It takes a lot of time to also tolerate others’ problems, others’ defects in the silence of prayer, so as to find the right way to help them correct themselves. And this is not easy. The easiest path is to gossip. Talking behind someone else’s back as if I am perfect. And this should not be done. Gentleness. Patience. Prayer. Proximity.
Pope Francis, General Audience, Nov. 3, 2021
The Covid-19 vaccine held such promise for us in 2020, when we all thought of the things we would do once we finally had a vaccine. Sadly, instead of bringing us back together safely in 2021 after months of “social distancing,” we have found our communities torn apart. This new chapter of the pandemic has involved difficult divisions centering on fundamental questions about freedom, love of neighbor, and conscience, as we seek to negotiate the demands of the common good with regard to vaccination. These divisions are especially evident online. In our newsfeeds, we have all by now been party to countless arguments about the merits or alleged dangers of the Covid-19 vaccine. We have all been treated to outrageous footage of those spurning public health requirements regarding masks or vaccines, as well as to the predictable outrage in reaction to those people for their behavior.
The social isolation of the pandemic and the necessary restrictions on in-person interactions seem to have left us unpracticed and unskilled at negotiating such difficult conversations, particularly in person. Perhaps we never had the skills in our rapidly polarizing and fragmenting society to be able to negotiate such a long-term, stressful crisis. In my own community—in a red town in a light blue suburb in a deep red state—good Midwesterners that we are, people generally seem to follow mask requirements and don’t make a stink about doing what’s expected of them, even if they’ll air their views privately. The divisions are usually handled politely rather than with open confrontation. This has made it a mostly quiet but ever more fracturing time, as divisions seem to be deepening and widening under our feet, without our full realization of what’s going on. When were we last “all in this together,” aboard the same storm-tossed ship, and will we ever be united, even if only by fear and necessity, again?
A recent episode changed the quiet detente I had experienced in my local community. My parish was planning to host a vaccine clinic in late September in the church hall, because a parishioner who owns a local pharmacy chain was finally able to arrange to have vaccines available on-site. This decision was not really unusual, given that the church basement has often been used for blood drives and flu shots in the past, in addition to all the social events that come with typical suburban parish life. But evidently word got out about it, and a few protesters showed up outside our church a week before the scheduled event, seeking to halt it. They gathered with signs reading “PRO-LIFE: Don’t take the vaccine!” among other slogans, during the Saturday evening and Sunday morning masses. One protester wore a red Church Militant hat; others held rosaries with their signs. One was in a cassock. To my knowledge no one behaved badly at any point. They held signs, passed out literature, and prayed. Outside.
Our family attended the Saturday evening Mass. Before we went inside, we noticed the group on the very edge of the church property, sitting in lawn chairs, with their signs. My children wanted to know why people with signs were outside our church. I didn’t know what to tell them.
One of the ongoing challenges of the pandemic as our cultural divisions have deepened and been exposed in unpredictable ways—for me, at least—has been to remember that while many people might be wrong, that’s not all there is to them. Every person has a story, and every person is loved by God. Pope Francis has always recalled the dignity of the other as other to be of primary importance in our call to dialogue and encounter. And he has somewhat painfully—oh, the best medicine can burn—reminded all of us of the need for self-examination first, before we engage, “to ask ourselves what drives us to correct a brother or sister, and if we are not in some way co-responsible for their mistake.” I must continue to hold in highest place my regard for the dignity of the other, including and especially the other with whom I fundamentally disagree. But let’s be honest: that’s hard when those people are behaving badly, or at least in a way that makes us uncomfortable.
I would like to tell you that I prayed fervently during Mass for wisdom and prudence, but I did not. I was distracted by thoughts of what was happening outside—Had anyone called the police? Would they still be there after Mass? Are they leaving leaflets on cars or causing a scene for the post-soccer game crowd? What will others think?—and perhaps mustered a desperate “Jesus, help!” alongside a fleeting, admittedly pharisaical “Thank you, Lord, for not making me like them.” But there I was, in the field hospital, seeking the necessary medicine for my frail and weary soul, and the Lord doesn’t deny those who seek Him.
In reflecting on this experience, I am encouraged by Pope Francis’s recent audience in which he characterized the Christian life as a “stupendous but difficult journey” that involves “trodding along.”
Trodding along this way, the Christian acquires a positive vision of life. This does not mean that the evil present in the world disappears, or that the negative impulses of our egoism and pride diminish. Rather, it means that belief in God is always stronger than our resistance and greater than our sins. And this is important: to believe that God is greater, always. Greater than our resistances, greater than our sins.
“Trodding” is a great description for the fits and starts in the process of trying to do better, but making a lot of mistakes. Plodding. Sometimes stumbling. We are weary, but we keep at it. Growth happens when we begin to recognize the effort is worth our willingness to make mistakes while we try to do a little better—and are patient with others’ attempts to do the same.
After Mass, there were four protesters, now on an opposite corner, technically off of the parish’s property. (Evidently the police had been called and they moved to avoid trespassing.) I could not shake the conviction that someone needed to approach them, but no one had. Part of me—my prideful part, perhaps—didn’t want the group to have the satisfaction of leaving our parish feeling they had “won” because no one engaged with them. All that Francis-talk about dialogue kept coming to mind and I felt the nagging certainty that I needed to be the one to try.
Here’s something I need to tell you—I’ve always liked to argue. “Don’t be so critical!” is a constant refrain I recall from my childhood; later I discovered I have a melancholic temperament, prone to criticizing. But in particular I have always enjoyed engaging with big ideas, learning different perspectives and picking them apart in order to be able to create some sort of understandable worldview. Past Rachel would have engaged with this particular encounter as a debate, and sought to win rather than witness, encounter, or dialogue. So current Rachel needed to be very clear that her motives were not to try to win an argument.
