of ourselves on the path of marriage, or that of the priesthood or the consecrated life.”

In the live video broadcast, the pope offered a reflection on Jesus’ first encounter and call of his disciples Andrew and Simon Peter in the Gospel of John.

“The two follow Him and remained that  afternoon with Him. It is not difficult to imagine them seated asking Him questions and above all  listening to Him, feeling their hearts inflamed ever more while the Master spoke,” he said.

“They sense the beauty of the words that respond to their greatest hope. And all of a sudden they discover that, even though it is evening, … that light that only God can give burst within them. … When they leave and return to their  brothers, that joy, this light overflows from their hearts like a raging river. One of the two, Andrew, tells his brother Simon – whom Jesus will call Peter when he meets him: ‘We have found the Messiah.’”

Pope Francis said that God’s call is always love and should always be responded to only with love.

“Brothers and sisters, faced with the call of the Lord, which can reach us in a thousand ways even through people, happy or sad events, sometimes our attitude can be one of rejection: ‘No, I’m afraid” — rejection because it seems contrary to our aspirations; and also fear, because we consider it too demanding and uncomfortable: ‘Oh I won’t make it, better not, better a more peaceful life… God there, I am here.’ But God’s call is love, we must try to find the love that is behind every call, and respond to it only with love,” he said.

“At the beginning there is an encounter, or rather, there is ‘the encounter’ with Jesus who speaks to us of His Father, He makes His love known to us. And then the desire to communicate it to the people we love will spontaneously arise within us too: ‘I met Love.’ ‘I met the Messiah.’ ‘I met God.’ ‘I met Jesus.’ ‘I found the meaning of life.’ In a word: ‘I found God.’”

The pope invited each person to remember the moment in his life in which “God made himself present more strongly, with a call.”

At the end of his Angelus address, Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the people of the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia, which was hit by a strong earthquake on Jan. 15.

“I pray for the dead, for the wounded and for those who have lost their homes and jobs. May the Lord comfort them and support the efforts of those who are committed to helping,” the pope said.

Pope Francis also recalled that the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” will begin Jan. 18. This year’s theme is “Remain in my love and you will bear much fruit.”

“In these days, let us pray together so that Jesus’ desire may be fulfilled: ‘That all may be one.’ Unity is always superior to conflict,” he said.


[…]

No Picture
News Briefs

Catholic theater company launches radio plays, with theme of quarantine

January 17, 2021 CNA Daily News 0

Denver Newsroom, Jan 17, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).- For decades, radio was Americans’ primary source of news and entertainment, before being largely superseded by television, and eventually the internet. 

Now, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, radio theater has returned— with the goal of conveying Catholic themes in highly-produced, entertaining, 10-minute packages. 

The Merry Beggars is a Catholic theater company based in Manhattan. Peter Atkinson, a stage actor and CEO of the Merry Beggars, banded together with several fellow actors to help found the nonprofit in 2019. 

Atkinson described The Merry Beggar’s mission as bringing together “professional artists who are excellent at their craft and seeking to tell stories for the glory of God.”

As anyone who has worked in the entertainment industry knows, it can be very difficult for writers to get their work produced, especially when it comes to films, plays, or television. And this is especially true for works that convey an authentic Christian message. 

Similarly, it can be difficult for Catholic actors to make their way in the entertainment industry— a world in which many projects may clash with a Catholic worldview.

“I’ve seen so many Christian and Catholic artists want to go into the acting industry and the entertainment industry, and it’s a really hard industry to make your way in,” Atkinson told CNA, adding that he knows many Catholics who have given up acting careers, or have abandoned their faith in the hopes of advancing in the industry. 

“One of the things that I’m really passionate about is supporting Catholic artists and Christian artists to make work that can transform our culture,” he said. 

Before the pandemic took hold, The Merry Beggars were planning numerous in-person events for 2020, including a conference for high school drama teachers and local events for artists in New York and Washington D.C. 

When lockdowns and restrictions made in-person events impossible— or at least far less popular— Atkinson said he and the nonprofit’s board of directors set about adjusting their plans, while keeping their mission the same. 

Atkinson has long been a lover of radio theater, having grown up listening to classic programs such as “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow.” So, he suggested the idea of producing radio plays as a way to support actors and writers while theaters remained closed amid the lockdowns. 

