By Vatican News
The global virus has turned many things inside-out in the world. This change has also played itself out along the lines of production and solidarity. Monsignor Robert Vitillo, Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission, picks up on a theme that, even if often silent and invisible, is now history. “While big busines and big government” he observes, “shut down during the peak situations of the pandemic, many effective responses were initiated at the local community level” – from the volunteers who distributed food to the sick and elderly, to the “university engineering students fashioning ventilators from machines we would never even have considered in pre-COVID days”. Msgr. Vitillo is now hopeful that, as Pope Francis has often expressed, that every institution at any level might “awaken to the need for greater social and spiritual cooperation as well”.
You are part of the Vatican COVID 19 Commission, Pope Francis’ response mechanism to an unprecedented virus. What do you personally hope to learn from this experience? In what way do you think society as a whole can be inspired by the work of the Commission?
R. – My participation in the Vatican’s COVID 19 Commission calls me to respond more fully and more respectfully to the suffering of those directly affected by the pandemic and to those who are more vulnerable to being infected with this disease and are subjected to more harmful social and economic impacts of this public health emergency. The whole world has faced many challenges from this pandemic but those who are poor, marginalized, already suffering from serious health conditions, struggle much more than most of us. We must reach out in Christian solidarity to all our sisters and brothers in the human family. And, as Pope Francis tells us, since we all are in the same boat, we must learn to row together.
Pope Francis asked the COVID 19 Commission to prepare the future instead of prepare for it. What should be the role of the Catholic Church as an institution in this endeavor?
R. – In asking us to prepare the future, I believe that Pope Francis is urging us never to return to the “old normal” which gave way to deep gaps between the rich and the poor, serious ecological damage and violence within our own families and in all of society. God now invites us to co-create with Him a new world built on love, justice, equality, and access to decent and dignified work, education for all, and health care for everyone in need regardless of their ability to pay for such care. Through its moral leadership and universal outreach, the Catholic Church should inspire change of policies, practices, and behavior at all levels, from heads of government to key decision-makers, to religious leaders and people of faith, to grassroots communities.
What personal lessons (if any) have you derived from the experience of the pandemic? What concrete changes do you hope to see after this crisis both personally and globally?
R. – I have learned to listen more carefully to the needs of my work colleagues at the International Catholic Migration Commission and to be more sensitive to the plight of the migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons whom we serve in all parts of the world. As a priest, I suffered with my fellow parishioners at St. John XXIII parish in Geneva when they were not allowed to come to church and to receive Christ in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. I hope that this crisis has helped me to grow spiritually and to never forget my total dependence on God and to feel His love and mercy each day. Finally, I hope that I have learned to thank God more sincerely for all His gifts and to comfort those who have suffered as a result of COVID 19.
What is the coronavirus crisis revealing about current political systems? Are we seeing that there are serious difficulties in managing the pandemic in every countries, in every system?
R. – While big busines and big government shut down during the peak situations of the pandemic, many effective responses were initiated at the local community level. Volunteers delivering food to the sick and elderly; religious Sisters producing home-made masks; university engineering students fashioning ventilators from machines we would never even have considered in pre-COVID days. Front-line workers, many of whom were migrants and refugees and who previously had faced much stigma and discrimination, risked their own lives to save the lives of people whom they had never met. This tells us that big business and big government must change their values and focus more on persons than money or power.
“No one will be saved alone,” the Holy Father has said several times. It seems glaringly obvious, but many countries are falling back on hypothetical, individual, almost selfish, solutions. Are current models of governance still adequate? On what values could a new model be based?
R. – I think the fractured and unequal responses to COVID 19 reveal the great danger of increasing nationalistic tendencies and the false notion that we can avoid global problems if we simply close or borders and our communities to so-called “foreigners”. Globalization has made us interdependent at every level of life and economic activity; clear evidence of this was shown when many countries could not even produce the medical products to keep people alive during this pandemic. The basic values and principles at the foundation of almost every major religious tradition are more needed now than ever: solidarity and subsidiarity, justice and charity, love for all, and global cooperation at every level of society.
The European Union itself runs the risk of a deep fracture in post-Covid management. The divisions that have emerged among the 27 member states seem to highlight the lack of creativity and foresight. Can a union built on the ruins of the Second World War forget the lessons of its own history?
R. – Hopefully, the experience of COVID 19 will help people remember the reasons why they established the European Union and the fact that much of this Union was built on the values handed down by Christianity for many centuries. I pray that the European Union will not only respond with economic aid, although that, too, is sorely needed by some countries in Europe and in many other places in the world. I hope that Europeans also will awaken to the need for greater social and spiritual cooperation as well.
What role is the United Nations playing in the worldwide economic and political reconstruction? Since this is a crisis that truly spares no country, shouldn’t it occupy a privileged place, that of the world’s laboratory which will be handed over to future generations?
R. – As a member of two World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Working Groups in Response to COVID 19, I have been struck by the acknowledgement of many scientists and public health experts that people place much more credibility in religious leaders and faith-inspired organizations that in the UN and in governments. For that reason, these UN officials invited my participation in these Expert Working Groups and requested religious leaders to disseminate information and guidance on how to prevent further spread of COVID 19. A joint response at every level of society, of government, and of multi-lateral organizations is needed to end the threat of COVID 19 and to prepare for future pandemics that might be on the horizon. And, as Pope Francis has taught any medicines and vaccines must be made available to all members of the human family.
The history of the world is marked by epochal crises, moments in which humanity finds itself at a crossroads and has had to make truly historical choices. Are we at before such an epochal crossroads today?
R. – We certainly have been staring an epochal crossroads in the face with the coming of COVID 19 – who ever thought that an invisible virus would be able to bring the entire world to a halt within a matter of weeks? Who could ever have predicted that the mega-cities of New York, Sao Paulo, Paris, and even our beloved Roma, would seem lifeless and empty for several months? But now, even while we still struggle with beginning and/or second waves of COVID 19, we already face another crossroads. Will we try to restore the “old normal” that put us in such a precarious situation in the first place or will we be more serious about cooperating with God to build His Kingdom also during this life, in order to be better prepared for the next life in heaven?
What is at stake? What could we be losing out on due to selfishness and individualism?
R. – Not only our lives are at stake but even more so are the lives and dignity and happiness of future generations. Selfishness and individualism did not work for our first parents Adam and Eve or their son, Cain who murdered his brother, Abel. They never have worked for those who wage war and violence on each other. The most successful man who ever walked this earth was our Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus Christ who laid down His life for His friends and thereby saved us from the evils of sin and death forevermore. We must avail ourselves of His love and mercy, in addition to the scientific evidence that we continue to acquire, in order to develop together the best strategies and action against COVID 19 and many more public health and other emergencies.