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COVID-19: A pastor’s perspective: First-time Experiences during the Pandemic

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Father David BonnarThe first time we do something can be both exhilarating and frightening. Regardless of our age or state in life, there are often, in the course of our days, first-time experiences that are new and different. Sometimes just watching someone enter into a first-time experience can be inspiring and even renewing.

In my nearly 16 years as a pastor, I have been blessed to mentor five newly ordained priests. Observing these men embrace a myriad of first-time experiences not only takes me back to the nascent days of my priesthood, but it also has a unique way of causing me to pause and look at how I do those very things.

The pandemic has yielded many first-time experiences for all of us. For example, this week I did my first “virtual” finance council meeting. This meeting was a conference call with lots of numbers and reports. While we all did what we needed to do, the experience was not the same.

The following evening, I hosted the pastoral council for a meeting on Zoom. In this meeting, we were able to see each other. The tone of this meeting was very lighthearted and fun. In fact, there was much laughter. One of the members, a happily married woman, commented: “I needed this evening. I just had to get away from my husband. He watches everything I do. I love him but, if any of you need some work done around the house, I will let you borrow him.” It was clear that this jocular woman just needed a break from the grind of the pandemic. She found the meeting so enlivening that she recommended we meet each week. Seeing other faces was refreshing for all of us.

This week I celebrated my first Funeral Liturgy Outside of a Mass in a funeral home wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. I get the fact that we need to follow these measures for public health reasons. Nevertheless, this first-time experience became pastorally challenging.

Anyone who visits a funeral home to comfort a grieving family knows well that death renders us all speechless. Even our best attempt to articulate words of comfort often falls short. In the absence of words, what matters is an intentional presence with empathy written on the face along with a handshake or loving embrace. The face mask and social distancing, however, preclude this from happening. The grieving cannot even see the smile or tears on the faces of their relatives and friends. What typically is a personal moment has now temporarily become cold and impersonal.

I left that experience with sadness and regret that I, as a priest, could not do more for this family. I have officiated at countless funerals in church and out of church, but this was the first time I felt detached from the family. It was so unnatural. What makes the situation even worse is that we could not be in church at a time when it is so important to be in church.

I now am looking forward to the first time when I can celebrate a funeral liturgy without a face mask or social distancing. I also eagerly wait the first time we can all meet again in person for meetings and holy Mass. This current way of living and ministering, while necessary for safety reasons, is not natural. For now, however, it is the only way, and something we all must do.

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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