September 2020 is here. And with it, the beginning of a new academic year. For us, students, time to think again of classes, textbooks, courses, activities; time to look forward with enthusiasm and hope. After all, life has to be lived forwards, even if it can only be understood backward.
And it is precise because life can only be understood backward, that I cannot help but allow my memory flash for a few moments on the happenings of the past months. We are living in the year of the COVID. For the scientists, the COVID-19; but me, I would rather call it COVID-20, as it was this year 2020 when this unsolicited fellow became our traveling companion.
It was on the last days of January. Nothing made us yet presage what would soon come to us in the form of coronavirus. The festive preparations for the Lunar (“Chinese”) New Year were over; the customary red envelopes, plethoric of good wishes for the occasion, ready… when, suddenly, gloomy news from the Macau Government were in the air: everything had to come to a shutdown: airport, schools, offices, hotels, casinos, churches, borders…, and everyone was to remain at home. In a matter of hours, the city of Macau became a ghost city, without the colors, life, and means of survival of this picturesque spot; its empty streets offered a surrealistic panorama. The glittering lights displayed for the Chinese New Year’s celebrations lost their audience.
Our Dominican priory, too, entered into seclusion, its community life turning into a semi-monastic mode. The window shutters of our chapel were rolled down; our religious services were close to the public, while inside we continued with our usual daily schedule. The first to be affected by this new situation was our very Dominican brother St Thomas Aquinas, whose feast-day we were about to celebrate and who this year could not receive the public honors we used to tribute him on previous occasions. And there were mornings, and there were evenings, days passed.
As students, however, our immediate concern was the classes. How could we now go on with the second semester since classes at the university could not be held? Modern technology came to our aid. Indeed, within a couple of weeks, the University of Saint Joseph readied an online learning/teaching platform for classes to be imparted and followed from home. It worked quite well, as a temporary solution: the semester went ahead. The virus had lost its first battle. What we could not imagine then was that the situation would persist until the end of the semester (and beyond!). Tests, exams, portfolios, assignments, grading… Survivors we were!
In the meantime, our ordinary life at home continued “as usual”; or almost, because nothing could be the same. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours and holding Masses, particularly on Sundays, Holy Week, etc., with doors closed to the public was something never seen before. The celebrations got a new, more intimate flavor. God speaking closely to the community!
The summer months of July and August came next. Vacation time? Sure, but a unique home confined summer vacation. All flights were canceled; nobody could travel to his home country; nor even for the noblest of reasons, like to attend his mother’s funeral. Many tourists would consider luxury being able to spend their summer holidays in Macau! But such is not our case, because we are not tourists but residents in Macau for many years. To spend more fruitfully these two months, some short courses were organized by our Center of Studies: Languages, Preaching, Music, etc. They fitted well into the formation program of this group of thirty young brothers, from different countries and cultures, who share the same call and mission: the preaching of the Gospel. Preparing ourselves for that mission is precisely the main purpose of our being in Macau.
Back to September, our today, and back to the opening of the new academic year 2020-2021. It is time indeed to move forward, with enthusiasm, hope, and also, let me add, with gratitude!
Gratitude, not for the coronavirus pandemic that has by now spread so much desolation and suffering all over the world; but gratitude if ever for the good lessons that such a pandemic has taught us: A lesson of humility, as it has shown how wrong we were every time we ignored our vulnerability by pretending that we are in control of our destinies. A lesson of solidarity, as it has revealed a vast sea of kindness and benevolence in hospitals, care homes, and communities around the world. A lesson of love, as it has made us recognize the value in the people around us, honor the sacredness of life, and the need to accord our neighbor the respect, compassion, and love that they deserve. Perhaps we are indebted to the covid19 for having suddenly given, as collateral goodness, a new, inspiring meaning to our lives.
Finally, I would add, on behalf of our Dominican community in Macau, a personal reason for gratitude, to God and our Guardian Angels: Despite the big number brothers living in the same priory, which prevented us from keeping the due sanitary distance from one another, none has become sick during all the past months. Indeed, the so many guardian angels assigned to take care of this community have done, so far, a fine job! Praise the Lord.