In his pastoral letter to the Chinese Catholics of our diocese, which was published on Ash Wednesday, Bishop DiMarzio retells a beautiful story from his family.
Between 1918 and 1919, the Spanish flu epidemic killed 40 million to 50 million people around the world. The epidemic struck at the end of World War I, which itself had killed 20 million people.
It is in that context that Bishop DiMarzio’s story takes place. He tells us about a man who every year would bring a present to his grandmother. One day, Nicholas DiMarzio, then a kid, asked his grandmother about that man. Why did he bring her a present every year? The grandmother explained that in 1919, in the middle of the epidemic, that man, who himself was a kid at the time, lost his parents to the Spanish flu. They lived in the same building as Bishop DiMarzio’s grandmother.
When no one in the building dared to prepare the bodies for burial, she volunteered to do so. The kid survived the epidemic but never forgot what Bishop DiMarzio’s grandmother woman did. That’s why he visited her every year and brought her a token of his gratitude.
In a world where death becomes a familiar, horrifying presence, all values change. Today, many fear the coronavirus epidemic will become a worldwide pandemic. China’s economy is paralyzed, the New York Stock Exchange is in free-fall, and as I write this column, the famous Venice carnival has been suspended, as have Masses in northern Italy.
Here in Brooklyn and Queens, our Chinese brothers and sisters are regarded with suspicion because the epidemic originated in China. Restaurants are empty in Flushing, and the streets are deserted. Most of us aren’t like the courageous woman of Bishop DiMarzio’s story.
When placing the ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the priest used to say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.” (Today the most common formula is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”) The problem of being human, it is said, is not that we are mortals, but that we are mortals all the time. We can die at any moment — we just try to think that it won’t happen today.
When confronting our mortality, we can react with fear or with courage, we can try not to think about it, or we can live in a way that prepares us for that definite moment. When we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday — and when we read news about the coronavirus — we are called to stop to think about the way we live our lives. Lent is the season when we Catholics should take a break from our routines and earthly preoccupations and think about the real meaning of our lives.
We believe that in this limited time we have on Earth, our life has a purpose. That purpose is salvation. Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges once said that he couldn’t accept Christianity, because for him it was cruel for God to reward or punish the deeds of a few years in a person’s life with an eternity in heaven or hell. Of course, Borges was implying that he imagined eternity as a long, long season of human time instead of a reality detached from our concept of time.
But even Borges can help us reflect on the value of Lent. The time is limited and what is at stake is our eternal salvation. Let’s try to live these 40 days like we are supposed to — thinking about the purpose of our lives and re-evaluating how we are trying to fulfill that purpose. The many tasks and distractions of our daily lives don’t leave a lot of time for us to think about the most serious questions. But now we have 40 days to do so. Don’t let them pass by without asking yourself where your life is heading and how you are supposed to change.