When Father Harrison Ayre looks back on 2020 and the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the phrase that immediately comes to his mind is ‘dazed and confused.’
“I look back and I think to myself, ‘Oh, I could have put [that] more pastorally here and there,’” Fr. Ayre said. “But I’m also quite forgiving of myself in that regard because I think we were just all dazed and confused and no one knew what to do, because virtually everyone has no experience with a worldwide pandemic to base this off of.”
Fr. Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria in Canada, and co-host of the podcast ‘Clerically Speaking.’ His diocese initially suspended public Masses in March of 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the early days of lockdown being a challenging and scary time in so many ways, Father Harrison remembers something else that happened during that time.
“For me personally, it was actually a time of great spiritual renewal,” he said. “My prayer life was never as good as it was in those three months of kind of initial lockdowns and closures. It was a really a time of intimacy with the Lord, and praying – really interceding for the Church.”
A big part of that spiritual renewal involved the Bible.
“The Bible is not just a historical document that tells us about the past, but rather it’s something living. God is speaking to the Church today through the events of scripture. Scripture is always pumping, alive.”
The situation of global lockdown caused Fr. Ayre to read certain Bible passages with fresh eyes. For example, the story of Israel’s exile to Babylon, in the Old Testament.
“They lost the temple, they lost the kingship, they lost their land…Everything that made them, the Jewish people, the chosen people of God, was removed from them,” he said.
“And in that process of that absence from everything, they actually came to a deeper appreciation of who God was and it purified them…It helped them see that God is not just the God of our land. This is the God of the universe. This is the true King. And they came back with a renewed energy and a renewed life into their vocation to be the light to the world.”
Fr. Ayre said the Church is a new Israel, and we can look at the events of Israel to help us try to understand what is happening in the Church today.
“This is not new in the history of God’s working with his people. He does this with Israel,” he said. “This has happened in history before too in the Church, with other plagues and churches closed down. This is not a unique moment. This is how God often acts to bring us to an even deeper vigor.”
“There’s a deep hope here for renewal, for the Church, if we can open our hearts to listen.”
Fr. Ayre’s experience of spiritual renewal is something he hopes to share with the world through a new book – “Finding Christ in the Crisis: What the Pandemic Can Teach Us.” He co-wrote the book with Michael Heinlein, his editor at the Our Sunday Visitor publication Simply Catholic.
Fr. Ayre said the book was inspired by conversations he and Michael had during the initial lockdowns.
“We were just noticing … reactionism to a lot of things that were happening, instead of quiet receptivity,” Fr. Ayre said. “Sometimes there were perhaps some unhealthy attitudes manifesting itself. That’s not always a bad thing, per se. It’s not a judgment, it’s just a revelation.”
As the two talked more and more about it, they decided to create a series of articles that could publish on the Simply Catholic website. But Fr. Ayre said it didn’t seem like it was enough.
“As we kind of talked about more and more, we said, ‘no, this needs to be like a resource that you can hand out to people.’ We just want this to be a tool to help build hope and to build up the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love.”
“Finding Christ in the Crisis” was published in the fall of 2020. The book was written in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but Fr. Ayre hopes it can serve as a resource for Catholics navigating other crises in the life of the Church.
“The Church is not immune to crises,” he said. “And so we just hope and pray that this is asking that big question, ‘where is Christ in this?’”
Fr. Ayre emphasized that we can be realistic about the difficulties of this time, while still maintaining the virtue of Christian hope.
“I think there is a balance there… But when we do feel down or alone or discouraged – that those feelings won’t go away, per se, but the Christian faith says that this is where the cross is at work,” he said. “Often that’s the place where Christ actually might be showing his closeness to us.”
“But the cross is still a cross. When we say that the cross is really the source of hope as a Christian, it doesn’t remove the pain of the cross. It just inserts God’s presence into that pain.”
“When we’re feeling discouraged alone, angry…It only becomes a problem when we don’t do that rooted in Christian hope, which is not wishful thinking. But rather to say, I recognize the presence of Christ here. When I’m discouraged, Christ is suffering that with me because he has taken on our humanity to suffer this with me. When I’m feeling alone, the Lord is alone with me, so that I’m actually really not alone.”
“Finding Christ in the Crisis” is available on Amazon and Our Sunday Visitor.