Finding God in the Midst of Pandemic: An Interview with Father Michael Kerper
What spiritual opportunities do you think this current situation presents for us as Catholics? How can we best use this time to deepen our understanding of God?
Father Kerper: As soon as the coronavirus emerged, spread out, and changed from something in China to something that killed someone I actually knew, I started to see it as a spectacular, perhaps unrepeatable, occasion for conversion. How so?
Let me pull up some thoughts from Walker Percy, a brilliant, devout, and eccentric Catholic novelist who published from the 1960’s until his death in 1990. Percy frequently asked, “Why was it that I saw my Uncle Will truly happy only once in his life? On December 7, 1941.” Here Percy touched on a mysterious fact: Disasters, whether individual or global, brutally pull us out of what he called “everydayness.”
Everybody has a Pearl Harbor: For people like me it’s the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. For younger people it’s September 11, 2001. For today’s undergraduates it’s the coronavirus epidemic. For the first time in their lives everything is at risk: health, family, economic security, and even their own lives. And Catholics have an added trauma: the loss of the sacraments.
What do you think are the spiritual dangers of the present situation for our students?
Father Kerper: I see two huge dangers.
First, there’s the failure—or outright refusal—to recognize this frightening time as a mysterious occasion of grace. Conversions rarely happen in comfortable suburban homes on Sunday afternoons. More often than not they take shape after a cancer diagnosis, a terrorist attack, a derailed career, and so on.
God, through the historical books of the Old Testament, constantly teaches us that the “worst times” are actually the best times. We see this especially in the accounts of the rising and falling of the Temples. The “best times” were actually the periods of dislocation, exile, and occupation by foreign powers. During those times, God’s people felt much closer to God because they loved him as their benefactor and friend.
The second grave danger is the understandable desire to return too quickly to the status quo ante. God blessed Israel with long stretches of exile, which acted like extended spiritual retreats. Also, we must always remember that Israel never liberated or restored herself. Rather God did these things, usually in very strange ways such as using Israel’s own apparent enemies as her savior.
What advice do you have for confronting and battling those dangers?
Father Kerper: First, do not regard our present silent “liturgical sabbatical” as a necessarily evil.
Let’s think of Holy Saturday, which has no liturgy, except for the Divine Office. The Church created this brief space of silence, not even 24 hours, so people could ponder the mystery of Christ’s Death and Resurrection undisturbed by liturgical activity. May one dare speculate that perhaps God has drawn much of the Church into an extended Holy Saturday quarantine?
Second, please do not squash the liturgical silence of our long Holy Saturday with artificial and noisy replacements.
A few years ago Cardinal Sarah coined the phrase “dictatorship of noise.” How true! This dictatorship has now expanded within the Church through hundreds of livestream Masses. I know people who constantly hunt for new celebrants and exotic liturgies on the Internet. How does one ever pray?
Are there any particular prayers, devotions, or readings you recommend to help us at this time?
Father Kerper: Yes. Two things. The Psalms and the Stations of the Cross. But they must be prayed slowly, freely, and quietly in deep dialogue with the Lord.
As the pastor of St. Patrick’s I have a great luxury: constant access to our beautiful church. I also have the unusual luxury of lots of blank spaces in my calendar, and so I spend much time walking and praying in the church.
For 40 years I’ve been praying the Psalms within the Divine Office. Priests have a canonical obligation to get that work done, but now the Psalms sound and feel very different. They express the anguish, terror, lamentation, thanks, and praise of Christ the Priest. By virtue of priestly ordination, His words are my words, and my words are His words. I am repeatedly struck by the eerie coincidence of the daily Psalms with the events around me.
Without this “Holy Saturday” engendered by the pandemic, my rediscovery of the Psalms would never have happened. I’d never have had the leisure set within the tensions of the moment.
Second, I highly recommend the Stations of the Cross. I must confess that I am a latecomer to embracing this devotion. Since the ending of public Masses and the lockdown I’ve been doing them every day, usually at night and with almost no lights on. In order to appreciate them, I had to do something drastic: I stopped using a book.
Instead, I started walking around the church, visualized each scene, and then asked the Lord to tell me how He felt — and, in turn, how I should feel about all the events in the Church and in the world. I also suddenly saw how all 14 Stations are intrinsically connected: they all show Christ freely relinquishing every speck of power for the sake of the others, including His enemies.
How, in the midst of this pandemic, can we exhibit joy during the Easter Season? How can we witness to Christ’s Resurrection when many people are suffering and dying?
Father Kerper: We can learn much by looking at the mixed response of the apostles and others as they learned of Christ’s Resurrection. They swing back and forth between joy and fear, between belief and doubt. St. Matthew’s account of the Ascension has a strange memory: “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted” (Matthew 27:17). Even after 40 days and multiple appearances of the Lord, “some doubted.”
You ask: How can we “exhibit joy?” The Risen Christ does something crucial: He always recognizes that the enemies of joy still dwell within the apostles, namely fear, doubt, and remorse. And so he soothes their pain, always saying “Fear not,” and always treating them with great delicacy.
When we first meet frightened and angry people we shouldn’t start singing Easter songs and pretending that everything is just fine. Rather, we need to listen to them. In fact, perhaps the most effective exhibition of joy is the emotional calm that allows us to absorb the trauma of others.
As to the second part of your question, we must note the constant intertwining of post-Easter joy with horrible disasters. We see this especially in the Acts of the Apostles. Already in chapter 1, the specter of Judas appears as they figure out a way to replace him. In chapter 4, Peter and John get arrested. In chapter 5, more arrests occur. In chapter 7, St. Stephen, newly-ordained as one of the original deacons, suffers martyrdom. And so on.
Joy that denies the inevitability of future suffering is an anesthesia and opposed to Christian faith. When the coronavirus finally recedes, we can be sure that some other disaster will rise up, either at the personal level or globally. Who knows?
If we endure the current situation, embracing it as a time of deep conversion, we will become spiritually stronger, more joyful, and able to witness true Christian joy.
Father Michael Kerper grew up in Philadelphia and attended Catholic schools as a boy. He studied politics and economics at La-Salle University, labor relations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Ordained in 1985 for the Diocese of Manchester, Father Kerper has worked as a parish priest throughout New Hampshire and currently serves as Pastor of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Nashua, where many Thomas More College students and faculty worship on Sunday. He regularly answers questions about the Catholic Faith in The Parable, the diocesan magazine. He is the author of A Priest Answers 25 Questions You Never Thought to Ask with Sophia Press.