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The importance of faith during pandemic

This week is very meaningful and important for all Catholics around the world. During Holy Week we commemorate and remember the last week of Jesus’ life on this earth, and on Easter Sunday, celebrate His Resurrection. To talk about this period of reflection, the importance of religion and messages of hope, especially during these pandemic times, spirituality, and the Catholic Church itself, Fr. Conrad Fernandes, who is an Associate Pastor and Vocation Director in St. Francis of Assisi Church, in Toronto, was the guest of Manuel DaCosta, for “Here’s the Thing”, which will air on Camões TV this Saturday, at 9pm.

The importance of faith during pandemic-toronto-mileniostadium
Créditos: Camões TV

Manuel DaCosta: Why did you become a priest in the Catholic Church?

Conrad Fernandes: That’s an excellent question. I suppose the short answer would be because I became convinced that God was calling me to serve. The long answer would take some more time. I think as a young man in my late teens and early twenties I was very much searching for some kind of a meaningful life to live. As I was exploring this question, I encountered a number of priests who living their vocation as best as they could seemed to be giving service to the Church.

They seemed to be living a fulfilling life for themselves and this struck to me as something I would be interested in. I wanted to understand this more and so I spent time talking with them, asking questions. in the process of these conversations, deepening and exploring my own faith and as time went on, I started to realize that the things that I wanted to see in myself, to have in my own life, these men were living as a part of their vocation. I thought to myself this is something worth exploring and when I entered the Franciscan Order, I was not 100% convinced that this is what I wanted to do.

MDC: As the Vocation Director what does this job entail of you on a daily basis?

CF: So, to be a Vocation Director can be understood in a number of ways. Certainly, one can understand in a very narrow sense of saying: I’m looking to find people who want to join our particular order. I don’t think that’s a very complete way of looking at it. I tend to look in the sense of saying: My purpose in this job is to help people understand where God is calling them to live their lives, whether it is as a priest, whether it is as a married person or a single person. Each of us has a vocation. For each of us there’s something that God is calling us to do in order to live our Christian lives most fully. It’s not always so clear to us, especially at a younger age what that vocation is, so part of my job as a Vocational Director is to help people make sense of what they see in their lives to understand where

The importance of faith during pandemic-toronto-mileniostadium
Crédito: Camões TV

God is calling them. I’ve worked with many people who after some time of working with them, they understand they are not called to a religious life and that is ok. They’re called to marriage, they’re call to single life, whatever it is. If they have that clarity in the end of our time together, then I’m convinced that I’ve done my job well. There’s a deeper aspect of that, because if someone is living a life that is not their vocation, I wonder how much happiness they’ll ever find in it. I don’t want someone to join us who is constantly miserable for being with us but sticks it out because they believe they have some sense of obligation. If you’re going to be miserable and I have to live with you, you’re going to make me miserable, and I don’t want that.

MDC: As we live our lives, you in the priesthood, me as a common man, we obviously see religion from a different prism. It seems that most of us, that are not in the priesthood, seem to fear mostly the word ‘sin’ and that we live a lot of our lives in sin. Many of us spend an entire lifetime trying to get rid of our sins. Can we really ever get rid of our sin?

CF: The first thing I would say is that I don’t think that’s something limited to laypeople. I think most, if not all, priests also struggle with this wanting to overcome our sin. I think that’s really part of the human condition. This is how we relate to God and this call to overcome and grow past our sin. Can we at any time completely overcome our sin? I’m not 100% sure.

There is a very famous quote of Saint Francis where, as he was approaching later on in life and he had grown much in holiness. He was having a conversation with the friars and he identified himself as the “worst sinner in the world”, and this friar is very confused and said to him, “But how can this be? You’re such a holy man. You spent all of this time in prayer, you do all of these great works of penance and charity.” Saint Francis says to the friar, “I have known the love of God so clearly, so when I choose to reject the love of God my, sin is greater because I have known it.”

This is probably true for anybody who grows in holiness, they start to recognize with greater profundity what it means to sin. Sometimes I think we might tend to think of sin as only these large, big events like as murder, theft, and certainly they are, I don’t want to diminish those, but when we grow in spirituality, we see the smaller moments when we reject God’s will, God’s love. These are also moments of sin and things we struggle against. I think this is common for everybody whether they’re religious, whether they are ordained or laypeople, it doesn’t matter. This is part of what it means to be human and to strive to be more like Christ, that’s part of the Christian life—to strive to overcome these sins. Can we ever fully overcome these sins? Well, I don’t know, certainly we have examples throughout history, like the Blessed Mother, always without sin, and we have other saints who grow in great holiness. I think the deeper question is not, “Do we overcome sin?” I think the deeper question is, “Do we grow in trust and love of God?,” because trust and love of God brings forgiveness of sin and brings growth.

The importance of faith during pandemic-toronto-mileniostadium
Crédito: Camões TV

MDC: Recently the Pope said that the way to God is through Confession, yet more and more people that I know have stopped going to Confession. Why did Confession fell out of style and why is the Pope trying to bring it back?

CF: I don’t think the Pope is making a special exhortation; I think it’s one of the normal exhortations we usually make. First thing, it is probably better if we use the proper term for the sacrament, which is not “Confession” but Reconciliation. Immediately we start to understand that it’s not about saying “look how horrible of a person I am”, it’s more about saying, “I realized something has happened to brake or strain my relationship with God and I wish to be reconciled.”

