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Facing Change With Courage and Vision

A Letter From Jerusalem

Dear friends in Christ,

For several months, the world has been talking about COVID-19, its extraordinary impact on the public, the economic and social consequences it has brought about, and the changes it will bring to everyone’s life.

It has been said in all countries that there will be a before and an after COVID-19, that nothing will ever be as it was before. We are, however, still in the phase of witnessing the epochal change taking place, but we are not yet able to define and decipher it. We know that much will change, but not yet precisely how and how much. Perhaps only economically will we have greater clarity: We know that everything will be much more difficult, that many people are already out of work. We do not know, however, what our relationships and social attitudes will be like in the near future.

The global church has not been spared from this tsunami that has stopped the life of the world in recent months. Indeed, I would say it is the first time the church has found itself facing a situation of total blockade of this kind.

Our church in the Holy Land, for example, has experienced many wars, intifadas and periods of emergency. They were dramatic but clear situations where we knew where the danger lay. And the church, even in those situations, has always allowed herself to be involved in the service of the poor and deprived, and never interrupted her pastoral and sacramental service. Churches have always been open for various celebrations.

Now, however, for the first time, an invisible enemy has totally stopped the life of the church; any form of pastoral care and sacramental activity has been suspended. We must recognize we were not prepared for such a situation — this pandemic is something absolutely new.

“This new situation brings us back to the core of our faith and invites us to trust in God.”

We must then ask ourselves what this entails for us believers. What are the consequences for the life of the church in general and the church of the Holy Land in particular? I can only mention a few insights, because we must recognize that we are all at the same school and we are all discovering gradually the meaning and scope of this event — including from a spiritual point of view.

I believe it can be said that this disaster, which has paralyzed the life of the church and the world, has brought us back to the truth about us: Humans are fragile. Today we can do things that until recently seemed impossible and unreachable in scientific, economic and commercial matters. Scientific progress, in short, makes us more powerful and opens us to ever greater and wider perspectives in all areas of our personal and social lives. We trust more and more in our strengths and abilities. We feel almost invincible.

And then comes along a virus that upsets all our certainties. In just a few days, everything has either collapsed or been called into question — the entire global economic system, including global trade and finance; international, personal, social relations; and more. Fear has taken over from that sense of power. We have lost trust, we are afraid of all forms of contact and, above all, we are afraid of what the future holds for us — full of uncertainties for health, work, children, parents. Confidence in our own strengths is called into question and we suddenly feel helpless.

This new situation brings us back to the core of our faith and invites us to trust in God. It has been all too easy to set aside our faith in the providential and all-powerful God. We thought we were the only architects of our destiny, that we did not need anything or anyone else. The reality is not so; we need God because alone we are lost. And the awareness of God’s presence in the lives of human beings and the world also leads us to understand that nothing is impossible for God — he does not abandon us.

a woman and the archbishop are seated on chairs flanking a bed containing an elderly man sitting up.
Archbishop Pierbattista visits the sick in Jaffa. (photo: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

These days, moreover, we have been wounded precisely in what is dearest to us — our relations. One would say the Lord took them from us, to give them back renewed.

Perhaps the Lord is working to purify us of what is possessive and violent in our relationships, and to tell us we can choose to support each other or be selfish. The isolation and solitude of these days can teach us that it is possible to change direction, starting a path of conversion, understood as a return to the Word of the Lord. Most people are forced to remain without the Eucharistic celebration, the heart of the church. In this painful moment of fasting, we can perhaps perceive a call to rethink and recreate our family relationships — to re-establish the domestic church in the light of the Gospel, which shows us in the gesture of Jesus, who washes the feet of his disciples, the way to heal our relationships in order to resume community life with a new spirit, with more humility.

We must ask the Lord for an Easter insight, a new vision on the present. I am convinced, in fact, that the void that touches us in these days is not simply the absence of people or things or habits, but rather closely resembles the void of the sepulchre of the Lord. As on that first Easter morning, the disciples were led to understand that it was not a matter of absence but of a new mystery of life. The Easter announcement that flows from Jerusalem also leads us to believe that a mystery wants to reveal itself to us, a new word wants to be born from this silence.

I, therefore, believe we will all need, in the days and months ahead, a renewed capacity for contemplation — we will all need a new vision. It will not be enough, and perhaps it will take more than courage alone to face the inevitable difficulties and the announced human, social and economic crises that this tragedy will provoke. Courage thrives on vision and perspective; otherwise, it is only the exercise of a muscle that gets tired before long. Vision is what we need: the ability to see, through pain and death, the new things that God creates and recreates.

We will also need a vision for the future of our communities and for the resumption of the church’s many pastoral, educational and social activities in the world and in the Holy Land.

One of the few certain factors of this period is that we will all be poorer, we will be less able to travel and with more difficulties. Borders will no longer be as open as they were before the outbreak of this pandemic. All this will have clear consequences on the lives of our ecclesial communities in the world and above all for our Christian community in the Holy Land.

the archbishop and several other men walk past a worker in a safety vest on a narrow street.
Archbishop Pierbattista walks past sanitation workers in Jerusalem’s Old City on his way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to celebrate the Easter Sunday liturgy. (photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images)

The Christian pilgrimage is part of the identity of the church of the Holy Land. Our holy places attract believers from all over the world, creating countless relationships between our church in Jerusalem and the churches in the world, of any confession. It is also a source of support for many Christian families and many Catholic institutions.

We will need to find a new way to cultivate these relationships that, as I said, are constitutive of our identity, but also to find alternative forms of support for the institutions and families that have worked in that sector.

We will need to prioritize ourselves, to review with the courage of vision what we do and ask ourselves what is essential and what is not.

It is not just about making an economic and financial plan for our activities. It will come later. First, we will have to ask ourselves what is essential to us, what we cannot give up, what builds and sustains our being believers. In other words, it is necessary to establish evaluation criteria on which to base our vision of the near future. The Church of Jerusalem has a clear reference for defining such criteria. The Liturgy of the Word of the solemnity of St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, reminds us: “Faith, if it has no works, is dead. … Show me your faith without the works, and I will show my faith by my works.” (James 2:17-18).

Which of our works, in content and in the way we do them, testify to our Christian faith? Not to proselytize, but to testify who we are by our life and our deeds.

If we want to build our community on the rock (Mt 7:25), we need not only to listen to the Word of God, but to put it into practice. The word that does not become life — that does not transform into concrete and tangible reality — is sterile.

Here is the point! We will need to rethink our future radically, and we have an ancient and ever-new reference: not works that announce our power, but a faith that becomes a gift of life through our works.

Will we have the courage for such a vision?

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