“According to a 2018 national survey by Cigna, loneliness levels have reached an all-time high, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. Forty percent of survey participants also reported they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated.” – American Psychological Association. This is a report from 2019 about the rising levels of social isolation and loneliness experienced in the United States. It is not something new, and as days and years progress, it is likely to get worse if we do not act now. So how does the Catholic Church respond to such increasing levels of isolation?
Fortunately, the Church has discussed accompaniment as a solution for a very long time. Most recently, it has been discussed at great length throughout the papacy of Pope Francis and in the recent synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. As recently as last year, Pope Francis in Christus Vivit talked extensively about the Church’s role in preventing loneliness in young people. Still, as the study above shows, loneliness is not something that only young people experience. Pope Francis talks about the untethering and uprootedness of people in this way:
“We need to make all our institutions better equipped to be more welcoming to young people since so many have a real sense of being orphaned. … To all these orphans – including perhaps ourselves – communities like a parish or school should offer possibilities for experiencing openness and love, affirmation, and growth. Many young people today feel that they have inherited the failed dreams of their parents and grandparents, dreams betrayed by injustice, social violence, selfishness, and lack of concern for others. In a word, they feel uprooted.…The experience of discontinuity, uprootedness, and the collapse of fundamental certainties, fostered by today’s media culture, creates a deep sense of orphanhood to which we must respond by creating an attractive and fraternal environment where others can live with a sense of purpose.” (Christus Vivit 216)
So what does this mean for our parishes or for us as Catholics? Each one of us is called to accompany others on the journey of faith. Christ himself modeled this with his disciples and has charged us to do the same. Accompaniment is fundamental to Christianity. It means building an “intentional relationship that is oriented toward a definitive direction of growth in holiness and transformation in the Person of Christ.” To begin, I would suggest first taking a look at your immediate circle of connections. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc. should be your first group to encounter and accompany because they are the people you organically have relationships with each day. These are the people most likely to open up to you if they are experiencing troubles. Even then, it is essential to listen and provide a connection to Christ and the Church community. The role of accompaniment in giving someone a link to the broader Catholic community is vital, and acknowledging every baptized person’s role in this calling is essential. As the Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church discusses, accompaniment can serve as a powerful avenue to welcome and keep someone in the Church in ever uncertain times and events in someone’s life. It can lead to a deeper connection to Christ, a fuller integration into the world at large, and a more authentic sense of their mission to serve Christ and the Church (Art of Accompaniment, 19).
Every day there are more and more people who are experiencing isolation, loneliness, and a sense of not belonging. This has only been exacerbated by the current coronavirus pandemic. Current events, personal circumstances such as their health, and many other factors can contribute to feelings of isolation. During this time, I invite you to pray about different ways you can accompany those who are feeling lonely. The Catholic Church can be a refuge in this storm of isolation and meet people where they are. Even if someone is lonely, as one of God’s children, they are never alone, and it is our job as Catholics to remind them of that fact.
For more resources on accompaniment, please click here.
For more resources to accompany you during the coronavirus, please click here.
As parents in our early sixties, living in household with our 25, 23 and 19 year old adult children is proving to be an interesting challenge during this pandemic. We have successfully transitioned from training six little ones to launching three and sharing our household with the remaining three. Each of us lives what I consider ‘parallel’ lives under one roof. We all go to our respective jobs, enjoy our own friend groups, and participate in our specific extra-curricular activities, along with sharing family time together. It is a state of life that has forged a certain routine that is pleasantly habitable.
Slam dunk us all into the middle of an unprecedented disease that turns our world upside down overnight – and our happy coexistence becomes challenged. We are forced to adapt to new schedules and new restrictions that we all must willingly cooperate with. Moving from government recommendations to ‘imposed sanctions’ is met with varying reactions from the five in our household. Those of us who are easily contented engaging in solitary activities are not so affected. We find new books to read, projects in the house or the yard, a nature series to watch, extra time to participate in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the Rosary and the Mass on tv. Those of us who are energized by hanging out with our peer group, attending public events, or going out to restaurants and pubs find these restrictions close to being imprisoned.
