Amid all the videos and images of these last few days, there was one that stands out.
It was first posted online in the middle of last week. It showed the deserted streets of Siena, Italy — home of one of the greatest saints, a doctor of the church, Catherine of Siena. It’s also in a part of the country undergoing a stringent quarantine, with thousands of people on lockdown.
The video itself showed nothing remarkable.
What was remarkable, though, was what you could hear: voices rising in song. Men, women, grandmothers, young, old.
They opened their windows and leaned out on balconies and called out to the empty streets and alleyways below, “Canto della Verbena,” which translates as “And While Siena Sleeps.” It’s a popular folk song. Once the singing began, nobody could stay silent. Even the dogs were barking.
The song says: “And while Siena sleeps, everything is silent and the moon lights up the Tower. Feel in the dark, alone in the peace…long live our Siena, long live our Siena!”
With those words, the people of Siena shared courage and confidence, friendship and hope. It was their way of saying, “We are still one. We may be separated. But we are united.”
One person commented on Twitter: “It’s a reminder that, the human spirit keeps us all going in hope. We shine our best in the darkness.”
“We shine our best in the darkness.”
Remember those words. At this hour, that is our call as Catholics, as well.
Many people I know are facing the days ahead with anxiety, uncertainty, fear. That’s understandable. There is much we just do not know right now.
But my mind keeps going back to the words from last Sunday’s Gospel, Christ’s words to his terrified disciples, facing something they couldn’t know or understand:
“Rise and do not be afraid.”
Those are our words to live by. They have been so for two thousand years. We have held fast to those words standing before emperors and executioners, confronting plague and war and pestilence, worshipping in secret underground or declaring in public before firing squads, “Viva Cristo Rey!” Through it all, we have prayed together, hoped together, worshipped together, sang together.
The simple words “Be not afraid” even gave a title to one of the most popular and cherished hymns in our Church.
Historians will tell you we have faced far worse than what we are confronting now. This crisis will pass, and hopefully soon.
But we need to remind ourselves of who we are and what we believe — and carry our faith proudly in our hearts, a faith that stands in defiance of fear.
Rise and do not be afraid.
We carry within us the light of Christ.
And, yes: we shine our best in the darkness.
While this is a moment for caution and care, it is also a moment for compassion, for mercy, for prayer. It is a moment to show who we are and what we believe.
Friday night, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, wrote to his people, “Our mission as Church continues, even as we alter our normal activities for the sake of the common good.”
He continued: “We should be planning how we can be a witness of God’s love during this terrible crisis. Consider practical ways to support those who are most impacted by any crisis: the lonely, the poor and the forgotten.”
We can’t emphasize this enough. As we pray for our troubled world, we cannot forget those who are even more isolated, more afraid, more detached. The sick, the elderly, the alone. If you can, visit. Give them a call. Order them a meal. Run an errand. Or even just offer up a prayer. This needs to be a time of solidarity and charity.
I know Bishop McKnight, and I wrote him an email to express my gratitude for his message.
He wrote back:
“This coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for the Church to ‘shine like the stars.’”
It is. And it is an opportunity to remember that whatever we face, we do not face it alone.
All you need to do is read the first few lines of today’s Gospel.
There is much that I could say about this Gospel reading about the woman at the well, but one detail leaped out at me this week:
“Jesus, tired from his journey…”
We’re reminded here — and later when he asks for a drink of water — of Christ’s undeniable humanity, his solidarity with the human race. As Paul put it, “He was a man like us in all things but sin.”
Our God is not detached, distant, aloof. He understands us better than we may realize.
He knows our weariness. Our fears. Our temptations to doubt or despair.
And he knows how we thirst.
How we thirst for understanding and consolation. How we thirst for justice and peace. How we thirst, in our hearts, for God’s mercy.
How we thirst for hope.
And he reminds us again and again: he is with us.
He reassured Moses, “I will be standing there in front of you. Strike the rock and water will flow from it.”
Our God does not abandon us. Rise and do not be afraid. He is here.
Have trust. And have faith.
This is a moment when we are being called to prayer, to holiness, to generosity, to courage.
But I remember something Pope Benedict once said: “You were made for greatness.”
This is a moment we were made for.
This is a moment to lift our voices — in prayer and, like the people of Siena, in song.
When I think of the singing of those citizens of Siena, I wonder if there is something in their character that helped make Catherine of Siena the great saint she became. She was nothing if not courageous — and demanded that of others.
She once wrote:
“Start being brave about everything. Drive out darkness and spread light. Don’t look at your weakness. Realize instead that in Christ crucified you can do everything.”
“Spread light.” We can do no less. As we prepare to receive Christ in the Eucharist this day, we remember what we received at our baptism — the light of Christ — and we pray to make it burn brighter.
We pray for Christ to strengthen us, uplift us, embolden us, reassure us.
This is who we are and what we were made for.
We are Catholics. We are Christians. We carry within us the light of Christ.
And: We shine best in the darkness.