Every Sunday afternoon, my phone whistles to remind me to send a text to the “Rose-ary Chain,” a group of roughly 25 Rose family members who pray the rosary together via Zoom every Sunday evening. This weekly gathering has kept my family connected as we grieved our mom who died just before the pandemic began. Unintentionally, it has also become a place where we encounter the often insurmountable differences present in so many families during this time of political and social unrest. The ongoing question for me is whether our family, like the linked beads on the rosary itself, can remain chained together despite the differences pulling at us.
Since our mom’s death, my brothers and I have worried about our dad, newly widowed, forced into loneliness at a time when loneliness was already drowning him. When my niece and nephew asked if we were interested in a weekly Zoom meeting to say the rosary, we jumped at the opportunity. A link was sent out, Zoom was downloaded on the computers of those over 60 who hadn’t been using it on a regular basis, and in May, six months from the day my mom passed away, our weekly Zoom rosary began.
Our collective and individual grief was heavy. It was a difficult time to be isolated from each other, but there were ways we benefited from the distance as our approach to the pandemic was not always the same. My immediate family, for example, fastidiously wore masks and practiced social distancing. We did not vote the way our state of Indiana voted in the last election. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the rest of my family—most notably my brothers and aunts—put their vote elsewhere and bristled at the restrictions placed on them by their governor.
But our weekly rosary provided an opportunity to stay linked in the shared reflection of each other’s grief. Week by week, we prayed with our dad, a convert, who led us, his cradle Catholic kids. Our thumbs and pointer fingers collected momentum as we moved from bead to bead across the chain through the first three Hail Marys and asked for the gifts of faith, hope, and love. My dad’s voice often cracked as he recited the words, and from across the Midwest where our immediate families have scattered, we jumped in to fill in the cracks where grief bubbled up. For each decade, my dad called on individual families—my brother and his wife and kids in Toledo, Ohio; my nephew and his family in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and my family in Fort Wayne, Indiana—to lead the call and response linking all of us from state to state and family to family.
The closer we came to election season, however, the connections our rosary practice made possible began to break apart with political commentary infiltrating our prayer time. In the minutes before we started, an aunt argued the novel coronavirus wasn’t real because she’d never met anyone with it. Others complained about mask mandates and civil liberties. When Joe Biden was elected, many of the rosary chain asserted dead people had voted him into office. When my 11-year-old son asked that we pray for George Floyd, someone laughed.
Each week it has become increasingly difficult for me to participate in the rosary, to find connection with my family through prayer. My body clenches. I force a smile and try to remember the two ladies we are honoring: my mom and the Blessed Virgin. Often, my prayer is heard, and by the end of the rosary I feel the connection and peace communal prayer promises. But other times, God answers my prayer in ways I don’t understand, and instead I am left with a restless disconnection from the family I long to be near.
Most recently, someone in my family showed up on screen wearing a shirt that read, “I’m a white conservative Catholic. How may I offend you today?” Another family member complimented his shirt saying, “Really, it’s a crime just being white in this country.” The shirt and the comment bombarded my head with the sort of crushing confusion and anger that makes it impossible to think or see straight.
I struggled to understand how one faith could generate two such profoundly different views of the world.
I went through the motions of the rosary and tried to pray through my feelings. I asked Mary to help me love. I begged my mom to give me the wisdom to understand the importance of this prayer time as a family. But mostly I waited impatiently for the end when my dad recites the litany of “Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us” three times. I watched as my dad, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, and aunts gently rapped their chests with soft knuckles at the repetition of “Lourdes.”
I marveled at the collective faith spread across three states, but more than that I struggled to understand how one faith could generate two such profoundly different views of the world. My fingers furiously worked the beads of my rosary. Without realizing it, I was tightening the jump ring connecting one chain to another. My mom used to call me Tweezer Fingers because I loved fixing broken rosaries. She left a pile of them for me in an ornate porcelain jar, and it was my job with my young eyes and strong pincher fingers to reattach chain links that had torn apart and to detangle strands with violent knots in them. I loved the work of it, pricking a pin through a particularly bad tangle and gently tugging it apart, loosening it and pulling it up through a loop again and again until the whole thing was free. Some rosaries were so horribly tangled that I had to separate links with a gentle pinch and return errant strands to where they belonged.
The problem now, though, is I’m not as young as I used to be. My eyes are weaker, and I’m not sure my fingers are as capable at unraveling knots and relinking broken chains as they once were. I want to stay connected with my family. I want the rosary that has strung us together since childhood when our mom first introduced a nightly rosary practice to keep us together. But the knots are tighter and more unruly than I remember them. I cannot find a pin the right size to poke through the strangled links to help me make sense of the entanglement. My neck aches and eyes blur from the work of it, and I worry I might have to give up on this one, toss it back into the porcelain jar for another day when I feel stronger, more up to the challenge.
A year of weekly prayer practice with my family during the pandemic has been an extraordinary grace, one I have been grateful for as I grieved my mom’s death and walked through the uncertainty of one of the most politically unstable periods on record. But along the way, politics tangled our chain into a tightly snarled mess my fingers can no longer work across. Eventually, I may find the tools to unravel the whole thing. Until then, I pray and trust that the faith that links my family together will connect us again, one Hail Mary at a time.
This article also appears in the October 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 10, pages 43-44). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Pexels/Karolina Grabowska