Our foremost responsibility as parents during this uncertain time is to be very intentional in communicating with our young adults about the ‘rules’ and the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ of cooperating in a Godly manner to all of this. We speak daily of the importance of adhering to social distancing and the extra measures of hygiene and disinfecting while allowing our children to express their frustrations, share new information, and ultimately come to agreement to remain steadfast in cooperation when it is difficult. I can’t stress enough the necessity of speaking daily in a positive manner so that we all help keep each other accountable.
Getting independent, self-sufficient young adults to operate from the same page is most definitely a tight rope act. I’m accompanying them in a way I never have before. It requires lots of talking and more listening. It necessitates creative ways of encouraging. Each family dynamic is different, but in my male-dominated household, what I have found brings us together is food. My plan these days has been to cook, cook, and cook some more! Preparing meals that satisfy and draw us together opens us to sharing our thoughts and feelings and encouraging one another with what we find most difficult. In our discussions, our adult children share their creative ways they have found to connect with friends and to cope with the temporary suspension of activities they regularly participated in. Our pace of life has slowed considerably. My job is on temporary shutdown, but everyone else still goes to their jobs on altered shifts with no work meetings. When they arrive home, I make sure a meal is ready and we talk and pray and relax together.
They are quicker about getting their laundry done, and helping keep common areas of the house disinfected every day.
This altered state of living builds character in each of us. We are being called to willingly forego engaging in activities we love for the greater good of our fellow man. Practicing restraint, perseverance, respectfulness, and kindness allows us to grow in holiness that builds up the kingdom of God. This witness promotes community and joy amidst the pain and devastation that is all around us.
One activity we have purposely not engaged in during this pandemic is watching or reading the news regularly. We do not watch any major news telecasts and keep apprised of current affairs through government messages and the several medical people in our family. We choose not to obsess on what is happening hour by hour. Instead, we focus on praying, eating well, getting extra sleep, playing games, watching movies, reading books, and pursuing our hobbies in our home space. We essentially have created our own little bubble to weather this storm together while continuing to participate in our normal duties to the extent that complies with social distancing.
We are fortunate to live in a digital age where we can access a degree of connectivity through our various devices and remain a safe distance apart. We were created to be relational. We do not want to live this way solely, but we have the privilege of being connected to others like no other time in history. So far, in our semi lockdown mode – no one has blown up at another, no one has a crazed look about them, no one has run away! We are all present and accounted for under one roof amidst significant life changes. Our home remains a sanctuary of harmony and peace. This altered state of living together is a fruit of ‘grace’ that I believe God is showering on us. He is equipping us as we pray with the virtues of prudence and perseverance. He is covering us with His balm of peace to behave respectfully and kindly to one another. I am mindful of my continued dependence on the Holy Spirit’s grace to guide me as a mother. My prayer is for parents everywhere to walk in faith with your children in the will of God and grow in peace and joy together, whatever the circumstances!
As I write this, there are currently 2,382 people in my home state of New York who have contracted the Coronavirus, with 21 others having lost their lives in the pandemic. With both of those numbers climbing each day, the feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and despair are palpable— not just in New York, but around the world.
Here in New York, I am currently a seminarian on pastoral year (a year-long internship at a parish in my diocese). In an exercise of charity and concern, our diocese like many others has cancelled all Masses, public liturgies, devotions, and meetings through Easter in order to keep our most vulnerable parishioners safe. This has of course posed a certain ministerial crisis since many of the avenues (Mass, confession, one-on-one meetings) that we have been taught to send people down when feeling anxious, despondent, and isolated from God are now closed indefinitely. So, what do we do? This situation is calling us to be creative in how we minister to people. Online resources, social media, live-streaming liturgies, and even just phone calls and video chats can and will keep people feeling connected. I think many of us already know this and have been putting effort into these new ministries and forms of evangelization even before the pandemic. It is true though that without sacraments and personal connection, even this media approach could never be enough.
While creative ministry right now is important, I would like to focus rather on the flip side of that same question—what do we do? Here, I would like to address my brother seminarians and anyone, priest and lay alike, that is struggling due to a lack of fulfilling ministry. I don’t think this is a selfish pursuit, but an essential one if we are to check our own feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and despair.
