Jenkins reflects on pandemic during Opening Mass homily
Adriana Perez | Wednesday, August 25, 2021
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, novels about widespread disease flew off the shelves. Popular among them were copies of Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” and University President Fr. John Jenkins was one of the many people who felt drawn to read it.
Jenkins served as presider and homilist during the 2021-2022 academic year Opening Mass held Tuesday evening. In his homily, he shared the lessons he’d gathered from reading the 1947 novel about a fatal plague in a French Algerian town.
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart — where the Mass was moved to from the stadium due to a heat advisory — was standing room only as attendees listened on.
“The plague steals from each of [the] characters an imagined future from themselves…,” Jenkins said. “Camus’ fictional plague in Oran was much more deadly than our COVID-19 pandemic. Still, it’s easy to see, in the novel, echoes of our experience in the past year.”
Disease, deaths, pervasive fear, isolation, uncertainty and lost futures all resonate with what many have experienced during the pandemic, he said.
Resignation and despair would be expected reactions in the midst of such suffering, Jenkins said. But the opposite happens in Camus’ novel: Doctor Bernard Rieux attends patients tirelessly, Jean Tarrou organizes volunteers before authorities do, journalist Raymond Rambert stays in the city to fight the plague instead of trying to return to Paris.
The characters begin to see the suffering around them more clearly and to do what they could — according to their abilities and professions — to relieve suffering, connect with others and think about life and death more deeply, Jenkins said.
“That was the insight I took from my reading: In the midst of the tragedy and the trial of a pandemic, each of us can become more engaged, more compassionate, more connected, more fully ourselves,” he said.
He said the last year has been a difficult one, and despite encouraging the community to remain vigilant of the Delta variant, he expressed hopes for a “better, more normal” new year. But the past year still holds many lessons, he added.
Referring back to the first reading, Jenkins recalled how the prophet Isaiah was called to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to prisoners and to comfort those in mourning. Jenkins said people are not always necessarily indifferent to the suffering of others — they just don’t see it.
“The pandemic has given us a gift to help us see the suffering of the people around us, particularly the marginalized and the vulnerable,” he said.
Jenkins then reflected on the second reading, in which Saint Paul talks about how gifts should be used for the common good. This interpretation, he explained, offers an alternative to the usual modern understanding that one’s own talents are commodities to be capitalized upon for one’s own benefit.
“Third, we must not seek the gratification that selfishness seeks, but the blessings that Jesus promises,” he said. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful; they will be showed mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers; they will be called children of God. You see, that’s the point: True blessedness is found in caring for those around us.”
In closing, Jenkins made a distinction: Humanity is not trapped like Camus’ characters were, trying to make sense of a senseless world.
“We should, of course, reject facile explanations of suffering and death around us,” he added.
But, he said, in the midst of suffering and death people can use their gifts to serve others and participate in Christ’s death and resurrection “by giving [their] life for righteousness and justice, for those who mourn, for those who are brokenhearted.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a burden and a trial for all of us,” he said. “Can we make it a moment of blessedness? Of resurrection?”