Beep, beep, beep. Thunk.
The rear red lights flashed twice on my rented red minivan as the back hatch latched shut. Everything I owned was piled inside. I’m a Jesuit, with a vow of poverty — so I don’t technically own anything. Still, snow boots and t-shirts were jammed into brown cardboard boxes next to frisbees, books on St. Augustine and Cardinals baseball pennants.
As a Jesuit, I’ve moved many times. I’ve lived in 10 cities in 20 years — including Boston, Kansas City (twice), Denver and Punta Gorda in Belize. Packing up and moving out is always an emotional experience. My excitement and anxiety about the new gig are mingled with gratitude and sorrow about leaving my current job. My emotions swirled even faster this time: In the midst of a pandemic, I’d be leaving my hometown and moving to a city I’d never lived in.
My parents came over for a final social-distanced coffee. We sat in the backyard of my redbrick Jesuit house near Saint Louis University. While I’ve lived in many places, St. Louis has always been home. My whole family lives here. My sister is married with three young kids; I’m “Unkie Joe” when I have lunch with them or attend my nephew’s soccer games. I am also finishing up one of my favorite assignments, serving as a campus minister at SLU, my alma mater.
I sat with my parents in lawn chairs under a shade tree, out of the summer sun. I needed to go soon. I wanted to get on the road to arrive in Wisconsin before it was dark. I’d begin a 14-day quarantine the next morning.
“Well, great seeing you guys,” I said. How do you say goodbye in the coronavirus era? Fist bump mom and nod to dad?
“I don’t care what the rules are, I’m giving you a hug and a kiss,” Mom said. She did. I smiled. After promises to call, and to drive safely, and not to text and drive, and to call (again) — I got into the van. I pulled out of the alley and onto the road.
Shortly after Christmas, I learned that I would be getting a new assignment this summer. I was planning to tell the students right after spring break. Now how could I say goodbye?
I made some great connections with students during my time at SLU. And then, in mid-March, they all disappeared. The virus meant that all classes would be online for the remainder of the semester. All students needed to move out of university housing as soon as possible.
I’ve flipped through my dog-eared copy of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises many times during this pandemic. I’ve had it since I made my first 30-day silent retreat as a Jesuit novice in 2001. In mid-March, I asked, “Ok, Iggy, what now?”
I looked over his words “for a time of desolation.” Ignatius sees that desolation comes from the evil spirit. This spirit causes “gnawing anxiety to sadden and to set up obstacles.” One is “listless, tepid, unhappy, and feels separated from the Lord.”
Yep, all true. A good summary of my emotional state. This is not how I planned out my final semester of college ministry. So what should I do now, Ignatius?
“Remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation.” Ok. Good advice.
I love connecting with students and sharing spiritual life with them. I was doing that in January and February. I had to look for new ways to do this. I felt that Christ would use this experience, somehow, to prepare me for my next assignment.
As a campus minister, I loved wandering around SLU chatting with kids in the quad, in the dining hall and after Mass. Friendly conversations in the residence halls have now become phone calls. Evening Masses became Ignatian reflections on Zoom. Homilies became Instagram videos. Not perfect and not ideal. “Remain firm and constant.”
Christ led me to SLU and still had work for me to do. Christ was also preparing me for my new assignment — directing the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (formerly known as the Apostleship of Prayer) in North America, based in Milwaukee.
These days, we’re all looking for connections. Our relationships and our faith communities have been altered, separated, and changed. Christ brings us something deeper than connections: communion with him and his people.
Before COVID-19, I’d never run a virtual prayer group. Now I have. That’s a good thing, because that’s what the pope wants me to do! I’ve got two new young adult groups set to meet next month. And we’ll be rolling out some short videos on Fridays. Our website, popesprayerusa.net, has info and resources.
How can I say goodbye? Maybe I don’t have to. Jesus is firm and constant in his resolution. He is not quarantined. The risen Lord passes through locked doors and speaks to his friends: us! The Holy Spirit unites us in worldwide communion with Christ.