We can open the church now that the Mass is over.” Those words this past Sunday filled me with not only a deep sadness but also just seemed so antithetical to everything that the Mass, the priesthood and the sacraments are about. We, as priests, exist to offer the sacraments with and for the people. Sadly, the coronavirus has forced us to make very difficult decisions since we need to do everything possible to stop the spread of this illness. It is a bizarre experience celebrating Mass in front of an empty church and having to distance ourselves from the people we have been called to serve.
The season of Lent, as we know, is about sacrifice, self denial and uniting our sufferings to that of the crucified Lord. Yet this challenge we are undergoing is so very different from anything we have experienced before. Despite all of this, the people of God have remained committed and devoted to their faith life as best as they can. Every day, hundreds of people watch the Masses that we have live-streamed from our parish and I know that many parishes are doing the same thing. Although not the same as actually being in the church and receiving Communion, I am sure it is comfort for people to be able to see Mass offered in their parish churches. In addition to this, because as of this writing parishes are allowed to remain open throughout the day, many people come to visit at different times to light a candle or just pray quietly knowing that the Lord is present in the tabernacle and is there to console them in the midst of the storm.
There are some who may be wondering what God is trying to teach us during this time. I do not pretend to know the plans of the Lord, but perhaps this is a way that we can grow in our love for the Eucharist and the Mass. Sometimes it is easy for us to take things for granted, even the sacred, when it is so readily accessible to us. More than one person I have spoken with has been reduced to tears when speaking about how much they miss the Mass. I have no doubt that those who attend Mass every week will be back in church even more fervent when this pandemic is over. My hope is that those who were nominal Mass attendees or were less devoted than others may have their faith deepened and their attendance at Mass become regular. I firmly believe the Lord is with us and present to us during this time. God has an incredible capacity for bringing good out of evil. That is what we are celebrating these last days of Lent. The terrible suffering and death endured by the Lord is what saved the world. The most terrible evil brought about the greatest possible good. No one at the cross on Good Friday thought that they were witnessing a salvific sacrifice. They left the sealed tomb that afternoon convinced that it was all over. They could not have seen how God was going to transform this through the resurrection.
This crisis also has an interesting connection to the issue of vocations. As terrible as this time is, it will pass and we will have Mass again. It is troubling that if the current number of vocations do not improve we may face in a few years the real prospect of not having Mass every day or week in our parishes because there are not enough priests to carry out the work of the Church. Perhaps in the midst of this crisis we are being reminded to increase our prayers for vocations, to support those who believe they are called and encourage young men to lay down their life for Christ and the Church.