One of my favorite hymns is a recent addition to our Easter repertoire, Three Days. It begins with an expression of despair — “Three days our world was broken; the Lord of life lay dead,” but then builds to a triumphant conclusion: “Though still Christ’s body suffers, pierced daily by the sword, yet death has no dominion: the risen Christ is Lord!”
As the death toll due to the coronavirus continues to rise, daily media coverage in our country is a mixed bag. Along with a preponderance of ominous and depressing news reports, there have also been many uplifting stories about human generosity and connectedness, as well as the power of music, art and humor to uplift spirits.
As Christians we should infuse the national narrative with powerful stories of faith in God’s providential care and the living hope flowing from Christ’s resurrection. In the midst of so much sickness and fear our brothers and sisters need us to reassure them that “death has no dominion because the risen Christ is Lord” and really does walk among us!
I have been helping out at our home in Delaware, which has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus. By the end of Holy Week we had lost 11 elderly residents to the virus. I asked God how it was possible to maintain a spirit of hope in the face of so many seemingly untimely deaths. I say “seemingly” because through prayer I realized that these deaths were untimely only in our eyes — not in God’s. If God saw fit to take these individuals to himself through this pandemic, he must have known that their lives had fulfilled his plan and they were ready to return to him.
Our Christian faith assures us that suffering always has value and that those who die believing in Christ will live with him forever. It has struck me that these words must not remain mere platitudes. Christian faith and hope are meant for times such as these.As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all” (1 Cor 15:19).
I’ve been thinking a lot about the example of our foundress, Saint Jeanne Jugan, in response to a situation not unlike our own. In 1857 five novices at our motherhouse died of typhoid fever in a short span of time. Those who remained were heartbroken.
Jeanne Jugan tried to help the novices overcome their sorrow and see their situation as a way of growing stronger in faith and more resolute in hope. After one funeral she comforted the novices, “Come along now, little ones, be brave! One of us has left for Glory; our own turn will come. We must be prepared.”
One of us has left for Glory; our own turn will come — generations of Little Sisters have shared this unshakeable faith in the reality of our heavenly destiny. It has sustained them through good times and bad.
The influenza epidemic of 1918, to which our present situation has been compared, came on the heels of World War I. As 1918 came to a close our Mother General spoke of “the cross of a universal illness added to the sufferings caused by the war.” She praised the Sisters for their generosity and spirit of sacrifice as they spared no effort in caring for the elderly despite the most precarious circumstances.
The Congregation also underwent severe trials during World War II. In 1944 our novitiate in Marino, Italy and a Home in France were destroyed during Allied bombings, killing 32 Little Sisters and 70 residents. A plan to evacuate the novices to a safer location in Rome fell through and just hours later 28 Sisters were buried in the rubble when a bomb fell on them during the community’s lunch. One of the survivors later wrote, “We came to realize that what God wanted was not a few departures for Rome, but numerous departures for Heaven.”
As we mourn the loss of our dear residents I’ve tried to think of their deaths as departures for heaven, their passage to Glory. During this Easter season I pray that the contemplation of Christ’s victory over sin and death will help us to rise above the cloud of tragedy hanging over us and renew our faith in the power of the resurrection to lift us all to Glory.