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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | Why empathy is more important now than ever

By truly paying attention to people, we can see that everyone has different needs and situations in this time of pandemic

“Are you OK?” is the new version of “Hello.” It’s the question first on our lips. It’s a nice question and I like it. It’s made all the more lovely by the sincerity underlying it. It’s not small talk, but an actual gesture of concern, and the people who ask are genuinely interested in the answer. When I’m asked this question, my response is twofold.

In one way: Yes, I’m OK. I’m healthy. I’m enjoying extra family time. Office work has slowed down, so I have free time to pray, write, read and think. I still get to celebrate Mass. The lilac is in bloom. People are out walking, relaxing and hopefully living less stressed, family-centered lives. I’m hoping that our newfound appreciation of living a slower lifestyle — working less, worrying less, scheduling less — becomes the new normal. That’s the good part.

In another way, though: I’m not OK. I’m deeply upset and feel I’m failing in my priestly vocation and cannot provide sacraments to my parishioners in the way they need them. Even though many people are enjoying time away from the office, others are out of work and waiting in bread lines. They don’t know how to pay the bills anymore and our parish is giving out food and other assistance at a rapid rate. While some are enjoying the beautiful spring weather, quite a few others are afraid to leave their homes. There are people outside who flinch when I walk past and every interaction is marked by suspicion. For some, that distrust is present even inside their houses and they’re not enjoying extra family time at all. Rather, they’re trapped in a tense situation and feeling unsafe. Others are stuck with long days home alone, trapped, bored and aimless.

Are you OK? In one way, sure, we’re all OK. In another, we very much are not. That’s the human condition. This world is not perfect, and every choice we make is complicated by doubt and uncertainty. While we know, through faith, that in the end God will bring good from any situation, it can be awfully hard to believe that when the evidence in front of our eyes says otherwise. God is bringing us to perfection, but in the meantime our world is subject to pandemic. It is subject to death.

Realizing how weak we are is a traumatic event. It has shocked us to the core. When that happens, we get defensive and angry. We’re afraid and looking for someone to blame. This reaction helps no one. What’s needed is empathy. Some people are OK. Some are not. Some are concerned about illness, others are mourning a lost job. No one should be shamed or put down for their concerns. If we pay attention to people, really pay attention to other people, not as labels or enemies but as real human beings, it’s apparent that even though our needs are different we’re all on the same team. Arguments are fruitless — they’re occasions for sin — but empathy makes a world of difference. Together, we’re better than OK.

Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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