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Friday, March 27, 2020

Be Not Afraid?

These are strange and hard times. As of Thursday, the United States leads the world in confirmed COVID-19 cases, topping even China and Italy. Nearly 12,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized. In New York City, where the outbreak has been especially severe, even temporary morgues have been erected for the overflow. The scenes across our country are frightful.

In one way or another this has impacted you. More than 200 million Americans have been asked to quarantine in their homes. Already just this has proven to be much more than a time to playfully avoid cabin fever. An anxious grip is unbearably tightening. In just one week, 3.3 million Americans lost their jobs. Domestic and child abuse claims have skyrocketed. And as we continue to panic-buy groceries and cling to the television, a collective sense of panic is being shot through it all. The world’s blood pressure, so to speak, is catastrophically high. 

These days, Christians are over and over being reminded of Jesus’ words: “be not afraid.” Indeed, Jesus says some derivative of this seven or eight times across his ministry. “Be not afraid.” But the truth is that, for some of us, no matter how many times we remind ourselves, or pray over it, or try to embed it into our bones, we just can’t help it. We are afraid.

For many of us, this has become a time of incessant interior questioning: What is going to happen to me? To my mom and dad? My friend who has an autoimmune disease? My grandma and grandpa? Am I going to lose my job, or what will I do for work? When will I be able to hug my friends again? How long is this going to last? We are so used to having control. Now we have none. A lot of Christians are truly afraid. 

In light of Jesus’ words, are we all just bad Christians? 

It’s a lot more complicated than that.

The first thing you need to know is that, if you are afraid or even just find yourself worrying a bit, then you’re in very good company. We must not forget that the very same Jesus who encouraged us not to be afraid also experienced intense fear himself. In Luke’s gospel, we read that, just before his arrest, Jesus was so terrified and distressed about his approaching death that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground” (Lk 22:44). This is actually a natural medical phenomenon ― something doctors call “hematidrosis” ― which is brought on by extraordinary levels of panic and distress. We see this today among prisoners awaiting execution.

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews describes how, just by being human, we all naturally suffer from fear. And, in the same breath, it says that “[Jesus] himself partook of this same [human] nature… for he had to be made like us in every respect” (see Heb 2:14-18). Of course Jesus had fears! Jesus was human! And as this scene at the Mount of Olives demonstrates, on the cusp of his arrest, Jesus ― keeled over and sweating blood ― was particularly agonized by the thought of his death ― “Remove this cup from me!” (Lk 22:42)

What this should teach us, first and foremost, is that it’s perfectly fine to be frightened. In fact, part of the reason Jesus’s heart was holy was that he was willing to have corners of it that were frightened and anxious. Jesus wanted to have a human nature. He wanted to experience what you experience, even if that meant fright or anxiety. And so the fearful Christian should not see herself as someone outside the boundaries of faithful Christianity. Indeed, the fearful Christian finds herself uniquely held within the anxious and frightened heart of Jesus. 

So it’s alright to be a bit frightened. It’s human. Jesus was, at one point, more frightened than you ever will be. Indeed, it’s unlikely that you’ve been sweating blood.

But, like I said, it’s complicated. We cannot let the words of Jesus simply pass by: “be not afraid.” 

So what do we do with this?

We must see that Jesus does not finally come to rest in his human fear. Fear is not his last word, so to speak. On the Mount of Olives, sweating blood and panicking, he prays to God the Father: “remove this cup from me!” But, ultimately, he hands his fear over to the Father: “not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk 22:42). Ultimately, Jesus comes to rest not in fear and anxiety, but in the hands of the Father. 

We all know that this is what we want. Right now, to ease that fear, we’d all like to place ourselves in the hands of the Father in an enduring act of trust. But I promise, try as hard as you'd like, you're not going to be able to do that on your own. You're not Jesus. You're not going to be able to do what Jesus did. You can ram his words down your throat all day long ― "be not afraid! be not afraid!" It will not work. Indeed, you will only find yourself even more frustrated and anxious.
"Why am I still afraid?!"

