When we reached our community in Whittier, Los Angeles, news about the new Coronavirus was already making the headlines all over the world and the situation, especially in Europe, was by then quite serious. In the United States of America, the first effective measures were beginning to be taken and preventive measures to curb the spreading of the virus were already in everyone’s vocabulary: clean your hands often; cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or use the inside of your elbow and avoid close contact.
In recent months, while traveling through the North American Conference, more than once, in our missionary conversations, confreres and lay Redemptorists have been sharing the strong view that missionary testimony and the proclamation of the Gospel must take place in an environment of closeness and, above all, authenticity. In other words, at a time when the need to increase the distance between people is mandatory, many of us are feeling the need for greater closeness and intimacy in the proclamation of the Gospel. And this poses us a challenge that proves to be quite simple to solve at the same time. One of the first to tell us this very clearly was our confrere Gregory Mayers, while sharing an evening and a glass of wine in Liguori: “What we need is authenticity. The proclamation of the Gospel must be done with authenticity. And for that we need a face to face encounter.”
In Whittier, confrere Rob Ruhnke presented us with a program that he has created more than four decades ago to help couples prepare for marriage. The big difference between this and other models is that it favours the creation of a one-to-one relationship between couples. Between a couple who has already celebrated the sacrament of marriage and another who is preparing to take that step. The modus operandi of “For Better and For Ever” is not to put a couple explaining how everyday things work to another couple, or to invite someone to guide some sessions to which a set of couples just have to listen to like well-behaved students… The underlying assumption of this program is that only a more personal encounter can actually make a difference.
This program is a process, which means it involves a number of meetings and homework for its four members. At each meeting they share their thoughts on the issues and challenges anticipated in the manual that covers different topics relevant to married life. This creates an atmosphere of intimacy and authenticity between the two couples. There are things that can only be shared in such an environment. The role of our confrere or any other priest or leader who uses this model in his community is to foster the creation of these networks and connections, “leaving the scene” afterwards, as Rob told us.
In one of the evenings in our community in Los Angeles, confrere Patrick Keyes invited some of the parish collaborators for a fraternal conversation and at that occasion we had the opportunity to be with Javier and Jennifer Rodriguez, one of the couples who participate in the program. Javier will be ordained a deacon in the coming months and both of them cherished the missionary challenge of proximity and of being able to put themselves at the service of the poorest and most abandoned in society and the world. Diakonia lived by two as if they were just one.
We found one more example of proximity in this Church. Patrick Keyes, who has been in this community since September, is working on new ways of building proximity with the projects and paths he is dreaming, inspired by our God. Once again, the importance of a Church with open doors and ears, ready to welcome, was emphasised. It seems that the Spirit is blowing the same wind on several of us Redemptorist Christians.
At a time in which social distancing is necessary and inevitable, the Spirit breathes into us the urgency of being close and authentic when announcing a God who, above all, is company in suffering and despair.
And now, we’ll not see you around.
It is time to stay home.
Zé ku Teresa