Just that expression, “I want to be reconciled,” indicates the desire of the person to come closer to God. Imagine if you have a fight with a friend and this friend comes to you and says, “I want to be reconciled.” Immediately you say at least this person desires that we should restore our friendship—that’s a good desire. That goes a long way toward restoring a relationship and that relationship is salvation. Us being reconciled with God is salvation. I think to answer the first part of your question, I haven’t done any study on this, but I think part of it is, there’s been a diminished understanding of what sin actually is. I think for a long time we kept pushing this idea that sin is the things that you do, sin is you being a horrible person, and eventually people stop doing the actual reflection to say, how have I broken or hurt my relationship with God? They made it in a very simple by saying, “have I murdered? Have I cheated, have I stolen, lied?” They start making excuses and slowly we stop asking ourselves, “Has this really affected my relationship with God?”, because if I can justify these things that I did, they weren’t that bad.

MDC: It’s Easter, where we celebrate one of the most important dates of Catholic calendar: the Resurrection of Christ. What would you say to someone about what this really means and should mean in their lives, especially at this time of the year.

CF: There’s an old saying that is “as the Church prays so it believes”. I think when it comes to the Easter Vigil Liturgy, especially, there’s a prayer relatively early in the liturgy, which we called the Exsultet, sometimes it’s a song, sometimes is recited, depends on your parish. I think it’s worthwhile for every catholic to take the time to read that prayer and reflect on it because I think it answers your question most fully. The mystery of the passion, the death and the resurrection of Christ really is at the heart, at the very center of our faith. Not just because it’s a message but because it speaks an internal truth to how we live our lives to the reality we find within our lives. We find this suffering that we all encountered which is reflected in Christ’s Passion; we find the sense of lost and death that we all encountered which is reflected in Christ death on the Cross; we find a mourning, a grieving that we all encountered, which is reflected in the striving, the difficulty of the Apostles faced between Good Friday and Easter Sunday; and then we find the joy of new life which we encounter on Easter Sunday.

So, there’s this reflection in the triduum on our own lives but there’s also included in that a promise that is given to us. It is the fulfillment of the ancient promise given to Adam and Eve, and it’s the new promise given to us that our lives, wrapped up in Christ, are not contained only to this life, but that we go beyond.

MDC: As we continue the Easter celebrations at St. Francis of Assisi, certain measures are in place to contain the spread of Covid-19. The Procession is not going to happen again this year, which is a yearly highlight for many people. Tell us a little bit of what is happening in St. Francis of Assisi, what the services are going to be, how are things are inside the Church and the rules that will be in place for people to celebrate and to pray.

CF: As you mentioned, we’re not having our Procession this year. Part of that has been because of the Covid lockdown—we haven’t had the ability to prepare, have meetings to get ready, but also, we’ve been informed by the City that none of the outdoor activities that are normally permitted will be permitted this year, so this is the second year, unfortunately, where we’ll not be having our Good Friday Procession. It is a loss to the community. We’ve heard from a number of people that they are very upset or disappointed and we understand that. They are also at the same time understanding of the reason behind it.

Within the church itself we’ve taken all the measures prescribed by the Archdiocese—the “Safe Worship Program”. We have a capacity of 70 people inside of the Church, as long as they respect the boundaries and distance protocols, and the way in which we celebrate our liturgies this year is different from years past because there’s a number of processions within the church that we can’t do, so we have to follow the Diocese’s guidelines regarding that as well. We want to make sure that everybody is safe. We do ask people that come to the Church to be using theirs masks and keeping the distance from people. All of the liturgies will be a little more bare this year. We won’t have as much as the normal pronunciation.

Our ministers of communion are using hand sanitizer and we ask people to follow the arrows on the floor. I do have to say that people that have been coming to Church for weekend services have been very good about following these rules and making sure everybody is safe. I think the Cardinal has underlined again and again in his talks with the Premier that when there are spreading cases or increased of cases, they are not coming from the churches, and I think that’s because our people have been very good.

MDC: And those who can’t attend in person obviously you have put measures in place, so they can participate from home.

CF: Yes, and much thanks to you and your media group. We’ve been able to install our live streaming set up, so that people can follow from home. We do live streams through YouTube, so I recommend to people to go to our Parish website (stfrancis.ca) and the link to the YouTube channel is right there and this way they can follow from home. It’s not quite the same but given our situation I think it’s a way of reaching out to our people, that we might not otherwise have. So again, thank you Manuel for your great generosity and help with that.   

MDC: Sometimes we have to adapt to situations that are presented to us and if everybody cooperates and gives a little bit, we can spread our messages much further and that happens in all areas—it is the way people are living today. It’s extremely important to get messages of hope into people’s homes today. Many people are inside their homes, sometimes with very little communication other than a regular TV, which I think is driving some people a lit bit insane. It’s good to have an alternative message, a positive message from God. I think it’s important.   

CF: One of the things I’ve noticed is that when we watch a lot of our news today, people are living in a state of fear and anxiety, and I really wonder how much damage this does to their mental and spiritual health. I hope that people will take the time to follow other media, whether it’s following the liturgies at St. Francis or your local parishes, to hear messages of hope, of courage, and to reject fear that will really drive us to all kinds of terrible things, and to find balance for themselves.

Manuel DaCosta/MS

Transcrição: Lizandra Ongaratto

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