Last summer I had the great experience of attending the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF). In these last few days, one of their spiritual approaches came back to me vividly; they called it Relationship-Identity-Mission—and here the order of the words does matter. IPF posited that many people in ministry may operate backwards. Mission is primary; from there flows Identity (I am a seminarian. I am a youth minister); then, the personal Relationship with Christ gets whatever energy is left. If these last few days without “real ministry” have been a struggle for you, as they have been for me, I think we need to ask ourselves not “what do I do?”—because frankly we cannot do much of anything our Mission truly requires—but rather ask “who am I? I work for Jesus, yes, but is my own, personal relationship with Him primary?”
In discussing Relationship-Identity-Mission, the question was often asked “where do you live?” If you live in your Mission and your Identity is synonymous with what you do, you are going to have a difficult month (or maybe even longer). But if you live in the Relationship and make that your starting point, even during a time when the Mission is unclear or nonexistent, then you are going to rediscover your Identity as a beloved son or daughter of a faithful God. Amidst fear and uncertainty, God is giving us this time to go deeper into a relationship with Him, so that we can live out our missions more fruitfully when this is all over.
So, if you find you are struggling now because you are living Mission-Identity- Relationship, take his time as a Lenten Retreat and don’t feel bad about it! The world needs your prayers now more than ever, and your creative approach to ministry now will then be the fruit of your time alone with Jesus. If you are living Relationship-Identity-Mission, go deeper and speak honestly with Jesus about frustrations with your minimized Mission.
In closing, I would like to offer this consoling quote from Henri Nouwen for your reflection:
“We are not what we do, we are not what we have, we are not what others think of us. Coming home is claiming the truth. I am the beloved child of a loving creator.”
Jesus is calling us to remain in His Love (John 15:9), a request that I imagine was made for times like these. So choose to live in the relationship, take ownership of your identity as the beloved, and watch your ministry take root.
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As a communications manager who handles the social media accounts for my day job, I’ve had to work at and learn how to better manage my time spent on social media. While this technology is an exciting and ever-evolving resource for sharing and obtaining news, I’ve found social media can also drain my energy or keep me from my priorities.
Within the last year, I noticed I was spending four or more hours a day on social media and browsing the Internet. I saw my spiritual life was being affected, so during this past Lent, I decided to do something about that imbalance. I knew I still needed social media for work use, and I discovered a solution.
By implementing the screen time and do-not-disturb settings on my phone, I found I could limit my social media consumption to an hour per day. Whatever time was left after work allocations I could spend on personal social media time. Most days I used 45 minutes or the whole hour for work.
I came to appreciate that my time was spent elsewhere in a more productive manner. I used the time for additional prayer, reading, church, conversations with friends, and other enjoyable activities. My brain didn’t feel as fuzzy and scattered with random bits of information that would send me off the paths toward my personal, professional, and spiritual goals.
After Lent, I took off the screen time and do-not-disturb parameters on my phone due to an evening work event. Since then, I’ve turned them back on. This experience of self-reflection and adjustment of my behaviors reminded me of why God provides us with commandments: to set us free from sin in order to allow us to become more perfectly the people he created us to be. By growing in self-awareness and setting self-imposed boundaries, we can better harness social media for the good.
Here are a few questions to consider that I have found help me when evaluating my time spent on social media:
(1)Are you present to those around you?
People using their digital devices when in the company of others is a growing trend – and a sad one at that. Instead, we should put away our devices and give our attention and time to those in front of us. Being fully present to those we are spending time with in-person shows that we are investing in our relationships and affirming their humanity. By being present to those around us, we respect them and uphold their dignity.
(2)Do you let social media distract you from God and others in your life?
Have you formed the habit of checking your phone every couple of minutes or felt the non-existent buzz of a notification? Have you moved to autopilot looking through your social media feeds or gone down the rabbit hole of an internet or video search only to see that one, three, or more hours have gone by? This reliance on our phones provides great distraction in our lives, making us susceptible to temptation. We should work to embrace silence with ourselves and with God. By scheduling solitude with God in prayer or time for ourselves to be constructive, we come to know God’s path for us and how he calls us to give of ourselves to others in love.
(3)Ask yourself, “Do you really need to share this moment?”
With 24/7 access to an inside look at our life’s daily moments through social media, we seem to have lost a sense of privacy and humility. Before posting content to social media, consider the discretion of the moment. Check with family, friends, and significant others if something including them is appropriate to post. Respect their space and yours. Ask yourself why you’re posting the content you want to share and check your motivations.
