One of the things that I find the most difficult about the COVID-19 pandemic is it is keeping people apart precisely at a time when we need to be together the most. Of course, I know this is for our own good. The infectious nature of the coronavirus requires such things as social distancing and stay-at-home executive orders in order to limit the breadth of the outbreak. And, yet, the natural instinct of a pastor is to be among his people, especially when they are hurting. Pope Francis often speaks passionately about the longing of the priestly shepherd to be in the midst of his flock.

I was especially feeling the ache of this pastoral disconnection the other day when news came about the postponement of First Communions, Confirmations and Weddings. Such Liturgical events are the touchstone of my priesthood, and I long for the opportunity to celebrate these sacred sacramental moments. I was feeling very distant from my family of faith.

And, yet, God always has a way of raising you up just when you seem to be the lowest. God’s grace came my way through the mediation of Andy Gaertner, the director of development of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He brought with him a very large stack of papers, one for me and one for Bishop Jim Schuerman, and he said, “These sheets of paper come from the mailing of the Catholic Stewardship Appeal. In addition to receiving an invitation to participate in the annual appeal to support the ministries, programs and services of the archdiocese, there also was the possibility for people to list personal intentions for which the Archbishop would pray. And, since, as auxiliary bishops, you and Bishop Schuerman share in the ministry of the archbishop, he was wondering whether you both could help him respond to these prayer requests.”

Knowing the immensity of the challenges the archbishop is facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bishop Schuerman and I were more than happy to offer our assistance. After all, in difficult times, it is not wise to turn down a request for prayers. Moreover, we both agreed the extra prayer would do us some good, too. So, Jim and I both decided that we would pray a rosary each night and dedicate a Hail Mary for each of the intentions we would lift up from the requests listed by the respondents of the Stewardship Appeal.

To make my prayers even more effective, I decided that I would offer my prayers from the rosaries of my parents, Maureen (Mo) and Jim (Chico) Haines, which I was blessed to inherit after their passing. My mom always had her rosary in a special, secure place in the purse she carried, and my dad’s rosary was ever a companion in his pocket. They were very powerful prayer partners. Every night, they recited a litany of intentions of family, relatives, friends, parishioners and just about anyone who ever asked them. And, since, out of loyalty, my parents never wanted to remove anyone from their list, it became rather lengthy over the years. So, now, I call upon the intercessory assistance of my mom and dad by switching the use of their rosaries every other night.

Although it is still rather early in the adoption of this prayer ritual, I find it hard to express just how amazing is the grace that I am receiving. When I sit down each night with rosary and lists of prayer requests, the ache which I felt from the disconnection from my family of the faithful has dissipated. It now feels almost like Catholics from Ripon to Pleasant Prairie and Port Washington to Beaver Dam are sitting with me in my room in the Cathedral rectory and praying with me. It is remarkable what the Holy Spirit can do in uniting the Body of Christ.

Nor is it simply the communal connection that I feel in this prayer that rejuvenates my pastor’s heart. Now, the intimacy of the nature of the prayer requests that I receive gives me a special awareness of their personal lives. While the variety of the intentions expressed is great, there are some themes which are common. The majority of the requests are for the well-being of the family, with grandparents and parents praying for grandchildren and sons and daughters. Many ask for good health or improved medical conditions, with petitions for healing from physical ailments like cancer and heart failure and psychological challenges like depression and addictions. Pressing concerns often are mentioned like the loss of jobs, the deployment of members of the military and the reconciliation of relationships. The Church regularly is a topic with intercessions for Church leaders, more vocations to the priesthood/religious life and the return of family members to the practice of the Catholic faith. What is very honorable is the fact that a significant number of the requests are not for themselves but others – with prayers offered for immigrants, the poor, the central city, the elderly, the homeless, respect for life and the return of civility in public life. I cherish the entrée into the sacred confines of the daily lives and concerns of these dear people, and walking with them in a spiritual manner is truly a gift.

So, while on the surface it appeared the initial request for prayers was something I was being asked to do for others. The request has become something that others are doing for me. The intentions of the faithful members of the flock have become the means by which our Lord, the Divine Shepherd, has united me in service to his sheepfold. I believe the amazing grace that has made this happen will be the same grace that will fulfill the prayers of the Psalmist (23:4) as we travel together through this time of the coronavirus pandemic: “He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and staff that give me courage.”