I was born almost 12 hours before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I remember seeing the Vietnam War on TV but as a child, it didn’t mean much. I saw Nixon getting on a helicopter leaving the White House after his resignation. I remember Ronald Reagan telling “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” and John Paul II coming to Chicago. Yet, it was in the Challenger explosion that I first witnessed a historical event that I could tell someone today where I was when it occurred.
For most of us, 9/11 was another major historical event that we can recall exactly what we were doing when news broke out that planes crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center. Later, we also learned that passengers brought down another plane in Pennsylvania before it could attack Washington DC. The events of 9/11 were also the only time I can recall where I felt and witnessed America acting as “one.” In the midst of these events we witnessed first responders running into buildings to help others. They didn’t stop to worry about the risk. Their priority was to help save others.
These days in the Covid-19 pandemic, we also can recall “first responders” coming to the aid of others. Our medical professionals were on the front lines in the early days of the pandemic at a time when we didn’t know how dangerous the virus was. However, the Covid-19 pandemic is different from 9/11. In this pandemic, rather than “running into buildings for others” the great majority of us are simply focused on “me.” There were no “vaxxers” and “antivaxxers.” I imagine the 9/11 first responders were scared as they ran up the stairs of those buildings. However, that didn’t stop them from caring about their neighbor first. They were not immobilized by the fear from focusing on two years from now or 30 years into a future they were never promised anyway. No, they lived in the moment.
Looking at the Cross, we see what love can move us to do. Surely the passengers on the plane that crashed into the Pennsylvania field on 9/11 wanted to live and were hoping for a different future. Yet, they were moved to action; likely to defend the future of those they loved as well as those they never met. To me, those passengers and the first responders of 9/11 are perfect examples of what James meant when he said, “faith without works is dead.” (James 2:14-26) James was not saying that works lead to salvation. James was saying that if we are living our faith, that if our faith becomes who we are, then our faith would be evidenced in the lives we live and our actions. We are all called to respond to those in need just as we saw in the 9/11 response. We are called to be not only “first responders” but “Jesus responders.”
Personally, I believe that all adults should be vaccinated against the Covid virus. Yet, along with the teachings of St. Aquinas and supported by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, I also believe in the freedom of conscience and defend that right. However, freedom of conscience is not an override for responsibility. For those who invoke their freedom of conscience not to be vaccinated, they still have the responsibility to isolate themselves so as to not spread the virus. It appears such isolation did not occur. So, in response to those who advocated for “their rights,” many states are requiring everyone to wear a mask again when indoors at public places. The “right” to not get infected shouldn’t have to conflict with individual freedom of conscience. Perhaps if those who advocated freedom of conscience took such responsibility more seriously the Delta virus would not have made a significant return of the Covid pandemic.
In this regard, our “faith and works” are in conflict. Our faith says that we are to hold others in equal status to ourselves. Such faith demands that I worry about others’ children as much as I worry for mine. Such faith demands that I worry about others’ hunger while I eat my meals. Such faith demands that I go out of my way not to pass the Covid-19 virus to others. It is not my individual freedom of conscience alone. It is an individual freedom of conscience that acts in accordance with equal concern for others. For those who do not want to get vaccinated- fine. Take the responsibility to not pass the virus to anyone else. Live your freedoms but don’t impose them on others. Lose the hypocrisy. Rather, live your freedoms while taking responsibility to love others.
Too often in our faith lives we tend to focus on our individual faith. We pray the rosary, kneel before the Lord at benediction and use the many other gifts of our Catholic faith in our prayer lives. Yet that is only the “pre-game.” Jesus tells us to take our faith out into the world and spread the Gospel. Our lives are to bring light into the darkness. James tells us that our lives should not only kneel in prayer but that we also have to get off our knees, get “in the game” and live as witnesses of Christ in the world. Our faith is not an act or series of actions. Our faith is to be who we are. Our faith is a “common union,” or communion, of disciples.
In this regard, let us all take some time in our day and discern how we have lived our faith. Ask ourselves “have I made the world a better place for anyone else today, or just me?”
In reality, our answer will not be “yes” each day. However, in discernment we can celebrate those days when we live for others while also pondering the actions we took on days where our answer is “no.” Our faith must always be seen as our response to the invitation of Christ. One does not have to “run up the stairs of a burning building” to love others. It starts with caring; and then being open to caring enough for action.
Let us learn from both 9/11 and the Covid-19 pandemic. Let us all be the “responder” to others that Jesus calls us to be. Not just in times of crisis, but each day that we are blessed to breathe.