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COVID-19: A pastor’s perspective: Building Community in Times of Pandemic

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Father David BonnarOne of the hallmarks of our Christian faith is community. In other words, we are a community of believers all in this together. This sense of community is centered on Jesus Christ.

As a priest, I derive great strength by the presence of the ecclesial community. Whether it is the Daily Mass crowd, the Sunday Mass people, a meeting or social gathering with the faithful, I find energy, inspiration and life, all of which feed my faith. I strive every day to be open to their voices and needs.

Sadly, the pandemic has weakened our experience of community. Even with the best of efforts to livestream the Mass, the experience of community is not the same. Most likely, this experience of community will never be the same. For the time being, everything has become virtual and from a distance.

The task of building community in this unsettling time is a challenge for every priest. The mission to echo Jesus’ great priestly prayer, “so they may all be one” (Jn 17:21), is undermined by the unavailability of the Eucharist. In order to protect the flock from this terrible virus, most bishops have suspended public Mass and closed churches. As a consequence, the faithful are unable to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. The Church rightfully has been inviting the faithful to pray a prayer of spiritual communion, which is a beautiful devotion. But right now, in most cases, the experience of processing to the altar at Mass to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, the experience that makes us one with God and one another, is not possible.

I totally understand and support the decision of bishops to temporarily take these measures. These decisions, I believe, are made with a pastoral heart to protect our faithful and to stop the spread. At the same time, it is frustrating being a shepherd and not being able to feed the sheep in the customary way. It is equally unsettling trying to build community at this moment.

Over the last few weeks, I have received emails from parishioners asking, begging and pleading for the Eucharist. They want to receive Jesus. They want to adore him in the Most Holy Sacrament on the altar. They clearly miss the Real Presence. One parishioner argued that how is it they can go to the grocery store for physical food but cannot come to church for the Bread of Life.

That last comment, which I received a few days ago, prompted my brother priests and me to move the tabernacle from our Eucharistic chapel in the one parish church in which we are livestreaming the Mass and place it in the glass-enclosed locked main vestibule of our other parish church with a sanctuary lamp and the crucifix. Now parishioners from both parishes can come and pray before Jesus in the tabernacle from their cars or outside with a mask from a safe distance. They can be near the Real Presence.

Yesterday, I saw with my own eyes the faith of the faithful and their love for Jesus. Some were kneeling on concrete. Others were praying out loud. There was also something else I was beginning to see: As best as we can, under these trying circumstances, community is being built with livestreaming of the Mass in one church and the presence of the tabernacle in the vestibule of the other church. We are continuing our efforts to build a bridge, to form community and become one parish in July 2020. Let us pray that wherever we are, we may all be one!

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 15 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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