A vaccine for our soul

By Father Richard S. Jones

Chaplain, UPMC Mercy Hospital

A recently retired police chief, who spent decades answering the call to protect and serve, caught COVID-19 at a family wedding. He was rushed by ambulance to UPMC Mercy, but could not be saved.

As I did my best to console his distraught children, what struck me was that – despite the sudden shock of his death – they had room in their grieving hearts for gratitude.

They spoke of the example he had set of working holidays so others could be with their families. They were glad he had been able to spend time with his own family in retirement. They gave thanks their dad’s legacy of service, sacrifice and compassion.

Despite their sorrow, the faith and love that he taught them had inoculated them against bitterness.

Every morning, one of our hospital chaplains prays over the PA system. It reminds patients and staff that we are a Catholic, faith-based, healing organization. We believe firmly that prayer confers healing, help, and hope. Those are the vaccine against despair.

Hospital nights can be long, interrupted, and restless. Daily, I encounter patients who have lain awake longing for the first streaks of light marking the dawn.   Knowingly or not, they embody the words of Psalm 30:5, “…weeping may last for a night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.” In scripture, and through the power of Jesus’ Resurrection, in the darkest of nights we can see joy in the morning.

The pandemic has been hard on all of us. As time wears on, some have referred to this as the spiritual desert, a ‘long- overextended’ period of Lent. An invisible enemy has claimed countless lives and altered our way of life forever. The virus soberly reminds us all that, like ashes, we are mortal, vulnerable, and fragile.

 I have had the privilege to witness first-hand those on the front line – doctors, nurses, health care professionals – who continue to serve courageously, compassionately and unselfishly. At times in the hospital, I feel like I am walking through a war zone with death lurking at every corner. At other times, I feel like a conduit of hope as I administer the sacraments of the Church to those in isolation and exile.

Whether I sense I am in the darkest night or at the breaking dawn, I cling to Jesus’ call to charity, to love. “I give you a new commandment:love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) At times, I am deeply fortified by the resilience of the human spirit to grow, to learn and to thrive. I think of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who sacrificed his life for another inmate in Auschwitz, and who once said, “The cross is the school of love.”

The pandemic has introduced us to a new vocabulary and way of life such as social distancing, facial coverings, lock downs, self-isolation and quarantine. The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Latin for “40,” referencing the number of days that ships carrying infected loads were required to stay off shore. But, “40 days” also takes us to the weeks that Jesus endured in the desert. Lent is our annual re-enactment of Jesus’ “quarantine.”

Like Jesus, may we come overcome temptations, trials and sufferings as we discover the merciful presence of God in prayer. We can emerge renewed from this pandemic as he was empowered departing the desert. Like the family of the police chief, we can experience gratitude despite grief, love despite sorrow.

Through the cross, we grow spiritually amidst hardship, suffering, pain and chaos. The cross of Jesus is the vaccine for every believer.