A new book by Father Gerald Arbuckle SM, The Pandemic and the People of God: Cultural Impacts and Pastoral Responses, is reviewed for The Good Oil by Good Samaritan Sister Meg Kahler.
Sometimes it is about when you read a book as much as it is about what is in it! Over these past weeks as I have been reading Gerald Arbuckle’s The Pandemic and the People of God: Cultural Impacts and Pastoral Responses, the COVID-19 pandemic continues but with different rules about how we live with it, parts of Australia have endured devastating floods, a federal election has been called and the Catholic Church continues on its synodal path, both globally and locally. There is much in Arbuckle’s book that could help us all navigate through what are, for many of us, very challenging and chaotic times.
Arbuckle uses both anthropology and theology to help us understand what is happening to us as a group of people. The book also offers some new understandings for some well-known pieces of Scripture. I found the insights into the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the story of Bartimeus particularly helpful.
In the first chapter, there is a cultural analysis of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which presents an interesting way of exploring the parable and draws out six truths that, if they were adopted at every level of society, would change the way individuals and governments make decisions. Arbuckle also presents new angles on some of the Psalms and perceptions into several Letters in the New Testament.
Using his anthropological lens, Arbuckle presents a summary of the social, political, and economic impact of the pandemic, and explains how the cultural trauma created by the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the people of the world. He uses very real examples of how different countries managed the outbreak and contends that the pandemic revealed the grave weaknesses already at play in political, health, economic and education systems around the world.
While the book was written well before the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia some of the underlying ideas help me understand something of what is happening, the importance of the kind of leaders we have on the world stage at this time, and the huge task of rebuilding a nation after such a catastrophic intrusion.
The book has six chapters, which are roughly 25 to 30 pages each, and each chapter contains an explanation of some of the challenges that the world faces, anthropological ideas that enhance our understanding, as well as scriptural reflection and questions for reflection. The format lends itself to group discussion and exploration. Each chapter also uses the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis and other theologians. I will have to go back to read Fratelli Tutti with these ideas in mind!
The last chapter offers some suggestions about how the Church can move forward after the ‘two liminal traumatic experiences: the trauma of the church muddied by the sexual abuse and cover up crises, and now the trauma of the global pandemic and its aftermath.’ (P33). Arbuckle urges the people of God to focus on Christ, remember what Scripture has to teach us about solidarity, compassion and justice, and to heal the community through lamentation and creativity.
He suggests four elements that the Church must use with creativity and imagination:
- foster intentional faith communities;
- challenge institutional injustices;
- avoid fundamentalist attitudes and actions; and
- ensure that it is the mission of Christ that drives ministries.
There are positive lessons from the pandemic: ‘Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm and we find ourselves afraid and lost … the storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties … (A) propitious time to find the courage for a new imagination of the possible, with the realism that only the Gospel can offer us.’1
The Pandemic and the People of God is not always an easy read; some of the topics – loneliness, racism, poverty, inequality – can often leave us despondent. But Arbuckle presents a way forward with an emphasis on justice, hope and the courage to form communities that are prayer filled, life giving and open to the transforming message of Christ.
Rev Gerald A Arbuckle SM, The Pandemic and the People of God: Cultural Impacts and Pastoral Responses (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021).
1 Pope Francis, quoted in Spadaro, A New Imagination of the Possible.