By Fr. Duc Vu, SJ
Submicroscopic infectious agents, gigantic tropical cyclones and furious sweeping infernos coupled with man-made destruction and senseless killings are wreaking havoc on us, physically, mentally, financially. No one is spared. So, where is hope?
HOPE AND CALAMITIES
In August 2020, after many months of suspended sacrament celebration due to the pandemic, the bishop of the San Jose Diocese reinstated the sacraments. We, priests and catechetical directors of Most Holy Trinity Parish, quickly got ready for the celebrations. All outdoors, we held hundreds of first confessions and dozens of liturgies in which confirmation and First Communion were incorporated. Easier said than done.
My last penitent for first confession was a disabled Vietnamese teenage boy. Just as new as sacraments during a pandemic, hearing the confession of a mute penitent was strange. It was more “reading” than “hearing,” I was told by Sr. Claire. I forgot to ask if he could still hear me or if I would have to write my instructions.
As I was sitting on a bench in the plaza, the young man walked toward me. Typical of a disability marked by Down syndrome, his head and limbs appeared to go in different directions, while his torso moved toward me. I tried to hold back a sigh — both a symptom of my sympathy with him and my own impatience with his uneven, shuffling gait. I knew for sure this confession would take a lot longer than usual, and I had many other things waiting to be done. Just offer it up, I told myself.
Father Duc Vu, SJ, celebrates Mass outside during the pandemic.
He sat down on another bench to keep the social distance. His pointed head was bent at the neck and his face looked serious. I nodded at him and he nodded back. His bent fingers grabbed a smartphone from his shirt pocket and started typing. About five minutes later he showed the screen to me: “In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Father, please forgive me for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” He did it in Vietnamese and the smartphone translated it into English, and both versions showed up on the screen. He knew very little English since he had recently immigrated.
I said to him in Vietnamese, “Please go ahead.” He paused for a while as if doing his examination of conscience, and then his crooked fingers started typing again. It took several minutes for each of his sins to be composed and presented to me.
His total concentration in typing caught my attention. Hard for the disfigured fingers to hit the right key, but harder was his pondering on the nature of his sins, it seemed to me. Never had I seen a young person take such a careful look at his offense to God and others. I forgot all the things that had been waiting for me and eagerly awaited him to finish his sentence so that I could read it. I nodded as I read each line.
Regardless of the severity of his disability, both physical and mental, his heart was pure and his sorrow was authentic. I marveled at the ability of the catechists to teach him about human sinfulness and God’s mercy. However that had happened, it was what St. Paul reminded us, “Wherever sins abound, grace abounds all the more.” However impenetrable the human limitation, the divine love always pierces through to touch the inner sanctum.
I was sparse with my words, “Are you sorry for your sins?” Instead of nodding, he typed, “I’m truly sorry, father.” As I said the absolution, his eyes opened wide and tears welled up inside, “I am so happy that my sins have been forgiven.” I was wrong. It was a teary smile.
It was I who should be sorry for focusing on the sorrow of sinning rather than the felicity of forgiveness. He typed, “I look forward to receiving my First Communion.” So did I.
The confession I was least looking forward to hearing turned out to be the reading of a sign of hope in the midst of human fragility and calamities. Once the human heart catches a glimpse of hope, nothing else overwhelms, but everything has its place in the big picture. Disability and viral disaster have no power over hope.
HOPE SUSTAINED BY SILENCE
The commencement of the pandemic is the end of financial sustainability for most parishes. No people, no income. We priests struggled mightily to offer something we had never even dreamed of doing: livestreaming Mass. Deprived most of what is near and dear — gathering as a community of faith, giving and receiving the Eucharist, singing and eating together — there is one thing I keep reminding my flock of having abundance now: time for prayer and solitude.
Silence, though having nothing to do with revenue or income, has borne fruits in a most unexpected way. It ennobles a generous heart.
For several weeks, my accountant and I anxiously followed the unfolding of a series of mysterious online contributions from a parishioner. In one entry a four-figure gift was identified as “reparation for missed contributions.” Another large transaction said, “make-up giving for past slacking.” Still another entry was “prayer reminded me to give more.” In two weeks, the total donation amounted to nearly two months of Sunday collections! And this parishioner is in her twenties!
The tumult caused by the pandemic cannot drown out the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a reflective and generous soul. Now and then, silence can help sustain our livelihood if we give it a chance. It can engender hope for the hopeless.
No matter the circumstances, no matter the limitations, if the eyes look in the right direction, if the ears pay attention to the divine whisper and if the heart is restless enough, sooner or later hope shines through and through.
Father Duc Vu, SJ, is pastor of Most Holy Trinity Church in San Jose, California.