July 21, 2021 // Perspective

A return to what kind of normal?

Excitement about returning to some form of normalcy has invaded our society and our faith communities. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has truly tested our lives.

It is amazing how much we take for granted: health, others, the structures that regulate our coexistence, the small things of life, etc. Doing so gives us a sense of normalcy.

We have done well as a society controlling the virus in recent months. Nonetheless, a large portion of the U.S. population remains unvaccinated. Most people worldwide still lack access to the vaccine and to adequate medical treatment in case of contracting the virus.

Any return to normal must go hand in hand with a sober acknowledgment that for millions in our society, life will not be as it was prior to the pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people are gone forever. Millions will not recover their jobs. We lost Catholic churches, hundreds of Catholic schools and many Catholics may simply not return to religious practice.

We have learned a lot since the pandemic began. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that 2020 was a “lost year” or “the year that was not.” No, we cannot forget or ignore 2020. We are different as individuals, as a society and as a Church, because of it.

We have an obligation to affirm the lessons learned. The generosity that many shared with those in need, the profound sense of solidarity that many exhibited during difficult times, the courage of essential workers, the inspiring work of scientists and medical personnel, the resilience of families and the creativity of believers to practice their faith, among many others.

A return to normal also needs to account for our shortcomings. The pandemic revealed how fractured our society and even our Church are, largely a result of the poisonous ideological polarization that appears too willing to sacrifice the common good to advance particular interests.

Many dysfunctional realities in our society and our Church preceded this global health crisis, of course. The pandemic, however, revealed that much of what we considered normal should not be or should not have been, and we must reckon with the implications of such renewed awareness.

A return to normal demands that we ask: To what normal do we exactly want to return?

Prior to the pandemic, many of our Catholic communities struggled to be truly welcoming to the fast-growing Hispanic population. Many of our pastoral leaders found it difficult in their homilies and activities to address and denounce unambiguously the sin of racism.

Many Catholics allowed themselves to be swept up by discourses that treated immigrant, refugees and the poor as threats. Others seemed too much at peace with discourses that disregard life and the dignity of every human person, from womb to tomb.

For decades, our Church has seen how millions of young Catholics and their families walk away from our communities. We seem unable to engage them and fall short in addressing their questions and concerns. Catholics seem to desire much more than Masses inside a building.

If returning to normal means a return to the pre-pandemic status quo, I sense little appetite for that, especially among the young. If it implies ignoring the lessons learned during this crisis, the suffering and the losses of those for whom life will not be “normal” again, then I do not want to be part of that normalcy.

I encourage pastoral leaders, educators, parents and others in the following months to engage in thoughtful conversations about what it means to return to normal and create the spaces to do so. Let us not miss this opportunity to accompany one another.

Ospino is a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College.

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