Stark reminders of a world still battling a worldwide pandemic were evident throughout October 2020 general conference.
For the second consecutive time, the Conference Center’s main auditorium was empty and quiet for general conference. Missing were the tens of thousands of people from points across the globe worshipping together. General conference’s vast audience was again entirely virtual.
And, once again, musical performances from the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square and other choirs were previously recorded.
Meanwhile, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles sat masked and spaced apart on the stage of the Conference Center Theater. One of their own, Elder Gerrit W. Gong, was physically absent — instead delivering his Saturday afternoon session remarks in a prerecorded video after being exposed to the virus.
Two days later, the Apostle and his wife, Sister Susan Gong, were confirmed COVID-19 positive.
The pandemic’s physical disruptions of general conference will pass. At some point, legions will again fill the 21,000-seat Conference Center and hear inspired messages and the Tabernacle Choir in person. The Brethren and other Church leaders will return to their accustomed chairs, shake one another’s hands, perhaps embrace and trade unmasked smiles.
But the central teachings of the October 2020 general conference, including many offered in response to the pandemic, will last long after the virus has passed.
The pandemic has prompted a catch-phrase: new normal.
But to truly embrace a “new normal,” President Russell M. Nelson invited the vast but virtual general conference audience “to turn your heart, mind and soul increasingly to our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.”
Repent daily, care for one another, remain worthy to worship in the temple and keep an eternal perspective to prepare to one day meet the Savior, he added.
President Nelson said he grieves with all who have lost loved ones. He noted the many pandemic-prompted changes across the Church that have brought about “unusual rewards,” including increased gospel study and sturdier testimonies in many homes. Meanwhile, hundreds of Church-provided pandemic humanitarian aid projects are happening around the world.
Overcome mortality’s trials, taught President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency, by feasting upon Christ’s words, repenting, “and then keeping your covenants with God.”
While temples throughout the world have been closed or in limited use during the pandemic, remaining worthy to attend the temple need not be interrupted, taught Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“Whether you have access to a temple or not, you need a current temple recommend to stay firmly on the covenant path,” he said.
Elder Rasband’s fellow Apostle, Elder David A. Bednar, said the global pandemic has “proved, examined and tried us” in many ways. Two eternal principles can guide and fortify a person during such challenging circumstances: preparation and pressing forward “with a steadfastness in Christ.”
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles promised that Latter-day Saints will do more than simply endure the pandemic until things return “to the old normal.”
“Though at times we may feel buried by the trials of life, or surrounded by emotional darkness, the love of God and the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will bring something unimaginable to spring forth,” he said.
Bishop W. Christopher Waddell of the Presiding Bishopric said better days await following COVID-19. But mortality’s “temporal peaks and valleys” will continue.
“As we embrace spiritual principles and seek inspiration from the Lord, we will be guided to know the Lord’s will for us, individually and as families, and how best to apply the important principles of temporal preparedness,” said Bishop Waddell.
In his remarks at the general women’s session, President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, spoke of the Savior’s affirming power during the challenges of the day. “The Lord has special love and concern for His precious daughters. He knows of your wants, your needs, and your fears. The Lord is all powerful. Trust Him.”
The ongoing pandemic — combined with recent fires, floods and other natural disasters — can leave people feeling helpless. Many are broken, cracked or damaged, said Sister Cristina B. Franco of the Primary general presidency.
Still, there is hope.
“As we come unto Jesus Christ by exercising faith in Him, repenting and making and keeping covenants, our brokenness — whatever its cause — can be healed,” she said. “This process, which invites the Savior’s healing power into our lives, does not just restore us to what we were before, but makes us better than we ever were.”
President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, promised comfort to all whose lives are being upended by the pandemic and the other commotions of the day.
“I think often of those of you who are suffering, worried, afraid or feeling alone,” he said. “I assure each one of you that the Lord knows you, that He is aware of your concern and anguish, and that He loves you — intimately and personally, deeply and forever.”
Faith in the Lord can help people navigate unforeseen trials, taught Sister Lisa Harkness, first counselor in the Primary general presidency.
“Our faith increases as we choose to believe rather than doubt, forgive rather than judge, repent rather than rebel. Our faith is refined as we patiently rely on the merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah.”
Elder Gary E. Stevenson said that amid the pain of the pandemic, there has also been an increase in faith and testimonies among Latter-day Saints. Homes are becoming more gospel-centered and ministering is being refined through individual acts of service and large scale humanitarian projects.
“Times of affliction and disappointment do not change the watchful eye of the Lord as He favorably looks upon us, blessing us,” he said.
COVID and cancer, doubt and dismay, financial trouble and family trials — when will these burdens be lifted? asked Elder Jeffrey R. Holland near the conclusion of the Sunday afternoon session.
The answer, the Apostle added, is “by and by.”
“Whether that be a short period or a long one, it is not always ours to say, but by the grace of God, the blessings will come to those who hold fast to the gospel of Jesus Christ. That issue was settled in a very private garden, on a very public hill in Jerusalem long ago.”
COVID-19 and other civil and economic challenges offer opportunities for individuals to exercise patience while learning to find joy regardless of temporal circumstances, taught Elder Jeremy R. Jaggi, a General Authority Seventy.
“‘Be of good cheer’ is the commandment from the Lord,” he said, “not be of good fear.”