When the last pandemic, the AIDS pandemic, spread terror throughout the world, I was involved in “the action.”
Bishop in San Francisco, which was an epicenter. Host of the world’s first religious response to the AIDS crisis. Board Member of the American Foundation of AIDS Research. International lecturer!
I was pastorally involved with hundreds of people with AIDS and their lovers and parents, hospital beds and funerals. Around here, it was like a war zone, and the suffering and grief bent the strongest wills downward. I gave briefings to George H. W. Bush when he was Vice-President and, later, President. On those occasions I was always joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Everett Koop, and Dr. Burton Lee.
This time around with the new pandemic, as an 83-year-old, I putter around wiping doorknobs and watching, hypnotized, the numbers of cases and deaths climb relentlessly. Part of me feels numb. I cheer for Tony Fauci. I host my wife, Mary’s, birthday party on Zoom. And I watch people walk past our house - we live on a flat street.
The End of the World
That’s what it looks like when we see a health worker with poor equipment dashing into the fray. When your job is lost, and you can’t pay the bills. When experts keep using the word “unprecedented.”
All of this encourages ordinary life to take on sacred dimensions. No longer is it just about me: it’s about us. It’s not just my country; it’s the world. Oneness appears in our thinking. Every person of every strain begins to matter. Selfless restraints begin to overpower our normal greed. Why? Because we are living “in the end time,” when the world we have known is passing away. A holy death is noticed in the shadows.
Not the End of the World
“Flattening the curve” will take so much heroic effort. But . . . whether the curve is high or low, it will end up being totally flat and life will go on. 675,000 people died in the United States during the Spanish flu, but eventually we recovered.
Closer to the end of the world will be the impact of climate change. But even when it becomes so obvious that leaders will notice and it will be too late to stop the agony, some humans and animals will survive. Not the end!
Closer still to the end of the world will be time when nuclear arsenals will be released – as they were created to do. This will be the ultimate blasphemy, the final virus – humanly devised. Yet even though heaven and earth will pass away, life will prevail. Not the end!
A couple of blocks from my house, an Irish priest – a dear friend – in his 90’s lies in bed with the coronavirus. Fear would be far from his heart. Instead, he awaits new life. This anticipation is built into him and into the nature of all things, I do believe. The coronavirus cannot extinguish this confidence, nor will it be determinative in the end. Something deeper, higher, broader and more enduring will prevail.