It is something I have done thousands of times over the last 11 years of priesthood. Walking out of the sacristy and into the sanctuary to begin the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It can become routine or commonplace for we priests, especially when we may have three or four Masses in a single day. We can forget the beauty of what God has called us to do and how the people of God are nourished at the table of the Lord and long to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. But a few weeks ago, there was something entirely different about presiding over this most sacred of actions.
Having spent the last three months essentially offering Mass while facing a camera in an empty church I walked out of the sacristy and was greeted with a carefully socially distanced and mask covered congregation. I could not help but smile. It was a weekday, a normal day in the course of Ordinary Time, yet it felt different and made me realize just how much I missed having the people of God in the church. When time came for the homily, I paused a moment, smiled and said somewhat histrionically, “Welcome back!” The reaction was what I anticipated as the congregation broke out in applause. When time came for Communion, after giving the directions for safely doing this, I put on my mask, sanitized my hands and went down to distribute the Blessed Sacrament. More than one person was clearly emotional as they approached the Lord, the One they have desired to receive these last few months.
This experience is not unique to me. I have spoken to other priests who have relayed both their happiness to have people in church and the emotional reaction of those who have longed to receive Jesus. The crowds have remained moderate in size since many people are still reticent to return to church. This makes sense and each person needs to decide personally when it is best to return. We look forward to the day that the churches are crowded and God’s people are back with us. As I have written about before, the priesthood exists for the people that we serve and when we are together in church at Mass there is no greater example of how true this is. I was reminded of this two weeks ago when I attended the ordination to the priesthood here in the archdiocese. So many of the prayers and promises made by the ordinand are specifically in reference to the people that he will serve. The man is called to be a true father to his spiritual children and a true shepherd to the flock entrusted to his pastoral care.
Every year at the ordination I invite the discerners to attend the Mass but due to the restrictions and health concerns this year they obviously were not able to attend. The invitation is motivated by hopefully inspiring them as they see the beauty and sanctity of the moment when a man becomes a priest forever. But beyond this, it also for them to hear the prayers and promises that we make and how some are specifically focused on the people we will serve. Even the ones that are not in reference to the people directly are in a tangential way, since the prayer life and holiness of the priest will directly impact those he is called to minister to. It is to remind the discerners that a man’s ordination is not about him alone but all those he will encounter throughout his years of service.
These have been, and in many ways continue to be, trying times for the Church in the midst of this pandemic. The separations from loved ones and the sacraments have been heavy crosses for many of the faithful. Yet it seems like there is now a light at the end of the tunnel as there is once again access to the sacraments. We give thanks to God for this return and continue to ask for the outpouring of his Fatherly care.