Over the course of these past nine months I’ve been anxious and full of doubts. I’ve asked, “Are my people ever going to come back? If they are half as discouraged as I am, how can they sustain their faith? Why do such things happen?” People tend to doubt God in times of hardship and I guess I’m no different. I asked God for an answer—and I’m still asking—but I do believe that in every crisis God provides opportunities for growing in faith and renewal of hope. And up until now I have not been disappointed. During this worrisome pandemic I’ve seen some light in the darkness and experienced some unexpected joys—and it has strengthened my faith and renewed my hope.
Like other parish communities in this difficult time, my beloved Chinese ministry in the Archdiocese of San Francisco has suffered greatly— especially by being deprived of their cherished communal activities. I too feel deprived—it is not easy for a priest to adapt to an absent congregation. Nevertheless, I gave it a try. Straight away I looked for ways to offer spiritual comfort for my congregation and hold them together. I initiated an online evening prayer service and a program of bible studies. And, rather than postpone our two weekly RCIA classes for six candidates, I offered these online as well.
When San Francisco first mandated the regulations, and our churches were closed, I thought that everything would soon get back to normal. I prayed hard for this, but by Easter I knew we were in for something more serious. We celebrated Easter without even one parishioner. As I and two other priests processed down the aisle past those empty pews, the darkened emptiness of the place closed in on me. By the time we reached the sanctuary and I raised my eyes to the crucifix, tears were rolling down my face. Suddenly I was with Jesus, alone in that darkened grove next to Calvary. I remained there in that darkened place quite numb until a flame cut through the dark. Then, as the lighted candles began to dispel the gloom, my sadness lifted and gave way to an aura of renewed hope. The clear analogy to Covid’s long night suddenly clicked, and I began to pray for the suffering millions across the globe whose lives have also been darkened—that their faith might be strengthened, their hope renewed, and that they may once again find joy in their lives.
The beginning of October the virus took a short break which enabled us to reopen our churches with limited occupancy. By this time our RCIA group had progressed nicely and, by the Second Sunday, they were baptized. With everyone celebrating together including their family and friends, catechists and community members, it was almost like being back to normal. Our long exile gave it greater meaning. The long wait, the hardships, and the sudden transition from darkness to light made the celebration a true sign of God’s loving embrace—very much like that which held the disciples together as they waited three long days in darkness and uncertainty for the Lord’s resurrection.
I invited my “newly birthed” friends to write down some reflections on their journey of faith. I was inspired by their gratitude for their new life in Christ and I thought that you might also be. Here is the English translation of what they wrote:
“The light I have received at my baptism warms my heart. I was deeply touched by the love of God in the celebration. May the Lord inside me continue to guide me to grow on the journey of faith, hope and love. I believe the Holy Spirit will enlighten me with His wisdom; and untied with God’s family, may I dedicate myself to the service of others and brighten other lives around me. All glory be to God.” (Shirley)
“On this beautiful day in San Francisco, I received new life in baptism, and with God’s immense love I became a member of God’s family. A cascade of heavenly light warmed my heart, and filled it with light, hope and joy. I give thanks to all who accompanied me on this journey, and all who participated and prayed with me in this celebration. I have received bountiful blessings from the Lord, and for this I praise and thank Him. May Lord grant me perseverance in faith to follow him and be a true witness to the Gospel. Jesus Christ, I believe in you; I love you.” (Carol)
As Divine Word Missionaries, we don’t look for our reward in the usual places—wealth, honor, power and prestige. We seek the most satisfying reward of all in actions that go directly to the source—our God. It is our great privilege to be there with Him in joyful transformations like the baptismal new birth of an adult. Such founts of light as these dispel the terrible darkness that can sometimes afflict us and it can carry us through difficult times like Covid. I pray that you may follow His light to find your way. And may we be filled with the fire of His love to quell our insatiable hearts.
– Fr Peter Zhai SVD, Director Chinese Ministries, Archdiocese of San Francisco