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Sheltered in Italy, Fr. Gilger Offers a Message of Hope

Fr. Patrick GilgerFrom one of the great seats of medieval Christianity, a city deeply familiar then and now with plague and viral catastrophe, came a message Friday night urging Christians to hold fast to “the place of firmness” that is their faith.

The Rev. Patrick Gilger, SJ, BA’02, a Creighton alumnus and former teacher of sociology at the University, spoke to almost 70 participants Friday evening during a Zoom conference from the Jesuit residence in Milan, where he is confined under the terms of Italy’s nationwide lockdown.

The COVID-19 virus that is wreaking havoc on the global economy is also sowing confusion, anxiety and fear, he said, reactions that once confronted saints and ordinary people who nonetheless refused to sink into selfishness or concern only for their own self-sufficiency.

“So much has changed, and as our rhythms get upset they can change our sense of who we are,” Fr. Gilger said. “And if what we do has radically changed, and very quickly, then our sense of who we are is obviously going to do the exact same thing.”

In such times, Fr. Gilger said, a relationship with God matters most.

Fr. Gilger cited the lives of St. Charles Borromeo, who served as archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584, and the Rev. Matteo Ricci, the 16th century Italian Jesuit missionary who devoted his life to China. Both men speak to current times, he said — Borromeo for his faith-filled approach to a time of plague, and Ricci for his success adapting to the unfamiliar, in his case the very different culture of 16th century China.

Ricci succeeded in China, Fr. Gilger said, because of the Jesuit discipline, acquired during the formation process, of “being with the Lord” so that “wherever you go you can still maintain that same sense of relationship, that place of firmness, of stability, that rock of our lives which is this internal relationship with the Lord.”

Borromeo, he said, was a saintly example of unwavering faith during the plague of 1576, during which he encouraged people to remain in their homes but promoted faith by distributing books of liturgies that allowed people to sing in unison from their doorsteps and verandas.

Those faithful efforts introduced beauty even into a period of crisis, Fr. Gilger said, evidenced by a diarist of the day, who, reflecting on the awful time of plague, could write, “You can’t imagine how beautiful it was to live in Milan during these years. The whole city was filled with nothing but song.”

These feats, Fr. Gilger said, are part of the historical record and constitute lasting contributions to humanity.

A similar lasting contribution exists at Creighton University, he said, in the Jesuit Gardens, where a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was erected by students as a “thank offering” for the protection afforded them during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. That statue now offers comfort and assurance to a new generation of Creighton students, as Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ, PhD, shared in a recent video.

Similarly, Fr. Gilger urged today’s Creighton family to build a lasting testimony from current difficulties.

“Let the things in which we are engaged have the potential to last for 100 years and to be a gift to other students who are going to walk onto that campus as insecure young men and women not knowing what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives,” he said.

“We as Christians have to be in the business of building things that can last.”

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