My editor once told me to take note whenever a certain word suddenly kept cropping up in conversation or reading — perhaps one that wasn’t often used, or one that had taken on new significance.
“That’s the Holy Spirit,” he said. “He’s trying to get your attention.”
The Third Person of the Trinity did just that this Lent, and the word he chose was “steadfast.”
A few months ago, I remember Archbishop Nelson Perez, standing before a row of television cameras the day his appointment was announced, describing his friend Archbishop Charles Chaput as a shepherd who was steadfast.
Over the following weeks, St. Paul exhorted me to “be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58), while the psalmist led me to sing, “My heart is steadfast, God, my heart is steadfast” (Ps 57:8).
Even news articles, books and emails I came across spoke of steadfast people and projects.
“Steadfast” began to thrum in my thoughts; I wondered if God had a particular lesson for me hidden in that word.
And then the coronavirus swept across the world.
Suddenly “steadfast” took on a meaning I’d never imagined.
Working at my kitchen table, I interviewed colleagues from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s social service agencies, which have been resolutely assisting those made still more vulnerable by this crisis.
I spoke with a nursing director now logging close to 65 hours a week to care for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, making sure both her patients and staff remain calm and in good health.
I talked with food program managers determined to stock local pantries and to get boxed meals to children, families, seniors and anyone in need. One delivery driver, with some 40 sites on his route, said he takes precautions but has no fear of contracting the virus, because he sees pantry staff and clients as his “extended family.”
Directors of senior care services told me how they’re handing out frozen entrees to the older adults who rely on their staff, while regularly calling and checking on them — even when the seniors’ own families can’t.
Shelter managers described how they’re now feeding hundreds more who are experiencing homelessness, since demand has increased and other outreaches have closed.
Other archdiocesan coworkers have been ministering to our souls, leading online prayers that have drawn thousands of participants from across the nation.
And behind the scenes, a team of communications professionals has been working relentlessly to keep us informed about our church, and to broadcast liturgies from our Cathedral with its top-notch choir.
As the number of infections and deaths has soared, priests, religious and laity throughout the area have clasped their hands and lifted their hearts in undaunted prayer, believing that their petitions have pierced the heavens, no matter how dark the clouds.
These faithful labors have not been spurred by mere human resolve, the kind of “true grit” that clenches its jaw, pounds its fist and vows to press on despite adversity.
Rather, steadfastness is something far greater, born of a love that consented to suspend itself in agony between heaven and earth, knowing that death cannot outlast life.
In this strangest of Lenten seasons, my colleagues and fellow believers have taught me well what it means to be steadfast — and I know they themselves have indeed learned from the Master.
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