The 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 20, 2021
As a pastor during the covid pandemic, especially in those early weeks when Mass could only be said behind closed doors, I often celebrated the new (2020) Votive Mass in Time of Pandemic. The Gospel appointed for that Mass is Mark's account of Jesus' calming the storm, which was the text for Pope Francis's powerfully simple pandemic prayer service in Saint Peter's Square on March 27, 2020 (photo). Clearly the disciples' poignant plea, "Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing," acquired a new salience in those unusual circumstance, a feeling all could relate to.
Now, more than a year later, with life largely returning to something relatively resembling normal in our increasingly vaccinated society, the turn of the Church's liturgical calendar carries us back again this Sunday to that same Gospel account, to the same struggling disciples in that same storm-tossed boat.
When Pope Francis preached on this Gospel almost 15 months ago, he expressed the common collective experience of a world suddenly brought together by a common calamity:
Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other. On this boat… are all of us. Just like those disciples, who spoke anxiously with one voice, saying “We are perishing” (v. 38), so we too have realized that we cannot go on thinking of ourselves, but only together can we do this.
How many times since then have we heard - perhaps even quoted - those challenging but reassuring words? Overwhelmed by the omnipresence of disaster, we repeat the Pope's hopeful-sounding sentiments: we are on the same boat ... all of us called to row together ... only together can we do this.
The reality the Pope referenced remains an objective fact, which has always been true and was true long before covid added evidence to confirm it. We are all interdependent members of a common human family, which can only advance if all its members are enabled to advance. That said, we have all long known what the pandemic experience has now further reinforced. We don't act at all as if we were all on the same team, all rowing the same boat together. It has recently been claimed claimed, for example, that billionaires have gotten 54% richer during the pandemic - as if they weren't scandalously rich already!
George Packer has recently offered a model of an America compartmentalized in four narrative compartments, 2 Red and 2 Blue. On the Red side are "Free America" (the libertarian narrative of "personal freedom without other people") and "Real America," the right-wing populist revolt against that (responding to decline not by rebuilding but by mobilizing anger and despair). Both of them are opposed on the Blue side by "Smart America" (corresponding to what was sometimes called the new "knowledge class", cultural, economic, and social winners who have largely "lost the capacity and the need for a national identity, which is why they can't grasp its importance for others") and "Just America," which "assails the complacent meritocracy of Smart America" and "upends the universal [liberal] values of the Enlightenment."
However illustrative and illuminative, there are also limitations to Packer's four problematic compartments. As New York Magazine's Eric Levitz sees it, the alternative which Packer proposes is "a liberalism that disavows meritocratic elitism, champions economic redistribution, brims with unabashed patriotism, and recognizes the persistence of racial injustice — but also the feasibility of racial progress and the necessity of policing." Levitz sees this alternative as alive and well in "the narrative of America’s sitting president" and his working-class voters.
That said, the fundamental insight of such analyses is that the once familiar Tocquevillian image of an essentially egalitarian America (and its modern political analogue in the New Deal and Fair Deal politics of widespread material improvement throughout a unified American nation) have been replaced by intense political and cultural fragmentation rooted in increasing social and economic inequality, resulting in the very opposite of all of us rowing together in the same boat.
But the reality of the troubled waters we are all sailing in, demonstrated by the destructive storm of the covid pandemic, poses a powerful challenge to this divided and compartmentalized experience. And there can be no getting away from the fact that, unless the basic inequities increasingly now built into how we live are addressed somehow, the boat cannot safely sail.
In this contentious context, can the Good news - the proclamation of which is always and everywhere supposed to be the Church's mission - again offer an effective antidote to the toxins of conflict and division? Such was famously Isaac Hecker's 19th-century aspiration. At an audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker had confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties and act like oil on troubled waters.” For Hecker the Church was a powerfully unifying force, binding citizens together, and thus blunting the dangerously sharp cutting edges of conflict and dissension, fusing the private interests of individuals and factions into a common social and civic unity.
Obviously, it has not yet worked out that way. In the United States, on both sides of the old Catholic-Protestant divide, there are integralist tendencies wedded to an anachronistic model of Church as a major possessor of political power. This both limits the alternatives and also poses them even more starkly. As Mike Lewis recently wrote in Where Peter Is: "We can retreat further into our collapsing fortresses ... and cling to a self-referential concept of the Church, or we can get into the boat with Peter, Pope Francis, and venture out into the wider world, riding on the choppy waves, seeking out a new future for the Church."
Even that would not guarantee safe sailing for the increasingly pluralistic and diverse American boat, but it might at least add an additional crew of rowers, committed to working together for the common good, which would surely represent a much needed and highly beneficial change.
Photo: Pope Francis prays in an empty Saint Peter's Square, March 27, 2020, (Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP.)