The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns implemented to contain it brought an eerie emptiness to many cities this spring. They also brought another kind of emptiness, leaving Catholics longing for the Eucharist. With churches largely closed and public Masses suspended, priests did what they could to bring the grace of the Blessed Sacrament to their flocks.
In numerous initiatives around the United States and beyond — many of them led or supported by Knights of Columbus — priests took to the skies over their parishes and dioceses to bless their people. It was a much-appreciated sign of hope for people living in isolation, cut off from their parish communities.
“Flying over and blessing the county with our Lord in the holy Eucharist was a powerful way to facilitate God’s intervention,” said Father Brian Gannon, pastor of St. Theresa Parish and a member of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Council 8013 in Trumbull, Conn.
Father Gannon conducted an airborne blessing over the Diocese of Bridgeport on March 24. He was flown by Kevin Bradberry and John DeCastra Jr., brother Knights who had taken inspiration from a viral video of a priest flying over Italy with the Blessed Sacrament and a statue of the Virgin Mary.
“My wife saw it and said, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome if we could do that?’” recalled DeCastra, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot and member of All Saints Council 6277 in Linwood, N.J. “I said, ‘I could try, but I’ll need to find an airplane.’”
DeCastra called his friend Kevin Bradberry, a member of St. Joseph’s Council 10220 in Somers Point, N.J., who belongs to an aviation club in Atlantic City. In mid-March, the two made arrangements to fly eucharistic processions in the club’s Cessna 182 Skylane over the Dioceses of Camden, N.J., and Harrisburg, Pa.
DeCastra’s father-in-law, Tom Monks, a member of Council 8013, then floated the idea of the flyover in the Diocese of Bridgeport — gaining support from Grand Knight Mark A. Smith and funding from the council.
Bradberry and co-pilot DeCastra made a big circle around the diocese. In the back seat were Father Gannon, wearing full vestments and holding a monstrance, and Father Flavian Bejan, the parochial vicar, holding a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
“The holy Eucharist is the most powerful presence of our Lord here on earth,” said Father Gannon. “So in a eucharistic procession, we’re bringing that powerful presence of Christ wherever we go.”
Two days after the flight in Bridgeport, Daniel Schachle, a K of C general agent and past grand knight in Tennessee, piloted a similar eucharistic procession over the Diocese of Nashville.
Schachle and his son were accompanied by Father Gervan Menezes, chaplain of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati Council 15020 in Nashville, who brought the Blessed Sacrament in Schachle’s Piper Archer plane for a two-hour, 20-minute flight. They prayed for those affected by the pandemic, as well as victims of the devastating tornadoes that hit Tennessee in early March.
“We wanted to bring hope to people,” Schachle said. “We believe in the power of the Eucharist.”
Father Richard Pagano, pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., was also prompted to conduct an airborne procession when searching for ideas about how to respond to the pandemic.
“I saw a social media post about a flyover blessing with holy water, and it got my wheels turning,” explained Father Pagano, who is the chaplain of St. John Paul II Council 16492. “I said, ‘Who’s got a plane? Let’s make this happen.’ And the next thing you know, the county commissioner contacted me.”
The commissioner, a member of Father’s Pagano’s parish, put him in touch with someone who coordinated a donation from a helicopter company. Another parishioner, Robert Hardwick, who is the local chief of police and a member of Council 16492, accompanied him on a March 27 flight around the boundaries of St. John’s County. Father Pagano, with monstrance in hand, blessed the households, communities and farmland below.
People were alerted to the blessing ahead of the two-and-ahalf- hour flight, and a number of parishioners decorated their yards with crosses and banners.
“In a partnership between local government and our church, we went out and prayed for the people entrusted to our care,” said Father Pagano. “From the safety of their quarantine, people were able to go outside and look up at the sky in hope and devotion to the Eucharist that they so long to receive.”
Meanwhile, Charles Hahn, a member of Vicksburg (Miss.) Council 898, read about Bradberry and DeCastra’s flights in Knightline, and knew just who to talk to. Dan K. Fordice III, a member of Council 898 and founder of the Southern Heritage Air Foundation, pilots a 1930s-style biplane from the Vicksburg-Tallulah Regional Airport.
Within a few days, Fordice was flying over the area with Father Rusty Vincent, pastor of St. Paul Catholic Church and co-chaplain of Council 898.
“We wanted to do something that would be a blessing for the city and offer a sign of hope,” said Father Vincent, who prayed as he sprinkled holy water over the town from the open cockpit.
“It was incredible how much it meant to so many people,” said Fordice. “Anytime I go flying in that airplane, everyone wants to know if they’re getting a blessing again.”
Many other examples of such blessings could be given. In each case, they have been a source of grace.
Reflecting on his March 24 flight in Bridgeport, Father Gannon said, “Bringing God’s presence to the world is going to help bring consolation, strength and hope to people, and healing — healing of mind and soul, and we pray, healing of body as well.”
JOHN BURGER writes for Aleteia.org and is a member of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Council 16253 in New Haven, Conn.
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