Moreover, they decided to make the initiative a competition, calling on prospective playwrights to send in scripts for 10-minute radio plays. The plots would be entirely up to the playwrights, prompted only by the theme: “quarantine.”

Atkinson said the idea for the theme came from one of the board members, a Catholic priest, who noted that some aspects of quarantine are similar to cloistered religious life.  

The response to the contest was almost overwhelming, he said— they received over 120 submissions, from all over the world, even as far away as Kenya. Atkinson assembled a team of 37 judges to pore over the scripts and select their top three. 

The plots of the 10-minute plays, despite all being inspired by “quarantine,” varied widely— from allegorical retellings of Adam and Eve in the garden, to astronauts conversing on the International Space Station, to something as simple as two young people’s inner monologues during lockdown in New York. 

While not every play they received was good enough to produce, Atkinson said it was so difficult to choose just the top three, they committed to producing their favorite twelve. As of Jan. 2021, The Merry Beggars have released three plays so far.  

The first play The Merry Beggars released is titled “Do You Remember? With Relaxabot 938.” The play features a fictional radio broadcast within a post-apocalyptic soundscape.

The latest play to be released, “I Do Like The Rain,” follows the interplay between members of a young family stuck in a late-night traffic jam, and touches on themes of resentment and grace. 

“It’s a really simple script, but it’s really beautiful,” Atkinson commented.

“The script is about a husband and wife’s interior journey to some old family wounds that they have, and then the beginning of a journey of healing.”

Atkinson worked with the artists whose plays they picked, to hear from them about their ideas for how to turn the script into a compelling radio play. 

Producing the plays presented technical challenges, as the voice actors they selected— out of many hundreds of auditions— each had to record their own voices in home studios, with the editors stitching the dialogue together in post-production. 

Atkinson coached the voice actors as they were recording, observing and offering direction to the actors via video chat. 

Despite the asynchronous nature of the recording process, Atkinson’s coaching and careful editing helped make the dialogue sound natural. 

The setting of “I Do Like the Rain” features a family of four— including two child actors— in a minivan, none of whom ever actually occupied the same space during the recording process. 

“Even though they were never in the same room and they’re recorded at completely different hours of the day, it sounds like they’re all in the same minivan together. And it’s just magical to me,” Atkinson said. 

Atkinson says they plan to release a new Quarantine Play every month, along with smaller plays called The Dailies. He said The Merry Beggars hope to eventually put on workshops for Catholics looking to connect with entertainment industry professionals, in New York City and beyond. 

“To me, the way that you heal the culture is you tell the truth about the human person. And the truth about the human person is that we’re made for God,” Atkinson said. 

“I think these stories do a really tender and beautiful job of touching upon our need for God and how, in quarantine, that quiet desire for God can surface in a really beautiful, tender and fragile way.”

Kate Olivera contributed to this report. 

This interview originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the interview below, beginning at 18:40. 

CNA Newsroom · Ep. 89: Taking Back the Year

 


[…]

No Picture
News Briefs

As Ireland examines mistreatment of unwed mothers, Catholic bishops apologize for ‘abject failure’

January 16, 2021 CNA Daily News 1

CNA Staff, Jan 16, 2021 / 04:28 pm (CNA).- Catholic bishops have welcomed an Irish government report on 20th century homes for unmarried mothers and babies run by local governments and often operated by religious orders. They have apologized for the harsh treatment of unmarried mothers and their children, calling this a betrayal of Christ.

“Although it may be distressing, it is important that all of us spend time in the coming days reflecting on this report which touches on the personal story and experience of many families in Ireland,” Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh said Jan. 12.

“The commission’s report helps to further open to the light what was for many years a hidden part of our shared history and it exposes the culture of isolation, secrecy and social ostracizing which faced ‘unmarried mothers’ and their children in this country.”

He urged continued outreach to those whose personal testimony was central to the report.

“We owe it to them to take time to study and reflect on the findings and recommendations of the Report, and commit to doing what we can to help and support them,” he said. “We must identify, accept and respond to the broader issues which the report raises about our past, present and future.”

