Preparing for the New Normal
As I begin my column, which is typically a good month before publication, we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In most places, churches are closed, Masses are suspended, baptisms and weddings are postponed, and funerals are limited to all but the closest of relatives. With many states issuing stay-at-home directives, life as we knew it has changed and, with it, our ministry.
Of course, we all know that “this too shall pass.” This phrase, falsely attributed to the Bible, does reveal a profound truth. We know that, at some point, perhaps even when this issue goes to print, the COVID-19 virus will run its course and life will return to normal, or so we hope. That said, it would be a bit naive to think that “normal” will be the same “normal” as prior to the pandemic. Many people will have lost loved ones that, because of the situation, didn’t have a funeral Mass. Others had weddings postponed with all of the emotional and financial stress that comes with it. Still, others have lost their jobs, their businesses, and even their retirement savings.
We all understand this because we’ve either experienced it ourselves or we know others who have. Beyond a diminishment of most of our ministries, there is the absence of Mass, which lies at the very heart of our Catholic faith. For many deacons, Mass can continue as we assist the priest while the liturgy is being livestreamed without a congregation. But for others, particularly older and infirm deacons susceptible to the virus, Mass and any kind of public ministry could be deadly. Yet, “this too shall pass,” and when it does, are we prepared for what will follow? Will we be ready for the new “normal?”
If we think about preparing in terms of anticipating and planning concrete actions, we can become easily frustrated. I mean, beyond speculating, who can tell what’s in store for the Church after the pandemic recedes? Some suggest that we could even get a second wave of the virus in the fall. This kind of preparation is not without merit but, on the level of the individual deacon, it’s a crapshoot. We simply don’t know what the future holds, and any kind of practical preparation may well prove to be a waste of time. That said, there is another kind of preparation, one that is less focused on external action and, instead, focuses on our interiority.
This focus requires us to see that, while this moment in history is one of great trial and hardship, grace is available in abundance (Rom 5:20). Grace is nothing less than the presence of God revealing itself in supernatural help. God wills that good come even from the most challenging of evils. Think of how the greatest evil, the putting to death of the Son of God resulted in the greatest good, salvation for humanity. In the midst of the apostles’ desolation after Jesus’ death, Our Lord appeared in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” That same Jesus stands in our midst, in the midst of the diaconal community passing through the locked doors of the COVID-19 isolation, saying to us here and now, “Peace be with you.” His consoling presence brings with it the ability to stretch our understanding of service beyond ministerial action to the place where authentic service, authentic diakonia arises, the depths of our heart. It is here, through the cultivation of the interior life that we grow in the love to serve others because this love is now infused with divine love.
During this time of isolation, let us seize the grace offered to us and enter into more intimate communion with Christ the Servant to whom we were configured on the day of our ordination. In contemplation, let him prepare us so that, no matter what arises after the pandemic, we are ready to minister and, in doing so, bear witness to Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve, giving his life in ransom for the many (Mk 10:45).
DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of The Deacon and director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is the founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates. Follow him on Facebook to continue the conversation.