CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
The celebration of the Eucharist, wrote St. John Paul II, “Stands at the centre of the Church’s life.”
So it is understandable that, with the suspension of public Masses in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, necessitated by the coronavirus outbreak, the faithful are feeling a bit off-balance.
They’re not alone — the priests are feeling the same way.
“While we will be able to celebrate the Eucharist and support our own spiritual need and hunger, we all became priests because we wanted to not just receive or participate in the graces, but we are called to bring them to others,” said Fr. Paul Hartmann, pastor of St. Eugene and St. Monica Parishes in Fox Point and Whitefish Bay.
Fr. Jonathon Schmeckel, associate pastor at St. Peter Parish in Slinger, Resurrection Parish in Allenton and St. Lawrence Parish in Hartford, is not even one year into his life of priesthood yet, and he has already experienced a profound sadness — having to break the news to a grieving family that their mother’s funeral must be limited to 10 mourners, per CDC guidelines.
“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “It was the hardest day of my priesthood, and yet the Lord provides and I’m going to keep going.”
Keep going how? It’s the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind. For Fr. Schmeckel, there is only one answer.
“I couldn’t do it if I didn’t have a life of prayer,” he said. “And I think that’s going to be true for all of us in the coming weeks.”
Many priests and parishes are making the liturgy and other devotions available to the faithful via technology. Fr. Hartmann has been livestreaming daily Mass on YouTube and posting the link to both Facebook and Twitter; viewership exceeded 130 people on March 19, the Feast of St. Joseph.
“The worst thing that we can do in times like this is turn physical distancing into isolation — whether personal or spiritual,” he said. “Continuing to participate in intentional, communal prayer experiences is essential not only for being Church, it is what the Lord intends for us, and it continues to expand our reflections on the gifts given by Christ and His Father.”
Fr. Peter Berger, pastor of St. Mary’s Visitation in Elm Grove, has also been posting Sunday Mass online for his parishioners.
“We’re really relying on technology now,” he said. He and St. Mary’s Visitation staff had anticipated the widespread closures of schools and the need for social distancing, but while they were prepared for the transition, the situation developed more quickly than anyone could imagine. “Every day brings something new, so you’re planning and then you’re re-planning.”
Fr. Berger said he does not feel it is a coincidence that this health crisis has so intensified during the Lenten season.
“This is not the first health emergency the Church has faced,” said Fr. Berger. “And again and again, it has come back with two responses: repentance and prayer. When this stuff happens, we are really confronted by the choices we’ve been making and where we have been spending our time and energy. Have we lived the life Christ has asked us to live? Something like this happens and it makes us step back and reflect and return to God — which is really the heart of Lent. The same disciplines that we go through during Lent are the same things God is asking of us now.”
Fr. Dennis Saran has found himself having to “think outside the box,” he said, for ways to keep connected with his parish community of St. Dominic in Brookfield during this time of tumult. He is communicating daily with parishioners by email, videotaping Mass and asking people to send him their prayer intentions. The parish has also taped the Angelus prayer and is encouraging parishioners to pray it together — virtually, of course — at noon and 6 p.m.
“One of the more novel things we are doing is we are teaming up parishioners who call us and want to help with a senior who may have needs for food or services,” he said. “We are asking a one-on-one pairing, to both limit exposure but help those for whom going to the store would be a greater risk. We want to have them contacted almost daily if for nothing other than just to talk.”
Fr. Schmeckel urged people not to be shy about reaching out to priests with prayer intentions. “If my phone were ringing off the hook with people telling me to pray for this or asking for help to pray from home, that would be great,” he said. “We’re still praying for people.”
How should the faithful assist at Mass from home?
Though Mass has now become something the faithful watch on television or a digital device in the same way they consume other media, it’s important to not treat it like “just another show to watch,” said Fr. Berger.
“You have to prepare for it, just as we should on Sunday when we can go to Mass,” he said. “I would suggest that if Mass is on at 9 a.m., at 8:45 a.m. the whole house goes quiet. You pray, you ask the Lord to open your hearts, and you try to maintain whatever spirit of prayer and reverence you would at Mass.”
Fr. Saran’s parish has made available an electronic worship aid on their website; he also emphasized the importance of having the Act of Spiritual Communion, which can be easily found through a Google search, ready to pray during the televised liturgy in place of physically receiving the Eucharist.
After all, said Fr. Schmeckel, while public Masses are not being held right now, the Mass itself is far from cancelled.
“We’re all celebrating Mass,” he said. “Priests are, more than ever before, praying for their people in the Mass — maybe even in a way we haven’t done in a while.”