There is really only one way to do this: Jesus must do it for you.

Think of it this way:

Jesus wanted to have a human nature. He was willing to experience the fear and anxiety you and I experience, even in an extraordinarily intense way. And when you and I experience fear today, we should see our fearful hearts as hearts that beat and live within his own heart. But Jesus did not let his heart come finally to rest within that place of extraordinary fear. And if our hearts are embedded within his heart, then neither will he let our hearts come finally to rest in a place of fear. Indeed, he will place our hearts where he placed his own, even amidst a bloodied sweat: into the hands of the Father. That is where we will find peace. That is how we can make an enduring act of trust. That is how we can “be not afraid.”


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, March 20, 2020

The Long Lent of 2020

Catholics are giving up much more than they’d planned on this Lent. In order to slow the spread of this new coronavirus, extraordinary social distancing measures are being implemented. Schools, businesses, and restaurants are closing. Several states have issued mandatory orders to “shelter in place.” It’s now a misdemeanor to go out for something non-essential in California. These are strange and hard days. Catholics weren’t imagining they’d be giving up “other people” for Lent.

Hardest of all, though, is that many Catholics no longer have access to sacramental communion at Mass. This is true for us here in Vermont. Catholics fast during Lent. But nobody fasts from the Eucharist. 

This decision was necessary. But it’s also tragic and painful: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” Jesus says, “you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). I can’t smooth Jesus’s words into nothing and pretend our distance from Mass over the coming time will be painless. Neither can I assure you that TV Masses and spiritual communions will suffice. They won’t. But there are some things we can say about all this that might be helpful as we grind through the “Long Lent of 2020.”

A first point: Jesus says we’ll “have no life” unless we consume his flesh and blood. But he doesn’t say we need to consume him every week, or every day, or anything like that at all. And what’s interesting is that, in the grand scope of Catholic history, even if we've always attended Mass every week, receiving the Eucharist every week is actually very recent and exceptional. In the Middle Ages especially, there was limited reception of the Eucharist. The Poor Clares received only six times each year. Third Order Dominicans just four. Even some of the Church’s great saints, like Saint Louis, received just six times a year. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary just three. 

A second point: There’s a startling story from the fifth century about Saint Augustine. When it became clear to him that he was dying, he did something quite extraordinary and counterintuitive ― he began to fast from the Eucharist. You’d think that, in his moment of vulnerability and weakness, he would seek communion even more frequently. On the contrary, he said that, in this moment, he wanted to be among those who hunger and thirst for Jesus with the greatest possible acuteness

I’m not saying that, under normal circumstances, you should fast from the Eucharist. But I am saying that, under our current circumstances, yesterday’s saints might have something important to teach us: namely, that fasting increases our desire. And if it’s Jesus that we’re fasting from ― in this case, forced to fast from ― our best move is to allow this Long Lent to increase our desire for the Eucharist. It’s a chance to finally be numbered ― like Augustine, Louis, or Elizabeth ― among those who truly hunger and thirst with the greatest possible acuteness for Jesus.

There’s a third and final point to be made, and it’s one that we always forget. We need to remember that there’s a flip side to the Eucharist. When we receive communion, we not only receive Jesus; Jesus also receives us. But right now, he cannot receive you. And so his desire for you is increasing. [1] Do not think for a moment that he will be satisfied with spiritual communions and TV Masses. They are good, as far as they go. But he desires you way too much. You thought you were heartbroken about the cancellation of Mass? It does not compare.

The Old Testament Song of Solomon describes a lover who pines after her beloved: “I sought him whom my soul loves, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Sg 3:1). This woman breaks into the streets and searches up and down the alleys in search of her beloved, wailing the whole way. Right now you might think you’re the lover, heartbroken and lost because Mass has been taken away from you. I assure you. You are the one being sought after. And when we’re through with this Long Lent ― when the Divine Lover gets you in his arms again — he’ll respond just as the lover from the Song of Solomon did: “when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go!" I would not let him go!


