Providence, gratitude and self-giving at Catholic schools during the pandemic
Feb 11, 2021
For Catholic Schools Week, principals, teachers and parents wrote reflections about what local Catholic schools are doing to serve students and families during this time of pandemic. This essay is by Matthew Newell, the chair of the Theology Department at the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, Maryland.
Merely to discuss the pandemic is a challenge, as the reality is so much greater than any one person’s perspective. My experience as a theology teacher during the pandemic coalesces around three imperatives: providence, gratitude and self-gift.
Most people I know have some degree of fear of flying. It is an understandable fear, even if we are aware of the high safety of airlines and even if it does not actually stop us from travel. It is a perilous, unusual and unnatural place for a human to be; and those moments occasion thoughts of our weakness, mortality and total dependence upon the crew, the aircraft and God. But these thoughts are spiritually valuable. We are entrusted to each other, and to God, in every moment; and every moment might be our last. The experience of vulnerability that the flight provokes is not so much an aberrant experience as it is a clairvoyant window into our true and constant state.
The analogy fits the pandemic well, and calls us to deeper trust in divine providence as we go about our labors. No one, no matter their degree of experience or education, can declare with certainty the ultimate effect the pandemic will have on our schools and our students. No one knows with precision when normalcy will resume, or what exactly it will look like. But should this not be a clairvoyant window to renounce the fiction of a totally planned world, and a totally planned life? Blessed Basil Moreau founded the Congregation of Holy Cross upon trust in divine providence. Were he able to foresee every outcome, he claimed, it would be merely a human work. That same trust in providence founded our own school, and empowers us to offer our students our labor as cooperation with God’s work—for His goals, in His time.
The pandemic is also an occasion to renew gratitude. St. Paul invites the Church to rejoice in her sufferings, thereby learning endurance, forming character, and confirming hope. It is a familiar imperative, but it must be protected from the droning deafness of the rote. In all the remote electronic learning done in the past year, it is easy to be critical. Students’ social links are fragmenting; focus and enthusiasm are waning; screen time is increasing; learning is difficult to assess. Teachers are called to unfamiliar and challenging tasks, and the remoteness seems to go against the grain of our incarnational faith. But in this situation, should not the fundamental posture overwhelmingly be gratitude? Electronic learning on this scale would be impossible merely a decade ago, and I am grateful not to make the good the enemy of the perfect. However imperfect the simulated sound of a distant voice or the image of a face on a screen are compared with their realities, they have enabled my students and me to work together for a harvest this last year.
Finally, we can all empathize with the ways that the pandemic has depleted us. Teachers are especially vulnerable here: as their very vocation calls them to give so much of themselves. The wisdom of the world calls for a careful give-and-take in a zero-sum market of emotional energy, but Christ calls for sacrificial love. Can sacrificial love be sustained indefinitely? Not if we rely on our own strength. Our response to this fact of our finitude should not be guarded budgeting of ourselves, but an urgent journey into the heart of God, where our depletion may be filled, over and over, from his plenitude. As Pope Benedict XVI says in Deus Caritas Est, each of us can become a source of living water that flows in love to those we serve, but only if we constantly drink anew from the original spring, which is Jesus and His pierced heart.
My prayer for my fellow teachers as we endure this pandemic is that we be driven for strength to Him, and that every effort that seems meager in our eyes will be brought to its completion in Him.