Priests Without People

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Fr. Paul D. Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy.

The priest came in…and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.

Last Tuesday — the first day of no public Masses in our diocese — I was reminded of this scene from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, when the priest came to close up the Marchmain family’s chapel.  That last line in particular rang in my mind: as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday.

Granted, the analogy is not perfect. Our situation is not exactly like Good Friday. The Mass is still being offered (albeit privately), our Eucharistic Lord is still present, and our churches are still open for people to come and pray. Still, although necessary, the suspension of public Mass does create a sorrow not unlike Good Friday’s. It is like being exiled from a loved one: you know where He is, but you cannot be with Him.

Here is another painful exile: that of the priest from his people. The faithful throughout the world suffer the pain of life without the Mass. Priests suffer the pain of life without their people. Those men have given their lives for Christ’s flock. Now they struggle to understand their lives apart from that flock. Tend the flock of God in your midst, Saint Peter exhorts the Church’s pastors. (1 Pt 5:2) But what to do when the flock is no longer in your midst…and not allowed to be?

The whole situation sets in stark relief this truth about us parish priests: we are ordained propter homines — to serve the people of God. Our lives don’t make sense without a people to serve or a flock to tend. When asked what he thought about the laity, Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman famously observed that “the Church would look foolish without them.” As it turns out, it is we priests who look most foolish in that scenario.

We are painfully aware of what happens when a priest loses the supernatural outlook and sense of the sacred. He becomes not just useless but dangerous. A priest must be oriented toward and attentive to the divine first of all. But now we see the other part of the equation more clearly. The priest maintains an orientation toward and focus on the divine not for himself but for others. For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb 5:1) Without the presence of those for whom he acts, a priest can lose sight of his purpose.

The suspension of public Mass, like any cross we endure, can and should become an occasion for spiritual growth. We need to draw what good we can from this suffering. What might this mean for a priest?

Well, for starters, the absence of a congregation can remind priests that at Mass we stand before the Lord on behalf of our people. Of course, they are not there. But we are there in their place and on their behalf. This highlights the difference between a prayer-leader and a priest. The former simply coordinates and guides a communal action. All he needs is delegation, not divine sanction.

But a priest is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God. He stands before the Almighty as the embodiment of the prayers and sacrifices of his people — whether they are there or not. Their absence should increase our appreciation of this truth.

Another bright light is the evangelical generosity and ingenuity of so many flockless priests. During the bombing of England in World War II, Monsignor Ronald Knox retired to Mells to work on scripture translations. He suddenly found himself chaplain to a girls’ school that had been evacuated from London to that sleepy town. Not the best scenario for the bookish Knox. Not what he would have looked for. But his response was generous, innovative, and lasting. From that ad hoc chaplaincy come two of his best works: The Creed in Slow Motion and The Mass in Slow Motion.

So also, many priests apart from their congregations are making the most of things. The situation is sad, and not what they would have chosen. But they are not giving up. They are finding how to evangelize in other, unexpected ways. The Internet makes possible creative solutions, and many have found opportunities there to reach the flock no longer in their midst.

Further, this whole situation reveals the true nature of priestly ministry — that it is really a matter of spiritual fatherhood, of a father being present to his people. The inability to be present in that way painfully highlights the need to be.

This also reveals that all our technology, which we tend to see as the evangelical solution, is insufficient, just a stopgap. It is a fascinating paradox that in this situation we both depend more on our technology and more deeply know its limits. As useful as it is (email, live-streaming, posted videos, etc.), it cannot actually put us in touch with one another. It only tides us over until authentic human communication — unmediated, face-to-face, person-to-person — can be recovered.

There is no substitute for the shepherd’s presence among his people. And a priest’s heart cannot be content with a virtual connection. It longs for the real.

One last rose drawn from these thorns: an increased appreciation for our people’s devotion. The lack of a public Mass on Sunday will greatly impact the lives of all Catholics, whether they realize it or not. But many do realize it. They long for the Mass, they still come to the church to pray, and they desire to receive all that a priest desires to give. To see their pain and longing should encourage us to be worthy of them.

Ours is an unexpected advent in the midst of Lent. We are waiting — and thus preparing — for when the priest of Christ can again be with his people.