[1] Father Justin DuVall, vice-rector at Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary made a similar point this week.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, March 13, 2020

Being Pro-Life in the Time of Coronavirus

In 8th grade, I chose “Rocco” for my confirmation name. I didn’t know anything about Saint Rocco. I just thought his name was funny. It turns out that Rocco was one of those heroic saints who dared to care for victims of the bubonic plague in the 14th century. 

They say that, when Rocco was 17, he was so struck by the pope’s visit to his hometown, he decided to give all his possessions to the poor and travel across northern Italy tending to dying victims of the plague. He cleaned and bound their wounds, he made the sign of the cross over them, he prayed with them. He was not afraid to touch them. He was not afraid to get the plague himself, and he was eventually infected. Many of these people were healed. 

Similar stories are told of Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Francis grew up rich. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant and, as a young man, Francis had a deep distaste for ugly things. Above all, he found lepers particularly repulsive. How odd then, that Francis, upon handing over his fine clothing, found himself aiding the sick in a hospital for lepers. But that is precisely where Francis’s vision was transformed. They say that, one day, when walking down the road, he even embraced and kissed a leper, not fearing contagion.

Today, the entirety of the Italy in which Saints Rocco and Francis ministered and healed has been put in lock down. People have been instructed not to go out and, if they must go out, not to stand within about 4 feet of each other. There is, it seems, a new plague. It can be hard for modern people to hear and accept something like this, especially since we don’t see pandemics very often in the contemporary world. But this is serious and real.

In the United States, the Center for Disease Control announced this week that the effort to “contain” this new coronavirus has failed and that community spread has begun. They have instructed older adults to avoid crowds. Travel has been cut off from Europe.

In light of people like Saint Rocco and Saint Francis, some people have been a little confused by the Catholic response to all this. Across the entirety of Italy, for instance, Mass has been suspended. There are no church weddings or funerals. The churches are deserted. Perhaps most ironically of all, even the healing pools at Lourdes in France have been closed to visitors. Some Catholics have been enormously unhappy about this, accusing the Church of cowardice. Shouldn’t we be like Rocco and Francis, bravely leaving the churches open so people can pray together?

We have seen this same thing beginning in the United States. In major dioceses across the country, public Masses have been cancelled indefinitely. An enormous number of Catholic colleges like Franciscan University (which is even named on account of Saint Francis!) and my own alma mater have ended their semesters early, sending students home to finish their classes online. Is this just giving in to hysteria and fear? How can this be the Catholic response? And, maybe more pointedly, is this what Rocco and Francis would do in the time of coronavirus?

By now you’ve heard what makes this virus particularly dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, though most young and healthy people experience only “mild” symptoms, the mortality rate for people in their 70s and 80s, is somewhere between 8% and 14%. That’s stunning. 

Rocco and Francis wanted to care for the drastically ill and for the most vulnerable. In their time — in the Middle Ages — the vulnerable were bubonic plague victims and lepers. They were willing to do anything for them, even catch the disease themselves. Right now — in a time of spreading coronavirus — the most vulnerable are the elderly and those with preexisting conditions.

Here’s the difference: when Rocco and Francis bravely approached a leper or a plague victim, the only people who could have been harmed were themselves. With this new coronavirus, it is simply not the same. It’s a different disease. If someone picks up the virus, they may carry it around for two weeks before showing any symptoms at all. Indeed, they may hardly even get sick. But all that time they would have been spreading it to the people around them, including the elderly and vulnerable. This is decidedly not what Rocco and Francis were doing. They wanted to care for the vulnerable, not infect them.

As a result of all this, Italian hospitals have become so overrun that their medical associations have been forced to issue guidelines outlining which patients are to receive care and which should be left to die. They simply do not have the resources to care for everyone. 

It is imperative that all people ― Christians too ― act to slow the spread of this virus in the United States. The health care system simply cannot handle the rapid spread of this virus. As this outbreak strengthens ― even if you’re young and healthy ― to ignore the seriousness of it and to carry on without any increased effort to wash your hands, or to stay home when you're sick, or to limit and be careful about physical contact would be seriously grave. It would not be fearlessness but foolishness. It would be spreading it to the vulnerable. It would be a work of death.

