Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Mother Teresa of Calcutta believed that loneliness, often accompanied by despair and hopelessness, was the virulent affliction in the West. Yes, she thought of loneliness as a virus. Pope Francis, in this year’s Christmas message, expressed similar concerns from his fatherly heart for the effects of this pandemic bringing loneliness, tweeting poignantly that same day: “Dear sister or brother, if as in Bethlehem, the darkness of night overwhelms you, if the hurt you carry inside cries out, ‘You are worthless,’ tonight God responds and tells you: ‘I love you just as you are. I became little for you. Trust me and open your heart to me.’ ”

It is saddening to learn how the loneliness and alienation from God and from neighbor, even within families, seems to have grown throughout the pandemic, notably among our young population. A recent headline on a Pew Research Center survey shouts, “Millennials lead shift away from organized religion as pandemic tests Americans’ faith.” This is how the CNBC report summarizes findings that 29 percent of U.S. adults own no religious affiliation, up 6 percent from 2016, led by millennials. A growing number of Americans pray less often, according to the report.
Even more alarming is a report from the UK where a recent poll of young people revealed that 89 percent of those aged 16-29 believe their lives have no meaning or purpose. The common element is detachment:  from God and community. This leads to loneliness. And loneliness breeds despair. It is not just about church-absence or religious disaffiliation; it is separation from life.

The absence of bonding, with God and community fosters a certain somnolence, a sense of “sleepwalking” through the day and throughout one’s work. So many people lack a sense of purpose in their work. This can become grounds for frustration and anger, which only fuels social tensions that we have often seen explode in various street clashes, not to mention the wars of words and insults in social media that fuel such outbursts.

I must confess that I have not escaped some of these feelings myself in years past and I can say, quite honestly, that they seemed in direct proportion to the media I consumed. I rarely watch TV today, getting most of my information online, having found television to be extremely repetitive, with much programming devised to incite the passions and unproductive emotional responses from the viewer. Although we joke sometimes about “couch potatoes,” it is not by chance that we find a link between screen time and obesity, rooted in the need to comfort oneself with food in much the same way that a pacifier would be used on a restless toddler.

Would it surprise you were I also to confess that I have suggested as a penance to those confessing angers like “screen rage” – those “bad thoughts” often targeted at specific public figures in the news – that they refrain from TV or, at least, the “news” channels – for any number of days going forward. Not a few have returned to say that this exercise actually made them feel better. I put “news” in quotes because all too often it is not so new from day to day. The “week in review” format can be enough to catch up on all the bad that’s happening.

Mind you, I do not think withdrawal from the world is a healthy goal, but it is reasonable to question whether the “world” as marketed by Big Media is all that is really happening. We have read reports of late, for example, of the increase in numbers of positive COVID-19 tests, most attributed to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Rarely are these numbers placed in the context of how many such cases result in hospitalization and fatalities. In fact, we learn that this variant is significantly less likely to attack the lungs. Many do not experience symptoms much different from the common cold, if any. At least, that is what we see presently.

The spiking numbers are reported to have sparked sickouts of workers in many industries, notably air travel. Absent from most reporting is that such cancellations are quite typical in the holiday season, often as much weather related as anything else. Granted this is anecdotal, but I have heard from many people who traveled by air during the Christmas break about their experience at airports. What they report is very different from some of what has appeared in headlines about stranded passengers strewn on the floors of air terminals.

But enough about bad news, fake news or no news. Ours is a faith of good news! God knows, we need some. Over the last few weeks, I hope, many of us have re-discovered some of the joy of just being together with family and friends. Not all of us may have been able to do what we might in less unsettled times, but if you had a few hours of just experiencing the presence of loved ones, wherever, let it serve as a reminder that such real-time gatherings — renewing relationships — can do more to bridge the chasm of loneliness and fear than any number of videos or virtual promises.

The greatest fallout from the pandemic, we all know now, has been the isolation. Even those who, tragically, lost friends and family know that the inability to be with them, in so many cases, was far more painful for them and their loved ones than even the physical suffering itself. It is not always the first thing we might think of, in such moments, but God is never closer to us than in suffering.

As Pope Francis said in his Christmas message, God comes to us in the midst of our tears, lowly and in the form of a helpless child. The ability to commiserate, to share sorrow and loss, is something that can connect not only us with one another but with the God of all compassion. “Son though he was, he learned obedience by what he suffered.” It was the will of his Father that Jesus comes to us in our suffering. He experienced all of the trials and limitations and uncertainties of our human condition.

As Mother Teresa said, “The only cure for loneliness, despair and hopelessness is love.” In fact, “love is a mirror image of loneliness.” We can fight the pandemic of loneliness by being present to one another. I strongly suspect that what alienates some from religion is not the rituals themselves, but the casualness and the absence of reverence and attentiveness to real presence. If in every sacramental ritual and every human relationship, if we were as present to one another in the way that we want God to be present to us, how transforming might those experiences be. This is exactly what God wants to do: be fully, really present to us. This is the core meaning of the gift of the Eucharist! But God needs us to let him bring that presence through our own reverence, respect and attentiveness, especially to the poorest, most marginalized and despondent among us. This is what love looks like: the Word made flesh.