Pictured: Conor Hogan '12 (right) and friends from Flagstaff Hotshot crew share a smile after a long day of fighting Western forest fires, summer 2020.
By now, it's become cliché to describe 2020 as "apocalyptic." We survived a dislocated spring that turned into a summer of societal upheaval. Now, as we stumble about under a layer of hazy, hazardous air, it feels that the apocalypse may indeed have arrived—and not just in Oregon.
Eight months ago, could we have even conceived of a "global pandemic"? Jobs and lives have been lost on a massive scale. We have experienced a summer of racial reckoning, with Portland at its seething, tumultuous core. We were just buckling in for a tempestuous Presidential election when wildfires blew onto our doorsteps.
As the fires advanced and the smoke rolled through, many in the Jesuit community were severely impacted by the conflagration. Families, including several JHS teachers, had to evacuate their homes, scrambling to gather documents and figure out how to transport children, dogs, horses, treasures. Many Jesuit families have loved ones directly in the line of Western wildfires, or working to combat the flames.
As I write this, my son Conor '12 and his Flagstaff Hotshot crew have been fighting the Creek Fire in California for several days. That's the fire near Yosemite that's created its own weather system and sent a terrifying "pyrocumulonimbus" cloud 20,000 feet into the atmosphere.
As a high school student at Loyola Academy, I learned in my Ancient Greek class that "apocalypse" means not "the end times," but rather "a revelation" or uncovering of truths not previously seen or properly understood.
Just as the coronavirus and killing of George Floyd exposed in sharp relief the gross inequities in jobs, health outcomes, and incarceration rates in the US, the raging wildfires in the West lay bare the consequences of our lack of "care for our common home," as Pope Francis calls it.
We may feel powerless against the 2020 array of what the Greeks called "agons" (the struggle of a hero against adversaries): climate change, racism, economic hardship, and now, smoke and fire.
But we are not going to succumb to fear or frustration. We will survive, and thrive, by masking up, and reaching out, and keeping faith. In challenging times, the Jesuit community responds by helping our neighbors. See here for ideas how to do that.
In this strange, surreal moment, we search for a beacon of hope through the smoke, gazing "as through a glass, darkly," seeking to understand what this moment portends.
On Friday, Sept 11, 2020, Father John Kerns of Our Lady of the Lake parish texted an excerpt of his weekend homily to his good friend, JHS Admissions Director Erin DeKlotz. Fr. Kerns has graciously allowed me to reprint his words below.
These are unsettling times, to say the very least. One catastrophe leads to another on a global, national, statewide and urban level. Statewide fires are touching all of our lives, while at the same time families continue to face the "normal" personal struggles of illness, addiction, heartache and loss of loved ones. We start to wonder: Can 2020 get any worse?
The Gospel passage that comes to mind is The Calming of the Storm (Matt 8:23-27).
As the storm on the Sea of Galilee is raging, the disciples are terrified they will drown. They can't believe Jesus is sleeping through the tempest on a cushion in the boat. What I find consoling is that Jesus sleeps not because He doesn't care, but because He is not afraid.
When they wake Him. Jesus doesn't start by calming the storm. First – while the storm is still raging – He addresses the disciples' fears and their faith.
He does so not to chastise them, but to remind them of His fundamental message: Do not be afraid; have faith. Then He calms the storm. But notice that He says to keep faith, even during the storm.
Storms happen. Fires happen. Political turmoil happens. Pandemics happen. Usually they don't happen all at once, but, apparently, sometimes they do.
But the truth remains: God is still with us. He will give us what we need. He will help us look to each other; to help each other; to depend upon each other. God gave us each other and gave us our faith and always says: "Do not be afraid."
Fr. Kerns' words remind me that I had reflected on this very same Gospel passage in addressing the Class of 2017 at their Commencement, in what feels like another time and universe.
In this moment of unrest and real concern, let us remember that the words that Jesus speaks more than any other in the Gospels: "Be not afraid," for He is with us in the storm.
Paul J. Hogan