By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As the nation begins to emerge from the pandemic, there are lingering questions about lessons learned and what the path forward should be.
That was the starting point for a March 28 forum: "So What Did I Miss? A Look Back, A Look Around, A Look Ahead After Two Years of COVID," sponsored by Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
Regarding lessons learned, the five panelists said this was a mixed bag -- particularly on the issue of caring for one another -- and they agreed that ongoing work on that front was essential in moving forward.
The session itself, the initiative's first in-person dialogue in two years, was a sign of returning to the ways things were but also indicated how the pandemic is hardly in the rearview mirror.
The forum could be viewed on C-SPAN and though a livestream link, something many have grown accustomed to during the past two years when the initiative had 44 online discussions.
The 275 people who attended the event at Georgetown were required to show proof of vaccination and the initiative's co-director, John Carr, was not there since he had recently tested positive for COVID-19.
Kim Daniels, the initiative's other director who led the night's discussion, said Carr's symptoms were mild and he was improving, but his absence was an indication of what the past two years had been like and served as a "reminder that so many have been through so much more and COVID isn't over yet."
By way of quick recap, since the last time the group held a public session, Daniels mentioned the pandemic, the country's racial reckoning, two presidential impeachments, an attack on the U.S. Capitol, U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, continuing fallout in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, efforts by Pope Francis to move the church forward particularly with the global synod and the current invasion of Ukraine.
She said the image of Pope Francis that particularly stands out from the past two years is when he stood alone in St. Peter's Square March 27, 2020, speaking about the then-unfolding health crisis and calling for renewed hospitality, fraternity and solidarity that would give "strength, support and meaning ... when everything seems to be floundering."
"That powerful call to solidarity and hope rang out in a frightened world," Daniels said before asking the panelists how they thought the country measured up.
The panelists, introduced as an all-star team, were: David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times; E.J. Dionne and Christine Emba, Washington Post columnists; Anne Thompson, an NBC News reporter; and Mirka Sosa, a junior at Georgetown University who was recently named a Campus Compact Newman Civic Fellow for her work with immigrants and the Latino community.
The group gave mixed views on the country's well-being coming out of the pandemic.
Brooks said there has been a "slow-motioning social and psychological crisis in this country" over the past 20 years and "COVID sent it into overdrive," noting the overall sadness and isolation indicated by the rise in suicides and depression rates as well as increased gun purchases this year and rising number of hate crimes and disruptive incidents in schools.
He acknowledged he was being "uncharacteristically the prophet of doom," especially since he had initially planned to write an article about "how we all came together in the time of COVID." The data showed otherwise, he said, noting: "We just didn't come together."
Other panelists similarly noted ways the country didn't measure up in this crisis even though it made some attempt early on, especially by encouraging health care workers and with policies impacting government aid.
Dionne did not view the pandemic response as starkly. He said the loneliness and isolation many experienced caused them to realize the importance of friendship and community and many reached out more than ever to friends or those who might be in need.
He agreed there was a strong level of discontent overall but countering that is a strong view among young people to make the country better which he found heartening and he connected their view with Catholic social thought about personal obligations.
Emba noted what the pandemic should have taught people, mainly that "we do owe things to each other, that we are responsible for each other, that our society runs better when there is an ethic of care."
And just because those lessons might have been lost in the pandemic's shuffle, it doesn't mean it's too late to pick them up. She said as society considers "what going back to normal looks like," it's a good time to get back to some basics about freedoms, the common good and how to teach people to care for each other.
She thinks a realization is growing that the view of only caring for yourself is harmful in the long run.
"We're at a tipping point right now where we're told to go back to normal and we are just not sure what the new normal will be," she added.
To get back on track, Thompson said, people need to listen to each other, a skill she said our society has lost. Brooks echoed this with extra emphasis, saying people need to be "loud listeners," asking questions and which in turn treats others with dignity.
The student on the panel, who said the pandemic revealed injustices and inequities already present in society, said the way forward is to recognize "the humanity of all people," which can be shown in simple ways such as making sure people have access to basic needs.
Dionne agreed, saying: "The idea of equal dignity, which is so central to Catholic social thought," gives him "the most hope for pulling out of this mess."
Thompson closed the discussion with a quote from Pope Francis' 2020 book, "Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future," where he called the COVID-19 crisis a chance for a reset, to think about how we live and "get rid of this virus of indifference and start to care for each other."
"I hope that it's not too late to do that," she said, adding: "I hope that is what we take from this experience."
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @caromaczim