Every time in history has its trials, but the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is one that stands out because its impact has been so widespread. I have been asked to reflect on having hope during this time of suffering, especially the hope that comes from our Catholic faith.
You may know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is often represented by the moon, because she has no light of her own but reflects the light of Jesus, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. As we gather to celebrate the Lunar New Year and look with hope to the year ahead, we should also look to Mary’s example of faith and hope in God for how we should approach the pandemic and 2022.
The life of the Blessed Mother is filled with moments when she showed us that faith nourishes hope in the midst of difficulties. As a young woman, Mary was betrothed to Joseph and visited by the Archangel Gabriel and asked if she wanted to bear and give birth to the Son of God. She was told she had to go to Bethlehem for a census as she expected to give birth any day now. And when she delivered Jesus, it was not in a house but in a stable for animals. And yet, she treasured these things in her heart and thought about them, rather than complaining or doubting.
Shortly after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had to flee at night to the safety of Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath at his threatened rule by Jesus. We know the story didn’t end there for Mary. Surely there were other moments of trial when she raised Jesus, and of course the greatest moment of trial was her position at the foot of the Cross. These moments tested his faith, his hope and his charity.
Perhaps no other story of Our Lady is more beloved among Vietnamese Catholics than her appearance to those who sought refuge in the La Vang jungle from Emperor Cảnh Thịnh’s fierce persecution in 1798. We know that thousands of Vietnamese Catholics gave their lives for the faith in those years, and it is in their honor that your parish is named. While the refugees were hiding in the jungle of La Vang, they also suffered from illnesses, but every evening they gathered to pray the Rosary. It is to these poor faithful that Mary appears with her son, consoles them and teaches them.
Mary shows us the way to hope begins with faith in Jesus and trust in him for strength and grace. Understanding is essential for us not only to navigate COVID-19, but more importantly, to live as Catholics in a rapidly changing culture.
Pope Francis has called the times we are living through “not just an era of change, but a change of times”. Indeed, we are rapidly entering an era which sees societies abandoning Christianity and believing that they can construct a utopia themselves. We see the spread of ideas that categorize people as victims and oppressors, and very often it is Christians and our beliefs that are seen as oppressive.
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But this is not the way of life, it is the way of division and misery. Only Jesus Christ can free us from the chains of sin and help us see and love each other as brothers and sisters. Mary shows us that the way to happiness and freedom from sin is to seek Jesus and grow in intimate friendship with him. He alone, through the Holy Spirit, can lead us to the Father, and he alone can unite a broken humanity. Unlike the new secular “revival” religion, Jesus Christ offers us the opportunity to repent and be healed; he neither condemns nor humiliates. In him, each person can find healing, purpose, and true community.
As at many times in Vietnam’s history, the Church is persecuted and we can expect this to continue. Jesus declared this fact to his disciples as he approached his own passion and death: “Behold, the hour comes and has come when each one of you will be scattered to his house and you will leave me alone. But I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I told you this so that you would have peace in me. In the world you will struggle, but take courage, I have conquered the world. (Jn 16:32-33)
We are not alone. We have our brothers and sisters in Christ, the Communion of Saints and the grace of God in our hearts. As we begin a new year, let us look to Our Lady of La Vang for her motherly protection and ask her to pray that we may grow in faith, hope and charity, so that we may be shining examples of followers of Jesus in a world desperate for hope.