(4)Do you view social media as an outlet that steals your happiness or as a way to share your joy?
There is much truth to the adage, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparing ourselves, our possessions, our appearance, our jobs, our wealth, and our relationships to those of others prohibits us from feeling gratitude for our blessings and can derail us from our personal goals. Thanking God for at least one thing a day can help cultivate a spirit of joyfulness, allowing us to celebrate, learn from, and be happy for others around us.
(5)Do you feel isolated when spending time on social media?
Social media can be a great way to connect with Catholic communities. Personally, I enjoy the discussions and fellowship that Facebook groups cultivate. However, we must be cautious of the temptations to become a technology hermit, as Pope Francis warns of in his 2019 World Day of Social Communications message, or posting “for the sake of Instagram” or self-interested comments.
(6)How do you treat others on social media?
What we say on social media and Internet comment sections matters. Pope Francis encourages Catholics to live out the faith through social networks as the Body of Christ, welcoming others. As the United States Council of Catholic Bishops’ social media guidelines, we as the Church “can use social media to encourage, respect, dialogue, and [cultivate] honest relationships – in other words, ‘true friendship.’” By living out our faith through the example we set in loving others on social media through our posts and comments, we reveal Christ.
As a PhD student, there are often many moments where I find myself buried under work, exhausted from studying, and wondering if subjecting myself to a five year program of studying, teaching, and writing is worth it. Although I love what I study and find it extremely life-giving, there are plenty of moments when I’ve felt hopeless, isolated, and anxious about a future career in academia. This past year, I found myself struggling in the midst of my third semester in my program. I felt emotionally and mentally exhausted by the demands of being a second-year student and teaching assistant. Frustrated, worried, and tired, I made an appointment with one of my professors, hoping that venting to someone who understands the challenges of academia might at least help somewhat.
As I vented about my anxieties of being an effective teaching assistant, distinguished student, and successful future academic, my professor patiently listened. Even as my concrete worries about grading and lecturing for the first time began to turn into catastrophizing about never being hired at a college or university, my professor sat with me until I finished talking. She never minimized my feelings or invalidated my emotions. Instead, she shared with me her own challenges that she faced as a graduate student. Through stories about her own experiences, she admitted that she had been where I was, too. My professor didn’t let the conversation remain at a place of despair; she instead encouraged me to look at the bigger picture in all of these difficulties: God’s plan for each of us. She challenged me to think about my own vocation to be a graduate student and reminded me that it was God’s will that I was here. My professor helped me to see that despite my anxiety and worry, I was not alone. Not only did I have her support and the support of others at my university, but my present and future rested in the hands of my Creator. She also helped me notice places in my life where I was successful, and suggested places where I could become stronger. After talking about my strengths and areas of improvement, she offered advice, pointed me to other people that might also help, and offered to continue the conversation whenever I needed it. I left encouraged, feeling supported, and with a new perspective on my life as a graduate student.
When I first scheduled my meeting with my professor, I had only expected to give voice to my worries to someone who knew what I was talking about; however, when I left my meeting, I felt that I was no longer walking alone on my path. My professor was walking with me, accompanying me on my journey as a graduate student. Upon later reflection, this moment of accompaniment shared with my professor reminded me of Jesus’ own style of accompaniment on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Like the disciples who were dejected, disillusioned, and confused about the events that had taken place in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus’ death, I too was anxious about my own life as a graduate student. My professor offered a presence of patient listening, even when my worries began spiraling into despair. Instead of invalidating my response to the challenges of my life, my professor, like Jesus, “drew near” (Luke 24:15) to me by sharing with me her own difficulties as a graduate student. My professor also helped me to shift my perspective. She imitated Jesus on the Road to Emmaus by reminding me of God’s role and plan in my life, encouraging me to look beyond the challenges of the present moment. Finally, my professor helped me to remember my own sense of mission and vocation, and move actively towards them. As Jesus interpreted the scriptures with the travelers on the way (Luke: 24:27), my professor assisted me in reading God’s revelation in my own life through my strengths and weaknesses, encouraging me to develop and strengthen my gifts in order to respond to God’s call. As Jesus walked with the disciples towards a definitive direction, my professor was walking with me towards a certain goal: greater trust in God and more freedom from anxiety in order to live out my vocation. After this moment of accompaniment with my professor, I continued on my path as a graduate student with a new sense of support and encouragement. Like the disciples after their own powerful encounter of accompaniment with Christ, I too returned to my own mission as a graduate student, but with renewed hope and enthusiasm.
