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Communitas ad dispersionem in the Time of Coronavirus

By Fr. Matthew Carnes, SJ

March 16, 2020 — As Jesuit schools and parishes embrace “social distancing” to address the coronavirus, I find myself experiencing a panoply of emotions. My first instinct is to feel sadness at the separation from my students and colleagues and friends, and the confusion of what this will mean for the shared future we had been building.

Yet I am reminded of the way St. Ignatius and the first companions saw themselves: as a communitas ad dispersionem — a community in dispersion.

They had first felt themselves drawn together by God to a shared life and mission, and they had discovered true joy in each other's company. Their years as college students in Paris, and later in public ministry in Venice and Rome, had led them to call themselves “friends in the Lord,” united daily in prayer and service.

But when the needs of the times required them to be scattered across the globe, they went. Often on a day’s or week’s notice, they set forth to uncharted new futures, responding to those suffering illness and embracing emerging opportunities to teach, learn and accompany.

In spite of the disruptions and separations, though, they remained intimately connected through the technology of their day — letters, carefully crafted and shared — so that each continued to feel united with all the others. They read and re-read those letters, and they prayed for one another daily. Still one community, still one mission, still one life.

As I come to the end of this week of so much change and so much disruption, I am heartened to already see my friends and colleagues and students embracing this moment in the same spirit of those first Jesuits. Using the technology of our day, with all its bells and whistles — and occasional glitches — to show gentleness and compassion, to encourage and lift up. Caring for and inspiring one another as we face the challenges. Separated, to be sure, but still united. Still a community.

Fr. Matthew Carnes, SJ, is an associate professor in the Department of Government and the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and he serves as director of Georgetown’s Center for Latin American Studies.

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