I walked over, reflecting not on what I should say to try to reason with them, but on what I had experienced at Mass and carried with me into this encounter. Probing it, under the frustration and anger was sadness. Sadness that after everything, a year and a half into a global pandemic which the Holy Father led us through with the monstrance held aloft towards the whole world, my fellow Catholics had chosen not to come inside and gather as one around the table of the Eucharistic Lord, but to make a point of witnessing to division. We couldn’t come together as the united Body of Christ we believe that we are.
My regret—inexperienced as I was and am with the art of encounter—is that I did not first introduce myself with a simple, “Hello, I’m Rachel, I am a parishioner here.” Instead, I lead into the conversation by saying that I found it unfortunate and sad that they were standing outside during Mass instead of putting down their signs and coming inside to share in the Eucharist. This was inartfully put, however, honest.
I don’t know what I expected any of them to say, or where I expected the conversation to go from there, but I would characterize what followed as a bad Twitter thread IRL. Rather than finish any one line of discussion, different people peppered questions and assertions in my direction—what about aborted fetal cells? Why are they bringing the abortion vaccine here? Don’t you care? Why haven’t they tested the vaccine? More people are dying from the vaccine than from Covid! They spoke both over and to one another while engaging with me, with one correcting another as to whether the vaccines actually contain cells from an aborted child (they do not). The tangential side-conversations felt like when two people start arguing in the replies on social media, disagreeing with one another on the details while a main conversation continues alongside. It was disorienting; many words, little communication.
But what I saw that evening—which you never see on Twitter or Facebook—were real faces, communicating in real time. Standing on the pavement at a petite 5’3” in flats, three taller men stood above me on the curb, and I perceived in their faces a jarring level of coldness and even contempt. I was sure that just a few years ago any of them could have been one of the cheerful Knights serving up pancakes for my kids at Breakfast with Santa in the very same church basement; what had happened to cause such an interpersonal rift between us? Only a global pandemic and the isolation and political upheaval that have accompanied it, I suppose.
One said they “wouldn’t be welcome” in our parish—recalling how briefly, during that confusing time in May when mask mandates were lifted for the vaccinated but not for the unvaccinated, our parish had regrettably separated areas in the church for vaccinated and unvaccinated parishioners, though the policy has since changed—while another told me that they go to “better churches with better Catholics”. I had certainly seen rhetoric like this fostered and aired daily online, but I tend to think that social media is a sort of manufactured unreality and don’t trust it as capturing all too well what real people really think. To hear someone so clearly adopt this casually divisive rhetoric in person, especially when in-person interactions have been so limited for so long, was painful. It grieved me and should grieve all of us—the admission and embrace of division.
Appealing to the unity of the Church was also unfruitful: when I brought up that both Pope Francis and Abp. Mitchell Rozanski support getting the vaccine as an act of love, they scoffed, saying that they follow “better bishops”. Not wishing to engage in the kind of gossip Francis condemned in the same audience, suffice it to say that what I encountered was an absolute unwillingness to substantively—much less personally—engage with me, even though we were speaking face-to-face. It seemed I was the first person to actually talk to them that day, and my overall perception was that they were very angry, spitting mad really, and ready for a debate or a scene.
I don’t remember saying a lot, but listening. Or trying to. It is difficult to avoid being baited into arguments of which we know no good will come. But real dialogue requires reflecting on what the other person is saying, rather than rushing to formulate a response or control the conversation. I had to keep reminding myself of my purpose—to treat others as they ought to be treated—and that I might be the only representative of my parish they had encountered that day. This required repeating that I did not wish to debate the safety profile of the vaccine and not reacting to some of their responses. I am sure I could have done better.
In their aggressive defensiveness I saw fear about what the world and the Church they thought they understood had become, a self-imposed isolation of consciences. I saw exhaustion from living in the same pandemic world I have lived in. I wondered if they had lost anyone dear to them, but didn’t know how to ask. There were invisible blockades between us, strong walls of enmity shrouded in a fog of confusion. I wished I could find a way to reach across, but felt as helpless as they looked at solving that puzzle.
Then my husband pulled up behind in our minivan with my children buckled inside, and I attempted to exit the conversation with a reference to my family. We said we would pray for one another. It’s probably the only thing that can fix this, anyway. Ultimately, the decision was made to reschedule the vaccine drive as a booster clinic, which took place uneventfully in late October.
I don’t want to sound like I’m placing one-sided blame, ignoring my own shortcomings in the encounter. I’m just trying to give an honest accounting of the grief we all have but aren’t describing over experiencing—repeatedly—mutual misunderstanding, miscommunication, and missed opportunities for dialogue in our world and in our Church. It happens daily, online and off, too often. Disagreements between fellow Catholics need not tear at the fabric of the Church. The long history of disagreements among Christians, from the Apostles down through the millennia teach us this.
But do we even desire and wish to work towards the unity to which Christ calls us, anymore? Do we really want the unity that God wills for his Church? On a personal, not merely theoretical level, do we want to be united—even with them (whoever them is for us)?
Where can we possibly go from here, as a local church or in the universal Church? The only solution must be each of us, together, “walking according to the Spirit.” That means we must reflect on our own weakness; the weakness of our own limited knowledge, personalities, and even bad will. We must choose to be guided by charity as we enter into our disagreements.
Francis reiterated as much this week: “This ‘walking according to the Spirit’ is not only an individual task: it also concerns the community as a whole.” This is demanding: “The ‘desires of the flesh,’ ‘the temptation,’ we can say, that all of us have—that is, our jealousies, prejudices, hypocrisies and resentments continue to make themselves felt.” This applies to all of us—not just them. Mea maxima culpa.