The Irish Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes released its report Jan. 12. The six-year inquiry concerned 14 “mother and baby” homes and four “county homes” in the time period of 1922 to 1998. The report examines individual homes and individual witness testimonies as well as providing historical context for the actions of the women, their babies’ fathers, their families, government officials, and religious leaders involved.

“Women who gave birth outside of marriage were subject to particularly harsh treatment. Responsibility for that harsh treatment rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families,” said the report. “It was supported by, contributed to, and condoned by, the institutions of the State and the Churches.”

“However, it must be acknowledged that the institutions under investigation provided a refuge – a harsh refuge in some cases – when the families provided no refuge at all,” it added.

About 56,000 women and girls, as young as 12 or in their forties, were sent to these institutions. The county homes were government-run and -operated, while the mother and baby homes were generally run with government support by Catholic religious religious orders, technically under the authority of their local bishop.

About 57,000 babies were born in the homes over this 76-year period. There was a significant mortality rate, with 15 percent of babies dying before they left the homes. The high mortality rate was known to authorities and recorded, but there was no outcry and little effort to address these problems. The commission report said the high infant mortality rate was the institutions’ most “disquieting feature.” Before 1960, the institutions appeared to have “significantly reduced” survival prospects.

Some county homes had “appalling physical conditions,” as did the homes at Tuam, in County Galway, and Kilrush, in County Clare. Other homes were “considerably better.”
While poor living conditions were common in Ireland, poor sanitary conditions in the group homes had “much more serious consequences.” There was oversight and inspection reports were critical of conditions, but maximum capacity figures were not set for mother and baby homes until the 1940s. These figures were not enforced, because they would have massively reduced the homes’ capacity.

Archbishop Martin welcomed the report, saying, “as a Church leader today, I accept that the Church was clearly part of that culture in which people were frequently stigmatized, judged and rejected.” He “unreservedly apologized” to the survivors and all impacted for the enduring hurt and emotional distress.

“As Church, State and wider society we must ensure together that, in the Ireland of today, all children and their mothers feel wanted, welcomed and loved,” Archbishop Martin said. We must also continue to ask ourselves where people today might feel similarly rejected, abandoned, forgotten or pushed to the margins.”

“Mindful of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which calls us to protect life and dignity and to treat everyone – especially little children and all who are vulnerable – with love, compassion and mercy, I believe the Church must continue to acknowledge before the Lord and before others its part in sustaining what the Report describes as a ‘harsh … cold and uncaring atmosphere’,” Martin said.

While some 200 women who gave birth died while living at mother and baby homes, the report indicated that they likely received better maternal care than most Irish women through the 1960s or 1970s, as most gave birth at home with the aid of a midwife or even an untrained aid. Many Irish homes lacked running water. At the same time, county hospitals discriminated against unmarried women and would not admit them to maternity wards until the 1960s.

The report attributed the end of the homes to massive improvements in living conditions, changes in religious and moral attitudes, as well as gradual improvements like free post-primary education, the establishment of legal adoption in 1953, and an allowance for unmarried mothers in 1973.

Providing historical context, the report said that such homes were not particular to Ireland, at the same time the proportion of unmarried mothers admitted to these homes in the 20th century was “probably the highest in the world.” The group home system was believed to reduce the women’s risk of entering prostitution or committing infanticide. The system also purported to advance their moral reform.

“Some pregnancies were the result of rape; some women had mental health problems, some had an intellectual disability. However, the majority were indistinguishable from most Irish women of their time,” said the report.

In the first decades of the time period concerned, most women admitted to the institutions were domestic servants, farm workers, or unpaid domestic workers in their family homes. In later decades, women were clerical workers, civil servants, professionals, and schoolgirls or post-secondary students.

Many of these pregnant women had failed to secure support from their families or the fathers of the babies and were destitute. Some women entered the homes to prevent family and neighbors from learning they were pregnant. Some were forcibly brought to the homes by family members. There was no evidence that pregnancies among under-age women were routinely reported to police. There is no evidence Church or state officials forced them to enter, but most women “had no alternative,” the report said.

Most were financially supported in the institutions by the local government health authority. Many women were cut off from the world and assigned a “house name.”

Both Irish men and women were more likely to be dependent on their parents into their early twenties. Families tended to have many children and would be less able to support an unmarried daughter’s baby. An out-of-wedlock birth could destroy marriage prospects for both the woman and her siblings.

