We never had a course in the seminary about how to minister during a pandemic — and I would never have imagined a time when one of my primary opportunities to serve God’s people was through the screen of a drive-thru confessional. Yet it has become my new routine: listening to the sound of vehicles idling as penitents wait patiently for their turn to pull up to my window. Some have come from hours away. From young children making their first, tentative steps at repentance to older Catholics who know each prayer by heart, they all come for the same reason — to be made right with God. In these times of social and economic upheaval, the unconditional love of Christ remains a constant. Penitents leave with a liberating and consoling certainty: Nothing can separate them from the love of Christ.
The pandemic has unleashed so much uncertainty — locally, nationally and globally. The most basic assumptions and routines of daily life can no longer be taken for granted. Even something so unchanging as the Mass is happening behind closed doors, temporarily unavailable to most Catholics.
To be deprived of receiving the Eucharist is perhaps the greatest trial Catholics have faced during this time. For us, social distancing has also meant sacramental distancing. Not only are we unable to draw close to those we love in this world, we are unable to draw close and receive the Bread that came down from heaven. Priests look into cameras, and the faithful into screens — trying to connect, yet left hungry and frustrated.
Yet, in the midst of this trial, the readings and prayers of the Easter season reminded us that suffering is not the last word for those who are united with Christ. Offered to him, our sufferings can become the occasion of new life.
St. Charles Borromeo’s life provides a particularly encouraging example. As archbishop of Milan during the Counter- Reformation, he met resistance and difficulty in his efforts to purify and strengthen the Church. When a devastating plague struck northern Italy in 1576, St. Charles understood the seriousness of the epidemic — and also its potential to bring people back to God. He did not waste the opportunity.
GOD’S GRACE IS OFTEN AT WORK MOST POWERFULLY IN THE DARKEST HOURS.
After making the difficult decision to close churches in order to slow the rate of infection, St. Charles found new ways to care for his people. He erected altars outdoors so that the faithful could see from their windows the celebration of Mass. He organized processions through the streets as well as the Forty Hours devotion, in which the Blessed Sacrament was brought to the entrance of churches for the people to adore. In addition, St. Charles donated his possessions to the needy and visited the sick. By the time the plague departed the following year, the city of Milan had been transformed into a vibrant Catholic community.
The grace of Christ finds a way. This becomes powerfully evident to a priest behind the screen of a confessional. Years of guilt and shame, fear and regret cannot obstruct the heart’s desire to be united with God. The disruption of these months has allowed new openings in the lives of many people. They are reflecting more deeply on their priorities, and they are deciding they want to make the faith a more central part of their lives.
So, as much as this pandemic is a trial, it is also an opportunity for our society to draw closer to God and to place our trust in him. Christians around the world are pulling their Bibles off of the bookshelves and reading them. They are creating prayer corners and shrines in their homes and praying with loved ones. Religious are finding new ways to serve people who are poor, sick or suffering. Priests are donning masks to anoint the sick, creating every sort of confessional you could imagine, and livestreaming Masses and classes on the Scriptures and Church teaching.
St. John Paul II never tired of repeating Christ’s words, “Do not be afraid.” Having lived through so many trials, he knew God’s grace is often at work most powerfully in the darkest hours. No matter how grave the sin, how serious the suffering or how profound the darkness, we know that the saving power of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is victorious. We need not be afraid. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His mercy endures forever” (Ps 118:1).
FATHER SEAMUS GRIESBACH is vocation director for the Diocese of Portland and a member of Rev. William J. Kelly Council 9782 in Wells, Maine.
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