Recently, someone described the Holy Week atmosphere within our Church in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic as being the year of the long Good Friday. In my lifetime, the restrictions on our capacity to come together safely in our churches as the Body of Christ for Holy Week services and for Easter Sunday have never been this widespread. Historians tells us that the 1918 influenza pandemic resulted in similar restrictions, though most of the requirements to suspend Masses took place during the fall of 1918 rather than the Easter season.
Certainly, all the efforts underway for safe distancing, hygiene and avoiding crowds have a strong basis in Catholic social teaching. Our fundamental commitment to the common good leads us to sacrifice so many things for others. It is as if we were in wartime and indeed together, we unite against a common enemy, a virus that can so easily take innocent lives.
However, there is no quarantining Jesus Christ. Saint Paul in his second letter to Timothy, chapter 2 verse 9 put it well: “But the word of God is not chained.” For sure, we will look back on the Lent and Easter of 2020 as the time during which we made our hearts a tabernacle to receive Christ spiritually.
The Chrism Mass last Tuesday at the Cathedral of the Assumption was the occasion in which virtually all of the priests of the Archdiocese came together to renew their priestly promises and take part in the consecration of the sacred oils to be used the coming year.
With only four priests present in the Cathedral sanctuary to renew their promises and the rest of our priests scattered throughout the 24 counties of the archdiocese renewing their promises from a distance, I searched for a way to prepare for this Chrism Mass. I made 170 calls to our priests to inquire on their safety, to join with them spiritually during these challenging days and to assure them of my prayers as they renewed their promises. Amazingly, I uncovered the many creative ways in which our good priests are reaching out to the faithful in the midst of all the restrictions.
I read somewhere that nowhere in the history of our nation, and perhaps in the world, has the telephone been used more than during these past weeks. In my conversations, I felt the unity of our presbyterate, and I felt the unselfish love. So many told me of their live-streaming of Mass and spiritual activities, of the phone calls that they were making to parishioners and especially those confined to their homes, and of the creative ways in which they themselves were praying for the faithful.
At the time of ordination, a priest promises to pray each day the divine office in which he prays the hours of the day, especially morning and evening prayer. These prayers are not only for the priest himself but also for the people of God and for all people. How powerful is this silent prayer for God’s people and the whole world!
When the dust settles, and we begin to piece together the lessons of 2020 COVID-19, the deprivation in being unable to come together as the body of Christ to celebrate the Holy Eucharist will surely be high on the list. The experience of deprivation often inspires a time of deep appreciation. While we have been creative in our virtual participation at Mass, there is no substitute for our coming together to celebrate and participate in the Holy Eucharist.
Here is another lesson. Certainly, the habits of hygiene and social distancing will remain as effective measures to combat deadly germs that can bring sickness and death. However, there is something deeply human about touch, and this gesture is such a powerful symbol in our Church. Think of the touch of a mother and a father for their newborn child, the signing of the cross with Holy Chrism on the crown of a child being baptized and the signing of the cross with Chrism on the forehead of the person being confirmed. So also, during ordination, the hands of a new priest are anointed to be dedicated to the service of Christ and His people for the rest of this priest’s life. Surely, we will safely renew our appreciation for the power of human touch.
It is important for us to reflect upon the lessons that we are learning as we experience a new appreciation for the important things that have now been restricted. As we do so, let us remember that Christ, through his death and resurrection, continues to grace our lives through the sacraments and through the word of the Lord. How wise was Saint Paul when he said to young Timothy, “… the word of God is not chained.” Even in the midst of all the restrictions, we rise during this Easter week in hope, aware that the grace of Christ stirs in us and renews us to live righteous lives.