Irish men were also reluctant to marry, especially to marry young. The commission said it is possible that fewer men married their pregnant girlfriend than they did in other countries. Land inheritance customs and economic necessity meant land passed only to one son.

It was often impossible for pregnant women to prove paternity claims, and compared to other countries a low proportion of Irish men acknowledged paternity or provided financial support. Before 1950, many fathers were themselves financially imperiled, working low-wage jobs or unpaid jobs for family farms and businesses.

Most children born in the institutions were too young to remember, but some stayed after their mothers left through age seven. Legal adoption, which the report called a “vastly better outcome,” was not available until 1953, with farming communities still proving less likely to adopt. Children often ended up in industrial schools or were boarded out.

While the Catholic hierarchy evidently had no role in the day-to-day operation of mother and baby homes, religious congregations who opened such homes required the local bishop’s permission. Local authorities often deferred to the views of these religious orders or to the views of the local bishop.

“The Catholic church did not invent Irish attitudes to prudent marriages or family respectability; however, it reinforced them through church teachings that emphasized the importance of pre-marital purity and the sexual dangers associated with dance halls, immodest dress, mixed bathing and other sources of ‘temptation’,” said the report.

There is no evidence the religious orders running these homes made a profit, said the report, which added: “At various times, it is clear that they struggled to make ends meet.”

The report suggested that the mortality rate was higher than the Irish norm either because of the high risk of infection, or because the children born in mother and baby homes came from less privileged backgrounds than other women who gave birth out-of-wedlock but had healthier pregnancies and healthier babies. Women who gave birth in the homes had more stressful lives and worse pre-natal care and nutrition. There was a failure to implement appropriate hygiene standards at the homes and to educate mothers about hygiene. Almost all the homes lacked the staff needed to perform such education.

Infant mortality rates at the homes peaked in the 1940s, a time of economic difficulty due in significant part to the Second World War.

Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin welcomed the report’s publication, saying such reports “bring to light the profound injustices perpetrated against the vulnerable in our society over a long period of time – against women and children whose lives were regarded as less important than the lives of others.”

“The silence which surrounded this shameful time in the history of our land had long needed to be shattered,” he said. “The pain of those who were hidden away must be heard; those once largely without a voice now can speak clearly to our world, and we need to listen, even when what we hear pierces to the heart.”

“A genuine response is required: ours – as a Church and a society – can only be a full apology, without any reservation. There should never have been a time for avoidance and facile solutions,” he said. “This country, the Church, our communities and families are better places when the light of truth and healing are welcomed. May the Lord’s compassion be the touchstone of our response. May the light of Christ bring healing to all.”

Bishop Tom Deenihan of Meath also apologized, saying: “While a lack of resources and an intense social poverty go some way towards contextualizing the period of this report, the lack of kindness and compassion, as identified by the commission, is also clear.”

Residents and children born in these institutions suffered from “unacceptable conditions” and inadequate assistance, and they have been “unfairly burdened with an unwarranted but enduring sense of shame,” he said.

The long-closed Tuam Children’s Home in County Galway became notorious after the discovery of an unmarked mass grave for children. Some 2,219 women and 3,251 children had been at the home, and 978 children died—80 percent before their first birthday.

The home was operated by the Bon Secours Sisters in from 1925 to 1961. In addition to unmarried mothers and their babies, it also accepted children of destitute and homeless families as well as children with special needs.

It is likely that many children who died are buried in the memorial gardens, but while there are records of their deaths there is no record of their burial places.

The Bon Secours sisters offered “profound apologies.” They said that the children who died at the home were buried in a “disrespectful and unacceptable way,” the Irish Times reports.

Sister Eileen O’Connor, the local superior of the Bon Secour Sisters, said Jan. 12 that the report “presents a history of our country in which many women and children were rejected, silenced and excluded; in which they were subjected to hardship; and in which their inherent human dignity was disrespected, in life and in death. Our Sisters of Bon Secours were part of this sorrowful history.”

“We failed to respect the inherent dignity of the women and children who came to the home. We failed to offer them the compassion that they so badly needed. We were part of the system in which they suffered hardship, loneliness and terrible hurt,” O’Connor said. “We acknowledge in particular that infants and children who died at the home were buried in a disrespectful and unacceptable way. For all that, we are deeply sorry.”

Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam also welcomed the report and asked forgiveness for “the abject failure of the Church for the pain and suffering visited on those women and their children.”

“The Church of Jesus Christ was intended to bring hope and healing, yet it brought harm and hurt for many of these women and children,” he said. “Many were left broken, betrayed and disillusioned. For them, and all of us, these revelations seriously tarnished the image of the Church.”

The Galway County Council owned the Tuam home and was responsible for the residents, and the sisters operated it. The diocese had no administrative role. However, Neary emphasized, the diocese had a pastoral role, “in that the priests of Tuam parish served as chaplains.”

“Today, how can we even begin to comprehend the raw pain and psychological damage of family separation and its devastating consequences on loving mothers and on the emotional development of their children?” he asked. “Must we ask as to the whereabouts of the fathers? Had the Church been more forthright in acknowledging the responsibility of the men who fathered these children, the outcome for many young mothers and their children would have been very different indeed.”

The diocesan archives on the home have been shared with the commission, but the archive does not have information on the living conditions. Neary lamented the absence of burial location records, saying the burials have “understandably, caused the most outrage.” He welcomed any progress in uncovering the full truth.

Dublin’s Regina Coeli hostel, founded by the Legion of Mary, appeared to show some ability to break with the trends of Irish society. The full report’s 21st chapter says that the hostel was “the only institution that assisted unmarried mothers to keep their infant” before the 1970s, the Iona Institute reports.

“Although the mothers who kept their babies were a minority until the 1970s, the proportion was undoubtedly much higher than for any other institution catering for unmarried mothers”

Venerable Frank Duff, the layman founder of the Legion of Mary, wrote a 1950 memorandum to the Department of Health about encouraging women to keep their children. Duff opposed committing children to Ireland’s industrial schools, which have also been the target of historical inquiry for poor conditions and abuse of their residents.

The hostel received no regular state support. At the same time, babies of women at the hostel suffered a high mortality rate, which peaked in the 1940s, and other reports have questioned the conditions there.


[…]

No Picture
News Briefs

How do you foster Catholic community in quarantine?

January 16, 2021 CNA Daily News 1

Denver Newsroom, Jan 16, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).- Like many in 2020, Catholic author Leah Libresco Sargeant found much solace in the past year in spiritual reading— as well as in copious amounts of baking. 

“The big thing this year, especially with the new baby, is making large batches of cookies and then freezing a bunch of the dough so that there could always be fresh cookies, even if it’s a very busy day and it’s not plausible to make any. It’s great,” she laughed. 

Leah is a convert from atheism, and writes and thinks a lot about ways to build up strong Christian communities. In fact, she wrote a book about it a couple of years ago, called “Building the Benedict Option,” in which she encourages Catholics to create opportunities in their lives to interact more with their faith community.

These additional, intentional interactions can include taking the initiative to host people more often for dinner or events at your home, especially on feast days. Her book offers tips on how to make these interactions more successful in building tight-knit Christian communities. 

Although many of the suggestions in Leah’s book are predicated on face-to-face interactions, she said she has found ways to adapt her community-building practices during coronavirus times. 

“I think one of the hard things is just having a routine shattered; some of the connections you have with other people vanishing. And it takes a bit of work, then, to build up from scratch what you otherwise could rely on from other people,” she noted. 

For example, she’s taken the initiative to maintain several penpals, keeping friendships alive by conversing via snail mail. A habit Leah practiced even before the pandemic was sending things to people that she found spiritually enriching— such as book passages, or information about interesting saints— in the hopes that they would find it spiritually enriching too. 

Most dioceses in the United States, save for a few in the West, have reopened almost all their churches for Mass with continued precautions such as social distancing and mask wearing. Catholic churches in Princeton, New Jersey where the Sargeants live have generally been accessible since the summer of 2020, but Leah says there have been times when the Sergeants have had to miss in-person Mass and instead participate from home via livestream. 

“We try and make that an opportunity to pray for people who are in more remote places, who have a traveling priest who doesn’t come every week, even in normal times— or people who are living under persecution,” Leah told CNA. 

