Heartbroken by the suspension of public Masses in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it was a melancholy holy hour that Fr. John Burns made on the morning of Tuesday, March 17.

Though he understood the necessity of the suspension in an effort to preserve lives, it was nevertheless a crushing blow. He was well aware that many here in Milwaukee and across the country felt abandoned — of “a sense of almost crippling panic as everything, both civil and ecclesial, seemed like it was canceling.”

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki gives a blessing at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist on Wednesday, March 18.

“I shed a lot of tears,” he said.

But under the gaze of the Blessed Sacrament that morning, it occurred to Fr. Burns that, just as healthcare professionals and medical researchers are fighting against the threat of COVID-19, he, as a priest, has his own arsenal of spiritual weapons with which to combat the spread of this virus — and the epidemics of fear and isolation that trail in its wake.

He resolved to take the Blessed Sacrament on the morning of March 18, and to drive around the perimeter of the 10 counties of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, performing Eucharistic Benediction. He enlisted the help of Fr. Cliff Ermatinger, spiritual consultant for the archdiocese, and alerted Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of his plans.

He said he was surprised and humbled when the archbishop responded by clearing his schedule and offering to come along.

“There could be nothing more powerful and no stronger statement than if the local shepherd himself would be interested in coming with us … if people could see their archbishop on the same day that it felt like everybody in the Church was being isolated, and it felt like the archdiocese was pulling back — they could see that isn’t the case at all,” said Fr. Burns.

For Archbishop Listecki, there was no question that the Eucharistic procession was imperative, not just to send a message to the faithful but to “place ourselves before God’s Real Presence and ask for his love and mercy.”

“Just because we’ve eliminated the ability to gather together, that doesn’t stop us from praying and invoking our confidence in God,” said Archbishop Listecki.

The archbishop suggested they begin at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, the mother church of the archdiocese, and proceed with the Blessed Sacrament to 11 churches, each representative of a deanery within the archdiocese.

Though the trio’s pilgrimage around the archdiocese made a bold visual statement of strength, faith and perseverance, the day was far more than a mere photo op to boost morale. It was a spiritual mission — “reclaiming the diocese for good over and against any way that evil had taken hold here,” said Fr. Burns.

“The visible reality speaks to the more profound and deeper reality of God’s abiding presence and the power that he exercises through his church, and the authority that he’s given to the bishop,” he said.

“This was important because we need to give a sense that God has not abandoned us, that we do have certain spiritual powers (in the face of this pandemic),” said the archbishop. The Eucharistic Procession was a testament to “our belief in the Real Presence of Christ, and (the fact that) that Real Presence is there for us.”

On the group’s first stop at the Cathedral in downtown Milwaukee, the archbishop consecrated the archdiocese to St. Joseph, spouse of the Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus Christ.

“That’s a huge deal, actually,” said Fr. Burns. “Joseph is the terror of demons. He’s the protector of the Church. Literally, that marks a change in the archdiocese’s relationship with St. Joseph, the head of the Holy Family. That ushers in a new season of relying upon the intercession of St. Joseph.”

“Efficacy of prayer is important for us to understand, especially at this time,” said Archbishop Listecki. “We’ll say offhandedly to people ‘Oh, I’ll pray for you.’ But we need to understand those prayers are important and mean something.”

The intentionality of our prayer is crucial, added Fr. Ermatinger. “To say, ‘Well, our Lord knows what we need’ — yeah, but he wants us to know it, and he wants us to articulate it,” he said.

At each church site, the group held a prayer service that included Benediction, traditional rite of protection to arrest evil influences and consecrations to St. Joseph of those individual deaneries. They did not stop for food the entire day, and took turns driving, navigating and assuming responsibility of the monstrance containing the Host.

Fr. Burns and Fr. Ermatinger both said that they hoped other bishops will follow Archbishop Listecki’s example.

“The devil often rides on the coattails of natural ills to achieve his goals,” Fr. Ermatinger said. “That’s what we’re fighting against.”

Just as the medical experts have a role in curbing the impact of this virus, they said, so does the Church.

“There are exorcism prayers against pestilence and against epidemics, and I just think the more we can help priests and bishops be aware of their abilities and duties to pray those prayers, the better we will curb this, in cooperating with all the work of medical professionals to curb its spread,” said Fr. Burns. “This is a horrible and agonizing suffering that we’re undergoing. But we have to believe that everything fits into God’s will. This is evil, but the Lord has allowed it to happen, which means he knows how this is supposed to be a part of something more beautiful.”

This public health emergency and the disarray into which it has thrown all of modern society is a bold reminder that human beings are not the ones in control, said Archbishop Listecki — even though we often convince ourselves otherwise.

“We get into our routines; we rely solely on ourselves and our own human devices, and all of a sudden we’re shaken to our core because we can’t control everything,” he said. This crisis is an opportunity for us to orient ourselves once again to the Lord — “the source of all our being.”

“We have to lift our gaze and look to the Lord and believe and know that he is who he says he is,” said Fr. Burns. “He has this, and he has us, and he’s good, and he knows how this is going to bring us to something better.”