In this global pandemic, be charitable and stay home

There can no longer be any doubt about it — with COVID-19, we are living through a historic pandemic, one that requires swift action and societal cooperation. To think otherwise would be foolish.

Here in Colorado, our normal daily routines and facets of everyday life have altered drastically over the past two weeks. Store shelves usually fully-stocked have been bare. Movie theaters are closed. Schools are closed. Restaurants are closed or offering take-out or delivery only (for now). Many people have lost their jobs. Virtually every single large public gathering and event has been cancelled or suspended. And as Catholics have painfully had to accept, that includes the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

The response to this decision by the bishops of Colorado has been mixed. Some have taken to email and social media comments to express their frustration with the decision, arguing that it is a cowardly thing to do and accusing the Church of bending to secular whims. Others have expressed support and solidarity with the decision, painful as it may be, because the seriousness of this pandemic underscores the need to be adaptable and flexible.

It’s easy to turn to anger and frustration in these uncertain times. Sunday Mass serves as a constant for many of us each week, and a reassurance that no matter what kind of week we’ve had, the Lord is always waiting for us in the liturgy. When that solace is stripped from us, the natural response is sorrow masked with anger.

And while it seems easy enough to offer alternatives, such as allowing those more at risk to skip Mass and allowing those who are healthy to still attend, such suggestions are not adequate in these times. If we are to heed the directives outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the various other medical experts who have weighed in, then we must accept that daily life in society, and subsequently the Church, is going to look a lot different for the foreseeable future.

The facts

As prominent health and government officials have reiterated over the past couple of weeks and and continue to reiterate, this outbreak is something that needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Here are the facts: As of this writing on March 24, there are over 400,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, and over 18,000 deaths. In the U.S., there are nearly 53,000 confirmed cases with 684 deaths. And in our own backyard here in Colorado, we have 720 confirmed cases with 11 deaths.

Now, these numbers may not seem drastic when compared to the grand scheme of things, but being a people of reason, we can surmise the potential for disaster by looking at other examples of countries who did not act quickly enough. Sadly, Italy is completely overwhelmed with the rampant spread of the virus. News reports from the country paint a dire picture of desperation.

Because Italy didn’t act quickly enough and enact social distancing measures, their healthcare system is being stretched to its limits and on the verge of collapse. Doctors are having to make impossible decisions of which patients can still be helped, and which ones are beyond saving. Nurses on the frontline are calling the situation akin to a war.

The reality is that if people don’t start taking this outbreak seriously, the U.S. could very rapidly be in a similar situation. Consider that on Feb. 21, Italy had zero confirmed cases of COVID-19. In the course of one month, over 53,000 confirmed cases were reported with nearly 5,000 deaths. This is why the entire states of California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and over 10 others have enacted shelter-in-place measures (Editor’s Note: And now Colorado, too). This means one in four Americans are being ordered to stay indoors.

This all sounds very alarmist, but again, being a people of reason, we must look at the facts. This is a virus that doesn’t discriminate. Young and old alike are being infected and brought close to the edge of death or past it. While preliminary data shows that elderly and those with underlying conditions are at higher risk, the CDC recently contended that 40% of patients sick enough to require hospitalization were aged 20 to 54.

Now is not the time for people to be cavalier about this. This is compounded by the fact that some people are asymptomatic, meaning they could be carrying it and not even know it.

In a recent interview with Wired, Larry Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped defeat smallpox, summed it up rather succinctly: “It’s the most dangerous pandemic in our lifetime.”

Canceling Mass: An act of charity

When presented with these facts about COVID-19 and more, the bishops of Colorado have done what any good shepherd would do: they did what was necessary for the common good to protect the most vulnerable members of their flock.

In light of all of this, the suspension of public Masses should be seen as an act of charity more than anything else. As Catholics, we champion the dignity of life from conception until natural death. And the fact of the matter is that if we were to unknowingly infect one of our fellow parishioners with COVID-19 and they died from it, that would not be a natural death.

This is an unprecedented time in human history. And it’s in times like these that the Church has a profound opportunity to do what Christ commissioned her to do: serve those most in need and love our neighbors. To do so requires sacrifice, and at this moment in history, we as Catholics are being called to something greater than ourselves.

It is a strange irony that this “greater calling” is participating in the Mass from our own homes rather than at our parishes. But if the Church truly is the mystical body of Christ, then the communion that exists while kneeling next to each other in the pews still exists within the walls of our homes.

In the coming weeks and months, you can expect to see stories of how the Church is being impacted through all of this. You can also expect to see stories of the many ways in which Denver Catholics will live out this calling and step up to love our neighbors most in need through this challenging time.

Until the government mandates it, some will continue to disregard the seriousness of this situation and the urgent need to practice social distancing, starting right now. We at the Denver Catholic are urging you: please stay home and resist the temptation to act as though we are not living through a global pandemic. It is for your own good and the good of our local, national and global neighbors.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”