Featured image by PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images

This column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing (thecatholicthing.org) on March 22. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

COMING UP: Archbishop: In this time of need, join me for a Rosary Crusade

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When God chose to enter the world to save us, he chose Mary, whose deep faith provided the way for Jesus to come among us. She believed in the words of the angel, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk 1: 37). As she expressed her deep confidence in the promises of God, the Word became flesh. In our current time of crisis, our Church, world and our country need faith in God and the protection and intercession of Mary. And so, beginning on August 15, I am launching a Rosary Crusade to ask Mary to urgently bring our needs to Jesus.

The last several months of the coronavirus epidemic, the civil unrest that has broken out in different parts of the archdiocese and our nation, and the challenges the Church is facing have made the need for Mary’s intercession abundantly clear. Mary is our Mother and desires only our good like the Father.

In her appearance to Juan Diego, Our Lady reminded him and reminds us today, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.  Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Saint Padre Pio, who was known for his devotion to the Rosary offers us this advice: “In times of darkness, holding the Rosary is like holding our Blessed Mother’s hand.”

We turn to Mary in our difficulty because she is our spiritual mother, who with her “yes” to the Lord embraced the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. She is “the supreme model of this faith, for she believed that ‘nothing will be impossible with God,’ and was able to magnify the Lord: ‘For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #273).

We know, too, from history that Mary has answered prayers brought to her through the Rosary and that she has personally asked people to pray it for the most serious needs, especially for the conversion of souls.

Pope Pius V famously asked all Christians to pray the Rosary in 1571 to prevent Christianity from being overrun by the invading Ottoman Turks, and the Christian naval forces were subsequently victorious in the Battle of Lepanto. In the apparitions at Fatima, Mary identified herself as “The Lady of the Rosary” and asked the shepherd children to whom she appeared to pray a daily Rosary for world peace and the end of World War I.

During his pontificate, Saint John Paul II spoke of the Rosary as his favorite prayer. In his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, he added, “The Rosary has accompanied me in moments of joy and in moments of difficulty. To it I have entrusted any number of concerns; in it I have always found comfort” (RVM, 2).

This past May, Pope Francis encouraged praying the Rosary, saying, “Dear brothers and sisters, contemplating the face of Christ with the heart of Mary our Mother will make us even more united as a spiritual family and will help us overcome this time of trial.”

During this time of trial, we need to hear the words of Jesus spoken often in the Gospel, words spoken to Mary by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “Be not afraid.” We need to pray especially for a deeper trust and hear the words of Elizabeth spoken to Mary in our own hearts. “…blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). The Lord is with us in this time as he has promised! Praying the rosary helps us, with the aid of our Mother, to relive in our own lives the mysteries of Christ’s life.

I personally invite all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver to pray the Rosary every day between the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, August 15, through the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, September 15. I would be remiss if I did not thank Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita for inspiring this Rosary Crusade by launching one in his diocese at the beginning of August.

As we unite in asking Mary for her intercession and protection, please pray for the following intentions:

* For a growth in faith, hope and charity in the heart and soul of every human being, and most especially in our own that we may seek only the will of the Father

* For a recognition of the dignity of life from the moment of conception until natural death and that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God

* A quick end to the coronavirus pandemic

* For all who are suffering from COVID-19, for their caregivers, and for those who have died from the virus

* In reparation for the sins of abortion, euthanasia, and racism

* In reparation for the sins and failings of our spiritual leaders and for our personal sins

* For healing and justice for all those who have been discriminated against because of their race

* For the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls

* For all those who are persecuted throughout the world for the Faith

* For the conversion of those who carry out acts of desecration against our churches, statues and religious symbols

* In reparation for these acts of desecration, especially against Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament

* For our civic leaders and those who keep us safe to experience a deeper conversion, to govern justly, and to seek the common good

* That we may learn how to love and forgive from the example of Jesus

* For all marriages and families, neighborhoods, churches and cities to be strengthened

* For an increase in vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and religious life

Thank you for joining me in this prayer on behalf of our world, country and our Church. I am confident that many of the faithful will respond in turning to the Blessed Mother who “shine[s] on our journey as a sign of salvation and hope” (Pope Francis’ Letter to the Faithful for the Month of May 2020). May you always know the protection of Mary as she leads you to her Son!