You are missed.
In his magnificent biography of Saint John Paul II, George Weigel writes that to Father Karol Wojtyła, “a priest without a parish was a vocational absurdity.” A priest is ordained to be a man for others, “to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope.” In my own short priesthood, there have been several times when I have not had a pastoral assignment but instead been assigned to studies or administration. And frankly those assignments without a flock to care for were challenging! This time of quarantine however has been particularly hard for me as a priest. To be required to be absent from you, the faithful, to have interactions only over the phone or to hear confessions socially distanced in a parking lot, it is such a cross to bear. You are truly missed!
When you are in seminary, preparing to be a priest, you spiritually prepare to live your life for others. The most rewarding moments of the priesthood are those moments when you get to bring Jesus Christ into the lives of the faithful. To sit with a family in a hospital waiting room waiting for the worst; to walk with a young couple preparing for a life together, to have the freedom to drop everything and rush to the side of someone in need of counseling and spiritual guidance and let them know they are loved; these moments are what we priests live for! And the most beautiful of those moments is praying the Mass with you, bringing your joys and sorrows, needs and desires, before God almighty in sacrifice on the altar. Our lives are in a sense incomplete without you present, we are called to serve you and with you to worship our God.
In this time of pandemic however, I have realized that this physical distance is of course itself a way that I can show my love for you. The priest is a spiritual father, and most of all a father wants to protect and care for his children. True love is sacrificial; it is the desire for the good of the other even when it is hard for me personally. And so as hard as it is to be physically distanced from you, we priests are willing to do it out of love for you!
But you are not absent
Though we are physically separated, you are not absent. As anyone who has tried to stay in touch over the internet during this strange time knows, there is no substitute for real physical interactions. We are made that way, we are embodied creatures and we communicate best in a physical way. But the great joy and hope of our faith is that we are not merely our bodies, we are body and soul. Prayer and spiritual communion is real, because as we draw closer to our God in love, we draw closer to one another.
When I was a seminarian, there was a period of time when I was not permitted to return home. During that time, the vast majority of my close friends got married and it broke my heart that I could not be there. I waited for pictures on Facebook and sent notes of congratulation but of course it wasn’t the same. But one thing I did do was I made sure that I was in the chapel at the same time as the wedding back home, so that I could united my heart to the Lord at the same time he was giving himself to my friends. It has been the same sort of experience now, uniting my heart to the Lord, so that he might touch yours. That connection, though it is not as directly satisfying, is real and powerful!
I can say for myself, and I think my brother priests would agree, that in a certain way you have been more present to us during this pandemic. This time has prompted me to pray more deliberately for the people I cannot see physically. I carry your needs, your fears, your loneliness and uncertainty every day in my heart, bringing to the Father as best I can each one of you.
The real nature of the Mass.
One of the hardest parts of all this has of course been the suspension of public Masses. I have heard from so many friends, parishioners, even random people that I have met six feet apart in the grocery store, how hard it has been to not have Jesus present in the Eucharist. From the priest side, I can tell you it has been equally challenging. Saying a private Mass not the same at all. But one good that has come out of this pandemic is a purification of my own understanding of the true nature of the Mass.
The temptation for us is to see the Mass as a glorified show that we attend. The priest preaches, we sit in the pews, we sing a bit, we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and then we go home. It can become very easily in our minds a production, like a Broadway play, and I go to Mass to get something out of it. A Broadway play is ridiculous without an audience. The point of the play is entertainment and the spectators are passive.
Mass is the opposite. It is something we do together spiritually, and even when it is said in private, it has great meaning. The point of Mass is to “lift up our hearts” to the Father and to do so with great fervor and devotion. And we can still do so, even when we are separated from it physically. When I offer Mass, I am not alone in a room doing a ritual. I am just as much a priest offering the same sacrifice of Calvary for the salvation of the World, and you are present in that offering. And when you can’t be there physically, you can still lift up your heart to the Father! It is not the same, it is a little harder, but it is tremendously valuable.
If we truly believe that everything God does or permits in this world flows from his love, then even these sad and difficult times are in some way for our benefit. That is at least what I have been trying to see, though at times it is purely an act of faith to believe it. But one thing I think we can take with us as we return gradually to “normalcy” is how precious our Church and our faith is. This physical absence from the normal practice of our religion can show us that the faith is not just one other ideology in a world full of ideologies, it is not merely one other weekend activity chosen from a host of others, it is a true encounter with the God who made us! And in the midst of fear and frustration, disease and loneliness, we can be confident that His love and grace are real and that He will give us the hope and the love to endure whatever crosses we are asked to bear.