“To try and take this unexpected and unwanted fast from the Mass as an opportunity to pray for people for whom [access to the sacraments] is an ongoing struggle, pandemic or no.”

Part of the key to making it through “unexpected fasts” from the sacraments is to reach out to others and offer to walk through it with them, she said. 

“If you can’t go to Mass, or can’t go to Mass as often as you used to, part of the question might be: do you have a friend who is also in this position?” she said, adding that you could call that person on the phone and offer to pray with them. 

“Is there a way that this can become something you share with others, rather than just a time of isolation?

Adding that she does not want to “sugarcoat” the difficulties in keeping a sense of community alive during the pandemic, Sergeant said restrictions on public gatherings, including Mass, have made spontaneous, organic interactions with her neighbors more difficult. 

“I think in some ways what the pandemic has done is strengthened some of my ties with people who I’ve fallen out of touch with a little, and who don’t live nearby, and weakened them a bit with my actual neighbors,” she said. 

On the other hand, Sergeant said she has found that the extra time spent at home during the pandemic has helped her and her family to pray more in their home. 

Leah and her husband Alexi welcomed their first child in January 2020, so a lot of their domestic church traditions in the past year have been shaped by that joyful fact. For example, the Sargeants decided against putting out a physical Advent wreath in 2020. 

“A lot of our traditions have to be things that are less tangible, because literally everything in the house goes into [the baby’s] mouth,” she laughed. 

One “intangible” habit that Leah and her husband have gotten into is doing spiritual reading every Sunday, out loud, to each other. They’ve made their way through works such as the biblical poetry of Gregory of Nazianzus and “The Day is Now Far Spent” by Robert Cardinal Sarah. 

Leah has also continued her habit of blogging, attracting several hundred followers to an email newsletter in which she writes on topics such as motherhood, the benefits she has found from working from home, and a variety of others from a Catholic feminist perspective. 

One of the keys to a healthy spiritual life is silence, and cultivating periods of silence every day for prayer and peacefulness. Leah says she’s been working on this for a while, and added that the birth of her first child has, perhaps paradoxically, helped her to find quieter moments than she had before. 

“For me, a baby is sometimes an excuse not to find those periods of silence. But…a baby forces you to be fully present in the moment, to put aside some of your own goals or own plans for the day,” she explained.  

“And if she falls asleep on top of you after what’s been a rough afternoon, suddenly it is enforced silence…and if you weren’t planning to have any silent prayer too bad, now is the time!”

The human toll of the pandemic has a lot of people thinking about death— not only the deaths of others, but their inevitable own. Leah says for Catholics, who believe in resurrection, thinking about death is not necessarily a bad thing. 

“The Church has always told us to meditate on our own death, and to make that part of our spiritual practice,” she pointed out.

“[God] defeated death and freed us from fear of it, but that doesn’t make it easy. That’s why we talk about this as a spiritual practice, something we have to do deliberately again and again, to build up that trust in God and that knowledge of who He is. And so I think the pandemic is really forcing that good spiritual practice on us in a much more stressful and frightening way than if we’d chosen it ourselves.”

This meditation on what it means to die, and for things to end, applies not just to individuals, but to the Church as a whole. Even in non-pandemic times, there are always going to be people at Mass who are journeying through grief and suffering, and pastors shouldn’t shy away from addressing that, Sergeant said, seeking to assure people that experiencing spiritual aridity and grief does not make them “bad Christians.”

“There’s always someone in your neighborhood, in your parish, who’s going through a time that’s just as hard as it is now [in the pandemic], but it isn’t shared,” she said.  

“So part of the question is: Whatever’s going on now that’s helping us take care of each other, how do we continue that when there isn’t the shock of a pandemic to remind us that people around us are suffering?”

The pandemic hasn’t only brought challenges, however. There have also been some fun opportunities for enhancing the Sargeant’s family life— several of which involve baking. Leah recommends seeking out a sourdough starter, as it makes for a fun baking activity as well as a potential gift to pass on to others. 

“If you’re only feeding one thing in your house, it should be the baby, not the sourdough starter,” she laughed. 

This interview originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the interview below, beginning at 9:40. 

CNA Newsroom · Ep. 89: Taking Back the Year

 


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