Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Over the past few weeks, as we’ve watched the coronavirus work its way across the globe, we’ve also heard of some of the dramatic steps that the Church has taken in other parts of the world to help hinder the spread of the virus and protect public health. Holy Water fonts have been emptied, gatherings postponed, and Mass cancelled. Now the time has come for us to confront the spread of the disease as our Catholic brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have.
In the past few weeks, as we have been anticipating and planning for what we have known would eventually come, it has been my experience that there have been two opposite responses and attitudes that have not been helpful at all: hysteria and indifference. They are the subtle work of Satan, flaming the fires of discord and division, when our unity is most important.
These responses are not the Christian way. Our way is the middle way. We use our reason, temper our passions, act prudently, and do what is good, not just what seems expedient or popular. This is how Bishop Sheridan and the other Bishops of our Archdiocese came to their decision to suspend our public liturgical activities over the next few weeks. I also know that this decision remains a great weight on their hearts, as it does mine, because we are Pastors. Our desire is to shepherd, preach, guide, comfort, nourish and spread the Gospel. And while there are many ways in which we can do this, our primary avenue for all these things is our liturgies, and especially the celebrations of the Mass. In fact, I find it difficult to explain the joy I have of gathering with all of you on Sundays!
So, I have been praying about what lies ahead and how we can navigate this time of uncertainty together. Through the Holy Spirit, I was drawn to reflect on an experience I had years ago as a Transitional Deacon in my last year of seminary studies. My classmates and I were on an extended mission in the region surrounding the town of San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico. We were there to minister to the indigenous Tzotzil people, many of whom are Catholic, who live in primarily small impoverished mountain villages, separated by difficult terrain and one-lane mountain roads.
Our efforts there were primarily focused on assisting the two priests who served nearly one hundred parish churches throughout the region. Two priests, 100 parishes. It was a hectic schedule as they attempted to reach each of these parishes, about two per week, for their yearly visit. These churches are some of the many examples throughout the world where Mass is celebrated only once a year. And not only the Mass, but weddings, confirmations and the sacrament of reconciliation. Imagine how precious this once a year visit is to them!
I don’t need to imagine. What I experienced will be with me forever. Each village had lookouts that would spot our caravan of vehicles coming, and the member of the town would line both sides of the dirt road leading into town for almost a mile. Everyone had flowers and would toss them upon us as we slowly passed by. Upon reaching the village center, everyone gathered around us to greet the priest and the visitors with him. There was song and dancing, many hugs and handshakes. Following a brief tour, the priest began his sacramental work of hearing confessions, attending to the sick, catechizing those to be married, and preparing for the Mass. The Mass was celebrated with great enthusiasm as the entire town crowded into a small church without pews. There were even rows of people outside, hanging through the windows to peer in.
Standing, pressed up against the wall of the church beside the altar with my friends, with just a few feet of space between the people and the altar, we prayed the Mass together. The air filled with smoke of the sage incense, and I remember thinking how beautiful was their reverence for the Eucharist, and how palpable was their desire to be united to Christ in the Eucharist. And the great feast and celebration that followed simply emphasized the importance of who it was that we had all received together: Jesus. Since that experience, I have never taken the reception of the Eucharist for granted.
I could certainly write much more about that transforming journey, but I think I have written enough to draw out what is important for us today and in the weeks to follow. And that is how we can respond to our short-term situation: in the way that the people of San Cristobal do during that long year, until the priest can come again.
They do it by recognizing that having received Christ, not only in the Eucharist but through the Sacred Scriptures, and in their loving care for one another, Jesus does not drive away in that caravan. He remains in them and through them in their love for one another -- just as He remains with us. The Word of God is not a collection of pages in a book; He is a living thing, surrounding us, inspiring us, inviting us to unite ourselves to God. The Church is, first, the people who believe and trust in God, and follow the teachings of Jesus, proclaimed and defended throughout the ages by our Bishops. Our institutions and buildings are but tools that assist us in our living out the faith as a community.
And finally, our liturgies are those ways in which the Church memorializes and points toward the invisible realities that they present. While they are, for us, the ultimate visible sign of God’s special graces, God is not limited by them. And just as He bestows an abundance of graces upon those people who can only receive the physical Eucharist once a year so that they may continue to live out their faith in hope, He bestows those same graces upon us now!
So, live not in fear and anxiety, but lean more heavily into prayer, reading Sacred Scripture, doing acts of charity and good works; be a presence of security and hope to others who worry; and rediscover the Church’s teaching on Spiritual Communion which sustains others, like the Tzotzil. And perhaps the most important spiritual reflection we can make over the next few weeks is on how often we take for granted the blessing of being able to receive the Holy Eucharist as often as we do. Instead, let us show our thanks for our blessing by fully participating in Masses we attend, supporting our parishes, praying for our priests, encouraging vocations, and availing ourselves to graces of the Sacrament.
Whatever lies ahead for us, our prayer is now even more important. Pray for our bishops as they face new decisions daily. Pray for our parish community. Pray for our staff who will continue to work diligently to serve you in the best way that they can. Pray for our homebound, our sick, our health professionals, our governments. All of these things and more are in my prayers, along with all of you, as my celebrations of Mass continue in private for all our sakes and the salvation of all. May God bless you now and always, and grant you His peace,
Your servant in Christ,
Fr. Kirk Slattery