Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:35
In 2020 the pandemic struck, putting the whole world in lockdown. The Clerics of St. Viateur, adhering to government restrictions and for the safety of the thousands of pilgrims who flock to Our Lady’s Sanctuary, reluctantly closed the Sanctuary for the 2020 season. There were no Masses, no Holy Hours, no pilgrimages. The confessionals were closed, as was the gift shop. Who knows how long this will last? Almost all aspects of life are constrained as a new and dangerous presence is among us.
The day was cool, overcast and windy as we made our way up to Our Lady’s Sanctuary. We expected to be by ourselves, but to our amazement many pilgrims were there, for the most part wearing masks. There were families and different groups praying the Rosary yet keeping apart from one another. Some were lighting candles and laying flowers in the grotto.
Individuals were squeezing prayers through little openings in the chapel entrance. Where benches are usually found, a family was sitting on cushions eating a picnic lunch. There was a man praying at the original chapel, one hand pressed against the wall as if to connect more intimately with Our Lady. Similar scenes were repeated all year long as people continued to come. In this time of trial, the faithful especially want to feel God’s presence, to know that God is near. This is where faith meets life.
Some people view the pandemic merely as a disruption of their comfortable lives, watching events unfold from a safe distance and presuming they will escape the virus unscathed. Others suffer deeply in this difficult time but are struggling through it without God, possibly because they do not know how to turn to Him or because they have never known or ever believed in a loving Saviour. There are still others who, because of their sufferings, have abandoned God yet He will never abandon them.
Persons of faith or not, we are all waiting for this darkness to pass. Daily we are bombarded with ominous warnings, news of sickness and death and the worry of what tomorrow will bring. The elderly is dying frightened and alone, plunging their helpless families into mourning and grief. Families are separated, jobs are lost, poverty increases. For some there is the terrible isolation of being alone, with no one contacting you, caring for you or helping you.
The problem of evil, the problem of pain, the problem of suffering is a great mystery that has confronted people for all time but God’s Word tells us that we are not alone, that there is a great cloud of witnesses encouraging us on … that the Lord hears the cry of the poor.
St. Padre Pio, a man who knew and endured terrible suffering all his life, often told people “Pray, hope and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.” Those without faith or in the depths of despair do not believe these words. If only they would dare to hope, to turn their hearts to the Lord, they would discover the powerful consolation of God’s love and the assurance that He never abandons us.
We all worry, we all need assurance and we all need to know that God cares, that He is close to us. Our Lord does care about us and feels our pain when we suffer, when we feel alone, because God never abandons us.
Year after year many people who suffer greatly come to Our Lady’s Sanctuary to offer prayers and thanksgiving. In spite of the immense hardships that they endure, they have a profound trust in Our Lord. Their deep faith becomes to others a witness, an inspiration and a challenge to hope. Many saints have said, if we turn to Him, God will use our suffering to draw us into His salvation, that our pain can be the place where we begin to enter into and deepen our relationship with our loving God.
God never allows us to be in a situation where He would not draw good from evil if we but turn to Him. We are never without hope for our help is in the Lord. It is through faith that our sufferings, nurtured by hope, are transformed into a love that leads to salvation. It is the faith that grows through prayer and acts of kindness, that faith of enduring and using all the graces that God sends us, which will lead us to recognize His loving presence in our lives, to the knowledge that God never abandons us, that He is always by our side.
For more than a year it has been difficult to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion. Many miss visiting the Sanctuary and praying with and for their brothers and sisters. Being kept from the sacraments, from experiencing the life of the Church in all its fullness is painful and leaves us with a great emptiness and yearning. We can offer up these sufferings and Our Lord will use our offering to bring goodness and blessings to us and others, for He loves us and never abandons us.
The pandemic will eventually pass but life will continue to have its challenges. Suffering, pain and loss are part of every human life. To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. As Christians we know that we are in this world but not of this world and that our purpose is to bring the love of Christ to all we encounter.
We know that God, who is love, has created us out of love, to love and to be loved. We know that even the smallest act of kindness is done out of love and that what we do to others, we do to Our Lord. God loves us. He will never abandon us. For this let us give praise and thanksgiving.
As an act of love, let us bring into prayer our families, our friends, our neighbors. Let us pray for those who are sick and suffering. Let us pray for the Clerics of St. Viateur. Let us pray for all the pilgrims who come to Our Lady’s Sanctuary. Let us pray for all those with whom over the years we have shared the celebration of Mass at our parishes and especially at Our Lady’s beautiful Sanctuary. Let us pray for one another!
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.