My experience of being accompanied by my professor made a significant impact on the way I think about my own life and vocation. In that simple meeting, my professor reminded me that no one lives out their vocation and personal mission in isolation. Instead, we need one another on this pilgrimage towards full realization of being the beloved of Christ. Accompaniment allows us to walk together towards Christ; it turns the challenges of the journey into opportunities to discover God’s love with and through one another.
Who might accompany you on your journey towards Christ? How can you accompany others through challenges that you’ve faced?
For more resources on mentorship and accompaniment, please click here.
Each year, I look forward to attending Midnight Mass on Christmas. It is one of those Catholic "hallmarks" that helps us to ring in the celebration of Christmas. This year was no different, and I was able to assist at my Cathedral's celebration of Midnight Mass. As we continue on in the great octave of Christmas, I would like to look back on the readings and texts from the "Mass During the Night," more commonly known as Midnight Mass.
“O God, [you] have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light…” (Collect, Christmas Mass During the Night). Sometimes I scratch my head trying to make sense of the Collect prayer, the “opening prayer,” used during the Mass. The Collect prayer that we prayed during Midnight Mass, though, is quite fitting for this particular celebration of the Eucharist, as the Church throughout the world gathered together in the quiet stillness of the night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the “infant [found] wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). This “most sacred night” is indeed “radiant with the splendor of the true light," the light of Christ, the light that brightens not only the darkness of the night sky but also the darkness of our world, the darkness that often creeps its way into our own lives and our own hearts.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! When we find ourselves in a dark room, or when the sun begins to set at the end of the day, what do we do? We turn on a lamp; we turn on the lights. When we find ourselves in internal times of darkness, what do we do? We should turn to Jesus Christ, who, as we hear so beautifully articulated in the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ, is the “eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence…”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! The words that the prophet Isaiah addressed to us in the first reading from this Mass are so filled with meaning for us, especially as we fumble and flounder in the darkness of our world and in our own lives. For upon us all, “a light has shone” (Is 9:1). We often walk in darkness: the darkness of our own worries and anxieties, the darkness of our own sins and shortcomings, the darkness of loneliness and isolation. Whatever burdens us, Isaiah invites us to be brought from darkness into God’s most marvelous light, which is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah tells us that “upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). The light that shone in the time of Isaiah is the same light that shone on the “shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8). As the shepherds were keeping watch, “the angel of the Lord appeared to them” (Lk 2:9). On that holy night in Bethlehem, only the humble shepherds were aware of the Word becoming flesh—of Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary. Today, the whole world knows of the Light of the World, Emmanuel—“God-is-with-us,” “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5)…our “savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness” (Ti 2:14), to deliver us and grant us peace and consolation from all that causes chaos or disorder or stress in our lives.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reflecting on these beautiful words, talks about light—the permeating theme of the great solemnity that we celebrate at Christmas. Our Holy Father says, “The people who walked–caught up in their activities and routines, amid their successes and failures, their worries and expectations–have seen a great light. The people who walked–with all their joys and hopes, their disappointments and regrets–have seen a great light. In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light. … A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives” (Homily of Pope Francis, 25 September 2015).
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! As we continue to celebrate the great Nativity of the Lord—Christmas—we rejoice with Isaiah: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). The Psalmist invites us to “exult before the LORD, for he comes; for he comes to rule the earth. He shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy” (Ps 96: 13).
The Lord is forever faithful. We are called to “[proclaim] the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace” (Homily of Pope Francis, 25 September 2015). We do this by serving as beacons of light amidst the darkness of our world, radiating the light, the “abundant joy” (Is 9:2), the love, the “blessed hope” (Ti 2:13) of Jesus Christ, proclaiming with “great rejoicing” (Is 9:2) the “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! “Let us all rejoice in the Lord, for our Savior has been born in the world. Today true peace has come down to us from heaven” (Entrance Antiphon). Let us join our hearts and voices this Christmas night and proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14).
“Silent night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!” (Stille Nacht, Fr. Joseph Mohr)