The Catholic Church has been shutting its churches and schools down across the world because it does not want to create venues where this disease can spread uncontrollably. It’s been shutting down its venues because it is pro-life, because it wants to see its elderly and vulnerable people live.

We are Christians. And Christians are always on the side of the weak and of the vulnerable. Always. No exceptions. I implore you. People’s lives are at stake. Go to church, if you’re able. Pray. But when you're there, be proactive and be enormously careful. Be pro-life. These are my grandparents and yours, my sick and yours. This is my responsibility and yours.

Saints Rocco and Francis, pray for us!


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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Friday, March 6, 2020

"Let's Build Three Tents!" - 2nd Sunday of Lent

Matthew 17:1-9
Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
“Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.


Every teacher has ― at some point in their career ― stood silently before their students and, egging them on, hoped that someone would shout out a brilliant answer to their question. Every teacher has ― at some point in their career ― seen this go disastrously wrong. I taught religion: “Jesus!” some student inevitably shouts, certain that cannot be incorrect. “No,” I reply. … “Covenant!” shouts another, remembering something from last week. “No. You didn’t read for today, did you?” … “Wait is this that stuff about Napoleon?” “No, Garrett. You’re using the wrong notebook again. You’re in your religion course right now.”

I know it doesn’t seem like it, but this is sort of what Jesus experienced with Peter, James, and John when he brought them up the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus ― the rabbi and teacher ― brings his students up to the mountain. We read that Jesus was “transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light;” Moses and Elijah appeared alongside him (Mt 17:2). It’s at this moment that the attention shifts to Peter ― the attention shifts from the teacher to the student. And what does Peter blurt out? “Lord ... If you wish, I will make three tents! One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Mt 17:4). 

This is ― to be honest ― a very silly suggestion. Peter is referring to a specific Jewish celebration ― the “Feast of Booths” (or Tents). This was a weeklong event where the Jews prayed in makeshift booths in order to commemorate the time that they wandered through the desert while living in tents. But here’s the thing: the Jews were not, at this moment, celebrating the Feast of Booths. So why in the world would Jesus want a tent made for him?

In Peter’s defense, it is worth pointing out that, when Mark records this same story in his Gospel, he explains that Peter “did not know what to say; for he was exceedingly afraid (Mk 9:6). But, having been a teacher, I find it hilarious that the text says the voice from heaven interrupted Peter “while he was still speaking” (Mt 17:5). He was speaking nonsense; there was no need to hear more. But we should look closely at what that voice says when it cuts Peter off: “This is my beloved Son… listen to him. In other words: stop talking, Peter, and listen.

We too often think of Lent as a time of “doing, of piling up sacrifices for God. “What are you doing for Lent?” we always ask. Sacrifices are good, as far as they go. But the Church places the Transfiguration before us this week in order to recall that Lent is also a time of listening. Indeed, when Peter started blathering on about his project for Jesus ― “let’s build three tents!” ― God just cut him off: Listen to him.” 

It is the same with us: “I am giving up chocolate; I am giving up coffee...” That’s all fine and good ― it’s much more intelligible than Peter’s suggestion. But don’t be surprised if God cuts you off and suggests you also simply “listen to him.” Indeed, perhaps the question we should be asking is not “what am I doing for Lent?” but “what is God trying to do in me for Lent?” That is what we should be listening for. 

Peter saw Jesus transfigured before him, and all he could talk about was building tents. What is it about your world right now, for better or worse, that is being transfigured before you? Is there something in your heart that is being reshaped, painful or pleasant as it may seem? Those are the ways in which God speaks to us. In what ways have we made Lent a time of listening to all that, of listening to what God is speaking to us, rather than — like Peter and my dear old students — a time of shouting out all the things we’re going to do, hoping it’s the correct answer?


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. These columns are archived here.

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