The strength of our faith can reassure us in moments of fear
These last six months have been life-changing. During this pandemic, we watched normalcy as we knew it just slip by. Who would have ever imagined a time in which our churches would be closed, parking lots would be empty on Sundays, and we, as priests, would be unable, or at the very least, restricted from doing what we are ordained to do. And who could even fathom that the main staple of our faith — the holy Eucharist — would be unavailable to our faithful for such an extended time?
For so many of us priests the “new normal,” especially in the first few months of this time, has involved celebrating private Masses. During a two-week quarantine necessitated by my parochial vicar’s exposure to the virus, I celebrated a private Mass every day in my room. What initially seemed so different became for me a source of strength and grace. At that time, I really came to see the holy Mass with new eyes. While I am overjoyed to have that isolating experience behind me, I will always cherish those private Masses.
Many priests, thanks to the wonders of technology, have been able to livestream the holy Mass daily to the faithful. Although this outreach is a great innovation, it lacks the personal and communal sense. In many ways, it is a ministry of presence from a distance. This distance, of course, does not allow for the faithful to receive the Eucharist. The act of a spiritual communion has had to suffice in these cases.
Now that most of our churches have reopened, we can take heart in being with the faithful again and experiencing that powerful sense of community. Nevertheless, this experience is very different as there are masks, social distancing and fewer people, empty holy water fonts, no hymnals or choir, no offertory procession or baskets being passed for the collection, and no sense of touch with the sign of peace. On a personal note, the one thing that I really miss is standing at the entrance of church greeting the faithful before and after Sunday Mass.
It is quite clear that the pandemic has not only been life-changing, but also prayer-changing. I have never had the blessing of visiting the Holy Land. Anyone who has visited this sacred place has always commented on how they never pray the same again. Having visited the sacred sites somehow enlivens their prayer making it richer.
In the face of the changes engendered by this unprecedented time, I believe that we stand on holy ground. Throughout the world and in our own respective backyards, we have witnessed much suffering, death and resurrection. We are watching the Paschal Mystery unfold again and again before our eyes. And in this time of great uncertainty, we have all, no doubt, had our moments of fear only to be reassured by the strength of our faith. Has there ever been any other time in our lives when we collectively have had to walk by faith and not by sight? How could we not pray differently?
I don’t know about you, but I have found two real changes in my prayer life. First, I have come to see, like never before, that I am not in control in any way. I always knew this, but the pandemic has made it all the more real. As a consequence, my prayer consistently in these months has been one of deep surrender. I find myself saying what we say every night at prayer, “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” I also find myself echoing the prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola asking God to receive my “memory, understanding and will” and bestow upon me his “love and grace,” for that is all I need.
Second, my prayer in these painstaking months has become all the more about gratitude. As we watch how this virus has claimed so many lives worldwide, it is all the more clear to me that every moment, every day, is a gift, and that one of the takeaways in all of this is that we simply and humbly need to behold the now and gratefully live in the present moment — as inconvenient and unsettling as it may be — for that is all we really have.
FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 16 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.