The Word Among Us asked Fr. Mike Schmitz, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries for the Diocese of Duluth and author of the new book A World Undone, to take stock of the unprecedented events of 2020 and give us his spiritual insights for 2021.
With so many distressing headlines and disagreements—even between people of faith—about major issues of national concern over the past year, do you have any advice for Catholics in 2021?
If you look back at how we responded to the news in 2020, a lot of us wanted to find good information and not just be passive observers. In the end, we may have spent too much time consuming information and not enough time acting on it. We have this thing called our “sphere of interest,” which is almost infinite. We could just live on social media and take in more and more of what is going on around the world. One of the dangers of this, though, is that we place judgments on what people “out there” are doing. We think, “They shouldn’t have said that. Authority figures should have done this. If they had only done that sooner . . . ”
If we focus on our sphere of influence instead of our sphere of interest, we recognize that there are a lot of things that we care about but limited areas that we can do something about.
We need to visit our sphere of interest to know things. But if we’re constantly living there, then we greatly reduce our influence on the physical world. In some cases, we may be neglecting people or circumstances that we could actively take responsibility for. Looking back over the past year, you could ask yourself, “Did I give more of myself to my sphere of interest or my sphere of influence?” Did I spend my time learning about things that I care about, or did I spend my time acting on real needs that I could do something about?
How can we look to Jesus to guide us as we interpret and act on information we hear in 2021?
Most of what we read or watch—the data that we find—is not just information. It’s information that is being interpreted with a lens. It’s probably rare that just by learning something or gathering facts, we understand it with the mind and vision of Jesus. So number one, surrender what you’ve heard to Jesus. Ask him in prayer, “How do you see this situation?” Maybe you tell him about your resistance to a particular idea and ask him with genuine openness what you may be misunderstanding. Maybe it’s a bad idea or a difficult person—but maybe it’s also our own hearts that need realigning with the heart of Jesus.
How do we discover the heart of Jesus? The first way is to pursue time with him: in prayer or in Adoration, wherever you encounter him. But we also have the book of his life, the Bible. Take seriously what God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do in Sacred Scripture. Examine God’s relationship with his people Israel. Pray deeply about the life of his Son on earth. Meditate on how the apostles responded to the actions of the Holy Spirit. Not just reading but believing Scripture, you will understand the heart of Jesus.
How can we apply that understanding and use our sphere of influence to act with regard to evils like racism?
In 2020, I got a few personal tips from Black brothers and sisters who honestly talked about what they’ve experienced and suffered. One lesson I learned was to get specific. Racism is bad in theory but devastating on a personal level. If you don’t have experience with it, then you probably need to go listen to somebody who does.
Fr. Josh Johnson, my friend and brother priest from Louisiana, told me about an archbishop in Baton Rouge who learned that local parishes were losing Black parishioners. He asked why and found out that Catholic events were being held at a country club that was for whites only. The archbishop responded with a pastoral letter against racism indicating that no Catholic institution should hold events there, which caused the club to change their unjust policy. In another instance, Fr. Josh described the response of a compassionate principal at a Catholic school where a student’s racist attitudes had become public. This principal met with Black families at the school to review handbook policies that might adversely affect them and learned that a policy prohibiting hair braids was causing their children to be suspended. She hadn’t even known about it!
It’s tempting to think that because I’ve personally never said something racist, I’ve done enough. But this year we learned about sins of omission. For example, I learned from speaking to a young Black graduate student that I had not preached about the sin of racism once during her four or five years on campus. That’s an area where, as a priest, I can improve, but we all have spaces for growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed our perspective in many ways last year. What do you think God showed us in the midst of these changes?
The pandemic caused devastation in millions of peoples’ lives, but we also learned a profound lesson from this time. Most of us operate under an illusion of certainty about the future, but we’ve discovered that nothing is guaranteed. Every single time the sun comes up, it’s a gift.
The Letter of James says, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit’—you have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. . . . Instead you should say, ‘If the Lord wills it, we shall live to do this or that’” (4:13-14, 15). That is the key distinction: that we try to live according to God’s will each day, because ultimately our lives and our schedules are not as predictable as we think. We don’t need to live fatalistically, with despair, but we do need to live in the presence of God. Regardless of the circumstances that the Lord allows in our lives, we can be faithful. We can do his will because he is present and active.
It’s great to have plans for the new year, but they should be permeated with a daily living trust in the Lord. God is deeply, intensely involved in all of our lives. We can seek his will on a daily, hourly basis. So even when our plans don’t work out or what we were hoping for doesn’t come to fruition, that doesn’t shake our faith, our hope, or our trust.
Even if 2021 looks radically different from how we want it to look, one thing that we learned in 2020 is that God is still completely present. He has been present amidst the pandemic and in the ordinary moments of life. He has been active even when there was tragedy, when people were suffering, in all seasons. Our call is to be faithful and to trust him in all circumstances.
Kathryn Elliott is a freelance writer in Indianapolis.
Fr. Mike’s Top Three Spiritual Lessons of 2020
Lesson 1: Concentrate on your sphere of influence.
Lesson 2: Be united with Christ as you respond to the world.
Lesson 3: God is acting in the midst of hardship. Trust him!
Fr. Mike’s latest book, A World Undone: Finding God When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, is available at wau.org/undone. You can listen to his Sunday homilies as podcasts on bulldogcatholic.org.