‘Only one thing is necessary’

It’s Time to Return to What Is Most Essential: The Mass.

Jared Staudt

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary” (Lk 10:41-42). It would be easy to imagine Christ saying this to us now, calling us away from our anxieties to sit at his feet, like Martha’s sister Mary. Jesus wants to give us the peace that we need in the midst of our anxiety about “many things.” By calling us into communion with him, Jesus shows us that He is the one thing that is necessary, the most essential thing in our lives. 

Anxiety may be understandable at this moment, but to face it God continues to remind us of what is ultimately most important. Because he didn’t make us for this world, he offers us a happiness that doesn’t depend on earthly peace and stability. Even in suffering, God “makes all things work together for the good for those who love” Him (Rom 8:28). On our own, we fall into anxiety but with Jesus we can face any difficulty: “It is I; do not be afraid” (Jn 6:20). Possessing the one thing necessary, we can say with Paul, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). 

We call the Eucharist the source and summit of our faith because through the supernatural life it bestows, we become truly alive. The early Christians realized this and were willing to risk everything just to go to Mass. This was incomprehensible to the Romans, leading one prosecutor to ask Christians on trial in Abitinae, North Africa why they did it. Sine Domenico, one of the martyrs answered, non possumus, that is, “without the Lord’s [Day], we cannot live.” The editor who wrote the account of their martyrdom commented, “O foolish question, as if someone could be a Christian without the Lord’s Day.” I recently heard someone express a similar notion: “I’d rather die with the sacraments than live without them.”

Cardinal Robert Sarah, writing from the Vatican, has recently called the entire Church, in his letter “Let Us Return to the Eucharist with Joy,” to return to Mass as quickly as possible. Quoting Jesus’ own words, he reminds us, “‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him’ (Jn 6:56). This physical contact with the Lord is vital, indispensable, irreplaceable. Once the concrete measures that can be taken to reduce the spread of the virus to a minimum have been identified and adopted, it is necessary that all resume their place in the assembly of brothers and sisters, rediscover the irreplaceable preciousness and beauty of the celebration of the liturgy, and invite and encourage again those brothers and sisters have been discouraged, frightened, absent or uninvolved for too long.” Living without the source of our supernatural life truly threatens the health of our souls and leaves a hole where God should reside in the center of our lives. 

Going to Mass has never been a matter of mere obligation. God gave us the commandments to guide us along the path of life. To be truly happy, we must recognize Him as God (the first commandment), truly honor and respect Him (the second commandment), and show our commitment to Him by setting aside time faithfully for worship (the third commandment). We do not simply go to Mass for ourselves. If this were true, we could easily fall into a consumerist mentality of seeking out only what pleases and serves us individually. We go to Mass out of justice and love: to thank God for all that He has given us; to honor Him for His greatness and goodness; and to place ourselves under His mercy and love. In celebrating the Lord’s Day, giving one day a week back to God, we find the rest that we need to live in true freedom by breaking out of slavery to work, distraction, and dependence upon material things. 

We can no longer take the Mass for granted; our old habits are no longer sufficient. We need to make a choice about what we find most essential. On February 12, 304, 49 men, women, and children gave their life for the Mass, which the Roman Empire had deemed illegal, in the town of Abitinae, North Africa. This is no mere historical event, as it provides an enduring witness to priority of God above all else. More recently, just a little down the Mediterranean coast in Libya, on February 15, 2015, 21 men (20 of them from Egypt and one from Ghana) also gave their life for Christ. Speaking of the death of the 20 men from his diocese, Metropolitan Pavnotios of Samalut related that “far from being intimidating, it gives us courage. It shous us the martyr’s heroic bravery, and the fact that they spent their last moments alive in prayer proves the strength of their faith” (Martin Mosebach, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, Plough, 2020). 

We may not be called to give our life for the Mass or for our faith, but we have found that the Mass requires more effort than in the past. It calls us not only to sacrifice in small ways, but to give our life to Christ and to accept him as most essential in our lives. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, facing “willful discrimination” in San Francisco, has led the charge in showing us how free exercise of religion has been eroded in our country. Under the banner of “We are essential: Free the Mass!” he explained:  “The highest law is love of God and love of neighbor, and that law has to take precedence over the human-made law of the state when government would ask us to turn our backs on God or our neighbor in need.” The witness of the martyrs remains pertinent, indeed. 

What is most essential in your life? What are you willing to do to preserve your right to worship God? We are now all faced with these questions. Jesus continues to invite us to sit at His feet and to remind us, “only one thing is necessary.” 

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.