New York’s religious leaders finding God at virus’s American epicenter

New York’s religious leaders finding God at virus’s American epicenter

A view of Manhattan is seen from Linden Hill Cemetery April 6, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. As of April 7, more than 12,000 people in the U.S. have died of the virus. (Credit: Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters via CNS.)

With Passover and Easter just around the corner, leaders from New York City’s Catholic and Jewish communities expressed their mutual conviction that God is present in their people’s suffering and warned about complacency in Catholic-Jewish relations.

With Passover and Easter just around the corner, leaders from New York City’s Catholic and Jewish communities expressed their mutual conviction that God is present in their people’s suffering and warned about complacency in Catholic-Jewish relations.

“This confluence of events demands a religious response,” explained Rabbi Noam Marans, Director of Interrreligious and Intergroup Relations for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), in reference to the timing of Passover and Holy Week at what appears to be the “pinnacle of pain and threat from a health crisis that we have not experienced in our lifetime.”

“You and I are blessed to come from a tradition that tells us that God is in the midst of adversity,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan told Rabbi Marans during Tuesday’s virtual interreligious dialogue event, “AJC Advocacy Anywhere: Catholic and Jewish Perspectives on the Eve of Easter and Passover in the Age of Coronavirus.”

On the one hand, it is easy to find God in the “heroic sacrifices for good, and the love and compassion, of those who are tending to the sick,” said the New York archbishop.

“These are men and women who are working 14 hours a day, literally putting their own lives at risk, and then worried not only that they’re not caring for their own families, but worried, ‘Am I bringing this hidden enemy back into my home?’,” Dolan continued. “This is an example of sacrifice where it is easy for us to see God’s goodness and God’s care in these brave people.”

For those suffering from the virus itself, however, Dolan explained that it can take an act of faith to see that God is there and that “sometimes we don’t notice that except in the rearview mirror.”

“As these people who have made it get through, they begin to reflect – gratitude is a reflective virtue – they begin to reflect and they say, ‘Ah, he is there, he got me through. Remember the nurse with the soothing cold towel, the doctor who grasped my hand and said you’re on the way back, you’re going to get better.’ They saw those as divine messengers,” said the cardinal.

In response, Marans noted the overlap between Catholics and Jews on this perennial question of suffering. Reciting Psalm 23, Marans explained, “We believe that God is there with the sufferer and that we are doing God’s work with the tools that God gave us to cure that person.”

Dolan connected this shared theology to the objections that some have raised regarding decisions to close worship spaces, noting that “people only seize on the fact that the churches, small ‘c’ church buildings or synagogues, are closed.”

“That does not mean the Church, capital “C”, or the Jewish Faith, capital “F”… they’re not closed! They’re more radiant than ever, and one of the ways we see them very radiant now within our Catholic family, would be in our works of charity and health care,” added Dolan.

Marans and Dolan have known each other for decades, but the two religious leaders repeatedly emphasized the deeper significance of their ability to have a respectful, peaceful dialogue during this particular week.

“Not all that long ago,” Dolan warned, “Holy Week was a time when the Jewish citizens of cities in Europe would literally flee, because as the Christian majority would observe the passion and death of Jesus, there would be that obnoxious reductionism that the ones responsible for that were the Jews, and so very often, Christians, in an abuse of religious fervor, would take out their wrath upon the Jewish population.”

Marans added that “the normalcy that you and I feel in this conversation” cannot be taken for granted. “We need to teach a new generation how we went through the desert of Catholic-Jewish relations, and perhaps we’re in the promised land of Catholic-Jewish relations, but we’re not going to be able to hold onto it passively,” he added.

Their shared concerns about a backslide in the progress between Christians and Jews come against the backdrop of a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in New York City in late 2019 and early 2020.

Noting that the virus does not discriminate between Catholics and Jews and that the “caregivers are of every imaginable” religious and cultural background, Dolan expressed hope that the current crisis might have an impact on those “who have been anti-immigrant and anti-refugee” when they realize that “our caregivers, many of them, are of immigrant background.”

“Wouldn’t it be great,” said Dolan, referencing a lesson from his seminary formation that God tends to whisper invitations during periods of crisis, “if the invitation here is to a lessening of the prejudice, the discrimination, the bigotry that all of us have been worried about and that the AJC has done such a sterling job of combatting?”

The two religious leaders rounded out their Holy Week dialogue with brief exhortations to the members of their religious traditions.

“Let’s recover the depth of our faith in the sacred events that we’re celebrating, Passover and Easter,” said Dolan. “These are normative, these are definitive, these teach us about ourselves. This is God speaking to us in his loving actions.”

Marans concluded by drawing on the Passover Seder song, Dayenu, to encourage a spirit of gratitude for whatever people do have in this challenging moment. “In this crisis, we’re all under a cloud of darkness, and we feel like the liberation will never be enough. But it’s not going to be wholesale, it’s going to be piecemeal, it’s not going to reach every individual, but it’s going to reach us as a collective humanity, and each of that will have been enough.”

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