On the evening of Saturday, March 14, I posted a note on the doors of our church, informing people, “Masses are canceled until further notice; however, the church will remain open for personal prayer.” At that time, I thought that after a couple of weeks things would return to normal. Eventually, even being open for personal prayer was eliminated, and our doors remained locked. As a priest and as a pastor, I was depressed. I wondered how long this problem would last and how we would be able to “do church” without being able to come together as we so often did. I had no idea that this would be our reality for three months (and it remains very strange to this day!).
Time wore on. Kids learned at home; parents teleworked as best as they could; restaurants sold take-out; and you could buy mixed drinks to go. Our world began to adapt to the remote reality that the coronavirus imposed upon us all. In the rectory, Fr. Vin, Fr. Diego, and I welcomed our parish’s seminarian, Ron, to our little community. We began to stream our Masses live onto Facebook via our cell phones, and parishioners were once again able to “see Mass” even if they couldn’t actually be there. We learned what “spiritual Communion” was, and we prayed for it at each Mass. We transformed an unused room in the rectory into a small chapel and streamed daily Mass from there every morning.
We all seemed to adapt to this “new normal,” as we called it. However, there was always an ache in my heart – as I am sure it was in many of the hearts of our faithful. I missed my people. I missed seeing them; I missed praying with them; I missed pretending to hate their hugs! Our brothers and sisters also missed the Eucharist. Seeing Mass on TV or on a computer screen is nice, but it is a sad substitute for being there; and our faith – our Lord – is all about being there!
So, on June 14 – the Feast of Corpus Christi – three months to the day from that evening when I posted the closure notice – we gathered again on our parking lot for our first public Mass together. It was a joyous occasion, and everyone commented not only how good it was to be back, but how “cool” it was to have “drive-in Mass.” That little innovation brought such happiness to over 300 people that day. Now, even as we struggle to adhere to safety guidelines, we are happy to be back in church – even if it is limited – and we continue to pray for an end to the pandemic and a safe reemergence into what we used to know.
It’s easy to see this period of time as a sort of “Babylonian exile” to be endured until we can get back to normal. However, I think that would be a mistake for us. During these months of coronavirus, I have seen many blessings and insights emerge that can help to enhance our mission of bringing an encounter with Jesus to our parishioners and our neighbors. Perhaps it is helpful to name them.
First, we stepped into a world of technology that many of us did not know before. The capability to live-stream Mass and other activities has proven not only to be a stop-gap solution to limited access to church, but it is also a wonderful means of evangelization. People who would be hesitant to step through our doors can view what we do safely from their couch in the pajamas, and they can see that our worship might not be all that different from others. The ability to share our faith experiences on Facebook and other social platforms is a huge blessing to our church.
Second, our parishioners really began to tune themselves to the needs of others. Families were forced to take up their role as the “domestic church,” as mothers and fathers were called upon to make their homes places of prayer and growth in the Holy Spirit. Through resources that we were able to provide, our families were able to participate more deeply in the experience of Holy Week. The pace of life slowed, and we found time for family meals, reading, and prayer. Many of our parishioners took up the responsibility of calling and checking on our older members to help them feel less lonely and to provide for their needs. Different parish groups organized food distributions, and we gave out more than 1,500 packages of groceries to needy neighbors.
Finally, I think we came to a new appreciation of “being there.” Spiritual Communions and Mass online are wonderful things to appreciate and promote, but they are no match for a real encounter with Jesus. The longing, the hunger for the Eucharist grew in us, and people who didn’t even realize it missed holding Jesus in their hands and receiving Him into their hearts. Sure, “church is wherever God’s people are gathered,” and “Jesus is everywhere,” but I think we really understand that in the Sacraments we are given a privileged encounter with the real Lord who makes Himself available to us. I watched humbly as parishioners cried softly as they received Communion for the first time in three months.
All of these things I count as blessings in a time of the pandemic. They are part of our lives now, and they should continue for the rest of our lives. As a parish, we should adapt to ministry in an increasingly digital world. We ought to be attentive to the important role of the family in promoting and teaching our faith. We must be aware of the needs of the vulnerable around us: the poor, the sick, the elderly. And we cannot take for granted the real encounter with Jesus that we are blessed to have in the Sacraments and the liturgical life of the Church.
Being there is what our Church is all about – whether that’s on someone’s Facebook feed, at your dining room table, in your love for an elderly neighbor, or in the reception of Holy Communion. Our faith is about presence – real presence – and there is no substitute for that!
Fr. Austin was born and raised in Baltimore, growing up in Catonsville - the oldest of four children. After high school at Mt. St. Joseph, he attended UMBC, and eventually responded to God's call to the priesthood. He studied philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore before heading to Rome to study theology at the North American College. He was ordained a priest in 2003 and has worked as an associate pastor, college chaplain, vocations director, and pastor. Fr. Austin has been pastor at Christ the King in Glen Burnie since July, 2019