Worldwide, the pandemic has forced us to ask some very deep questions about life. As Christians we have been brought into conversations about death and the eternal things, what we call the “last things.” Not altogether comfortable things to think about, but deeply Catholic. As a person of faith I could not escape the nagging feeling that maybe I had not measured up so well to my Christian commitment. Before the pandemic it was easy to get distracted by the business of life. Now at times, it seemed like there was too much time, too much quiet.
Perhaps it was an opportunity to take stock and to make some changes. Was God reminding me that life is fragile and that there were some things in life that I was neglecting? I really do believe that God brings light out of darkness, even when it’s a rampaging virus. Where was God in all of this?
Around the time the virus hit, I also got a bad case of sciatica. Taking walks was not easy, but part of therapy. While walking around the parking lot of Blessed Sacrament Church I thought on how churches were temporarily closed with little or no access to Sacraments. Would people come back? Would faith grow or fade? Then as I passed a side door of the church I saw a bouquet of flowers left on the ground against the locked door. A way to say to God, “I love you.” I felt reassured.
Most priests found themselves jumping into the deep side of the pool called technology. All of the sudden we were putting together livestream Masses, short taped messages to the people, and online Go-to-Meetings to connect with larger groups of people. It was not the same as the real thing but it was the best way to stay connected. Pope Francis reminded us that livestreaming Masses was a temporary necessity and not a replacement for Mass celebrated together, priest and people. Someone told me it was nice to be able to attend Mass almost anywhere in the United States, visiting new places and hearing different homilies. More people told me how even with live streaming Mass, it was just not the same. As much as I wanted to hear how people appreciated what I was doing through livestream, I was glad to hear that it wasn’t enough. It’s good for now, but not forever.
Families have been impacted financially by the virus and this has had a negative effect on parishes and the Pastoral Center. Parishes, like families, struggle to make ends meet. Almost all parishes had to furlough full- and part-time employees. Some of them will not return. The Pastoral Center, like parishes, struggles to maintain programs with the furloughs that have been painful, though necessary. The priests and bishops of the Diocese took a cut in salary in order to stand in solidarity with many people who have had their own financial resources drastically impacted. That has been especially challenging for those priests who financially care for elderly parents or ill family members. Still, it has been important that we walk with our people, especially in the struggle of day-to-day life and worry.
Priests continue to do their priestly ministry. Confessions are heard, Mass is celebrated, anointing for those who are dying and counseling for people who find these times very difficult. Many weddings have been postponed until things get better; but every once in a while a couple walks out of church with a small contingent behind, eyes beaming over masks. Funerals don’t stop. People die and the Church with love gives them the last spiritual care on Earth that can be given as they make their way to God.
Priestly life and mission continues but with a different look. Masks and physical distancing are a must, and we wash or disinfect our hands continuously. Confessions are heard under an outside tent or from a car window. Masses are now celebrated outside churches. People bring their own chairs and umbrellas. Livestream Masses continue. Processions with the Blessed Sacrament happen, but from the back of a pick-up truck as it slowly winds through parish neighborhoods.
A directive from the governor of California closed down our churches again for a second time. I am slowly taking the Eucharist back to the church tabernacle after having celebrated Mass outside on the pavement. A young man with a candle goes before me. People are picking up their chairs, moving away with their umbrellas, not noticing that I am moving among them with the Lord. All of a sudden, a woman begins to sing softly Tantum Ergo and people slow down again and with reverence accompany me.
I am reminded that faith is not so easily abandoned. Parish life and faith are strong. We will get through this. The Church has gone through rough times from the very beginning and I suppose will until the end of time. But in each trial and over centuries, Christ has never left us and the Church has grown into a stronger witness of faith. He is here now, He will never leave us, and through this present test of life, I still believe.