As I write this on May 9, it has been 54 days since the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, New York suspended all liturgies, devotions, meetings, and non-essential activities in parishes. This was the second major announcement for our parish family in East Patchogue in a 3-week period. At the beginning of March, our Capuchin Province of St Mary announced that we will be withdrawing our friars from the parish this summer. So, not only would we be without public Masses, we wouldn’t even have a chance to grieve our departure with the community. And if that wasn’t enough, only four days after beginning to stream Masses on Facebook Live, our pastor tested positive for COVID-19. This development put a halt on our community’s ability to be in common spaces and thus ending the live communication with our parish family. Although I tested negative, the four of us friars isolated ourselves in our rooms, staggered our meals for 45-minute periods three times a day, and wore masks and gloves any time we shadowed the friary halls. Many parishioners were asked to self-quarantine as well since they had come in contact with our pastor at Masses the previous weekend. During this time, several faithful parishioners passed away, both COVID and non-COVID related deaths. We couldn’t assist at their burials. We couldn’t anoint or reconcile those who requested the sacraments. In a word, we felt helpless.
Unfortunately, one of our senior friars living here began experiencing symptoms. I needed to drive him to be tested for the virus, exposing myself again. He tested positive and a few days later was admitted to the hospital. With two days remaining in my 14-day isolation period, the count turned back to zero. As a community, for 34 days we never gathered, prayed, shared a meal, or even saw each other for more than a moment.
I don’t share this with you so that you may feel bad for us or think how strong we are, because we all have our stories of how life is different now. For our parish community, the time in isolation in the midst of an impending transition and a world-wide pandemic offered us priests an opportunity to do what we could do rather than what we would do. The Code of Canon Law states, “in order to fulfill his office diligently, a pastor [& his vicar] is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care” (Can. 529 §1). The Code offers specific tasks of a pastor so that he can know his “flock,” almost all of which no one on Long Island is permitted to do at this time. Because of this, many suffer. They endure loneliness in the midst of death without a proper funeral Mass for a loved one. They crave the Eucharist and long to be in His presence in Adoration. They yearn for the words of absolution of their sins. Parents of children making First Communion and Confirmation wonder uneasily when their child will receive the sacraments and how that will be done. The fact is, we share in their suffering. We share in their suffering using the communication tools at our disposal in two ways:
The first is the use of the telephone and visual communication. We listen to our parishioners’ emotions, encourage them to pray, and offer a joke now and then. For us, this has been our most effective ministry to personally “know” our parish family during this time. I also have a weekly Sunday Mass for friends and family from literally the four corners of the country (Maine, Alaska, San Diego, and Tampa). A simple call brings tremendous light into the darkness many experience in these times.
Secondly, our lives as Christians, particularly in ministry, can often be characterized using Martha and Mary’s example (Luke 10). In a parish setting, Martha’s example of service tends to be the model. We as ministers have had a unique opportunity to partake in Mary’s ministry of contemplation. With time not often available, God has provided this opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet to listen, pray, ponder, reflect, petition, grieve, laugh, cry, and wonder. In a time of uncertainty and pain for our little parish, it’s the best thing we can offer them.
As Christians, we know that suffering is inevitable. It’s the cross. But, if the story ends there, we aren’t Christians. Because from death came life. From the brokenness, the sadness, even despair, life abounded in the Risen Lord. We, as Christians, MUST witness to this. We, as parish families, do not suffer alone. We suffer together. We suffer with Christ. We may at times feel helpless, but never hopeless.
*a final note to say that everyone in our local friary is now healthy.