CONSCIENCE CONVERSATIONS: The greatest act of solidarity in the history of the world
Brendan: “How many saints have we never heard of?” I remember reading that once, Matt, and I’ve been thinking about it lately as we’ve watched the extraordinary heroism of everyday love which has emerged globally with the COVID-19 pandemic. This ordinary heroism has to me been the defining cultural feature of the crisis, and the one which has given me so much hope even as so much suffering emerges from this virus. Every day we see little acts of heroism that are collectively saving the world: the doctor or nurse who bravely steps into the breach, the children comforted nightly and given strength by parents, the army of volunteers delivering groceries and medicines to those locked inside, the friends reaching out constantly to others living alone or in suffering to give them strength.
The list truly goes on and on. This everyday heroism reminds me of what Pope Francis called the “middle class of holiness” in Gaudium et spes, and it’s worth quoting his observations at length:
The Holy Spirit bestows holiness in abundance among God’s holy and faithful people, for “it has pleased God to make men and women holy and to save them, not as individuals without any bond between them, but rather as a people who might acknowledge him in truth and serve him in holiness”. In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.
I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of holiness”.
Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed”.
This line, in particular, feeds my soul: “A holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence.” There is so much cynicism about the moral state of our world and culture. Sin is everywhere, as it has always been. But in this moment of agony I can’t help but see God’s reflection in all those around me and across the country, Christian and irreligious alike. I see it in every kindness and small act of service. And I see how these little actions, compelled by the Holy Spirit, are together moving mountains of holiness in the world. An enormous plurality of humanity is locked indoors together. Is this the greatest single act of solidarity in the history of the world? Billions of people huddled inside, to prevent the transmission of a virus which destroys the life of the most vulnerable among us? I can’t help but see the holiness in that. I can’t help but drink up its implications.
Matt, I would love to hear your thoughts on this great mass of “middle class holiness” we are witnessing and the immense solidarity of this moment.
Matt: Well, Brendan, I don’t think I can improve on what you’ve written. The best I can hope for to is ratify and perhaps amplify it.
I’m particularly struck by your observation that this is very likely the “greatest single act of solidarity in the history of the world.” Let’s think about that for a moment—or, preferably, many moments.
For me, the overriding feeling inspired by this time of separation and seclusion—aside from the deeply shared compassion for the millions of people who have so far been affected by the pandemic, and particularly those who have or will fall victim to it—is the hope that the spirit of solidarity and humanity so many of us are feeling now will grow and take root. And for me that hope borders on certainty: the whole broad history of the world consists in a virtually infinite series of big steps forward and slightly smaller steps backward.
The fact is, some of the improvements being witnessed in social thought and interactions that we are witnessing now will stick and will grow. Sure, a measure of complacency will return, we will regress from some as-yet undefined point of maximum advance, but we will not regress so far as to return to a state equivalent to that which existed before the pandemic.
My hope is that we will witness that advance in many ways—social as well as personal. But the spirit of the individuals living on the 30th floor of the building across the street from me—as evidenced by the sign they placed in the windows across their unit—will persist, and grow.
History is a great progression of human love, conceived, inspired, lived, and passed forward by millions and millions of the everyday saints you and Pope Francis are highlighting. Not in the same way by everyone, but in as many different ways as there are everyday human beings.
Brendan: Matt, the Pope himself as echoed the very point you are making—the need to preserve this great advance in solidarity, once our moment of crisis passes. In an interview in April he said:
This crisis is affecting us all, rich and poor alike, and putting a spotlight on hypocrisy. I am worried by the hypocrisy of certain political personalities who speak of facing up to the crisis, of the problem of hunger in the world, but who in the meantime manufacture weapons. This is a time to be converted from this kind of functional hypocrisy. It’s a time for integrity. Either we are coherent with our beliefs or we lose everything.
You ask me about conversion. Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world. We need to reconnect with our real surroundings. This is the opportunity for conversion.
Yes, I see early signs of an economy that is less liquid, more human. But let us not lose our memory once all this is past, let us not file it away and go back to where we were. This is the time to take the decisive step, to move from using and misusing nature to contemplating it. We have lost the contemplative dimension; we have to get it back at this time.
We must begin a time of integrity, as the Pope puts it—we must be coherent with our beliefs or lose everything. And this is where Catholics are called especially. We believe every person is a child of God. How do we live that fundamental truth coherently in our lives and in the life of our country? How do we build that more human economy the Pope points too? How do we bring our economic systems into line with the true reality of the universe, that every human being is imbued with an infinite dignity? We must inch ever closer to building a world where relations among people grow closer to the relations between God and His people.
Consider, for a moment, the idea of “essential workers” in this crisis. People who are most needed in the workplace at this time, to continue moving essential supply chains—like grocery store workers, pharmacy workers, and others—are often among those who are paid the least in our economy. They are among the least secure. They are among those who least enjoy the benefits of our collective prosperity. That lack of integrity and disconnection from truth in our economic life has always been present, but the crisis reveals it in all its naked injustice. How do we change that?
Let’s all work towards that more humane economy, where the memory of solidarity and humanity from this crisis becomes a turning point in our history—and not simply a blip we forget.
Matt: Everything you say is true, Brendan. We need, as both global and local societies, to take the next step toward a time of integrity and just economic and governmental structures. It’s a challenge that will require our attention and our action for a long period of time. First, we need to educate ourselves in the injustices faced by so many of our neighbors, now and in the period of recovery that will follow the COVID crisis. And we must bear in mind the certainty that there will be opportunists looking to profit from this crisis.
But we cannot, and should not, let the opportunists and the self-absorbed daunt us. There will be changes, sure. The Church will lose some people, as they wander away seeking new pleasures—but it will also gain people. And the tough roots of the Church will survive, with healthier branches than ever – branches that will flower into new strength and beauty, growing ever closer toward the vision that God holds for us all—toward the “time acceptable to the Lord.”
Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast (virtually, in the time of COVID-19!) and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, of counsel to a Toronto law firm, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, as well as a lay associate of the Redemptorists.
Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other Catholic and civic institutions, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.