Hello and welcome,
Recently, Father Paul Soper and Father Eric Cadin suggested that I might prepare a Virtual Lenten Retreat to present on CatholicTV as well as online. I’m very grateful to Ann Gennaro of our Secretariat of Evangelization and Discipleship, who has been very helpful throughout this process.
So, in recent days, I have been recording the different daily installments of the retreat here at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and they have aired each night this week. Originally, the series was intended to run for the five weeknights of the week, but we have added a sixth night, on the Eucharist, that will air tomorrow.
I am amazed at the response I have received from near and far. My sister, my cousin, and my aunt are watching it together, and I have had people contact me from Switzerland, Portugal and from throughout the United States saying that they are watching.
So, I’m very humbled and amazed at how many people we are able to reach in this time. I understand television viewing has greatly increased because people are confined to their homes, but it is a wonderful opportunity for us to do something together to make this Lent truly a retreat. Of course, Lent is supposed to be a baptismal retreat for all of us, and our confinement to our homes is truly a desert experience for those who are used to being constantly out and about. However, hopefully, this time of confinement will allow us to be more reflective, more prayerful and more aware of our task to deepen our own conversion in this Lenten season.
I’d like to share the first three sessions of our retreat with you here:
Tuesday, I met with Dr. Paul Farmer, a renowned expert in global health who has been very involved in developing nations such as Haiti and Rwanda, and he was very much involved in the fight against the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He was in town for meetings, and he stopped by the cathedral to speak to me about the current pandemic.
I learned a great deal about what’s happening with the efforts to produce treatments, as well as the importance of the measures being taken to prevent the spread of the virus through measures such as social distancing.
We are very grateful for all the work that Dr. Farmer has done, and continues to do, on behalf of many people who are among the most underserved in the world.
Like many of you, in these days I have been working from home and have been able to continue with many of our regularly scheduled meetings – of course, by teleconference. This week we had our meetings of the archdiocesan cabinet, the personnel committee, our auxiliary bishops and the bishops of the Boston Province. Obviously, in many of these meetings, the conversation was around our response to the crisis that has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
I have also had an opportunity to speak by telephone with virtually all of our Vicars Forane to hear how things are going in the different vicariates. I’m amazed at how much creativity our priests are showing in the ways that they are serving our people and remaining connected to their congregations. One priest had called over 100 families to check up on them; another delivered food to the shut-ins of the parish; others have conducted Masses and other services over the Internet. These are just some of the many things our priests are doing to help our people realize that we are praying for them and are connected to them in this very difficult time.
Our Catholic Schools Office has been working diligently, as well, to prepare our 3,000 Catholic school teachers to be able to conduct distance-learning while classes are suspended.
Our meeting of the provincial bishops was on March 25, so we were together and able to pray the Our Father together at noon, as Pope Francis had asked all the Christians of the world to do. I was also very pleased that Metropolitan Methodios reached out to me to let me know that he was joining us in that prayer, in response to the Holy Father’s invitation.
In addition to being the feast of the Annunciation, March 25 is also the feast of the Incarnation of Christ. I have fond memories of visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, which is built over the very site where the Annunciation took place. In that church, on the altar is written “Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est” — “Here the Word Was Made Flesh.”
It’s interesting to remember that, for centuries, when Europe was a very Catholic continent, that March 25 was actually the civil New Year’s Day. They reckoned the year by the beginning of Christianity — the arrival of Christ in Mary’s womb. It’s also nine months before Christmas, and so is often referred to as Little Christmas. It is one of the feasts that, when we pray the Profession of Faith, we genuflect at the words “and the Word was made flesh.”
So it was on this very special feast day that the Holy Father invited the Christians of the world to join in prayer for deliverance from this pandemic, and we were very happy to participate in this prayer with millions of Christians throughout the world.
Like almost all educational institutions, our seminaries are currently closed. So, this week, I sent a letter to all our seminarians, many of whom are now living in parishes, though some have returned to their homes. The men in Rome have also returned to the United States under these very unusual circumstances. I wanted to share some of my reflections on this present time with them, and I would also like to share them with you here:
March 22, 2020 – Laetare Sunday
My Dear Seminarians,
In my own seminary years, communications meant something very different. We had no radios, television sets, or Internet and we could rarely use a telephone. The only secular journals in our library were The Ellis County Star (a nod to the large number of German Americans from rural Kansas in our community) and Sports Illustrated (except for the swimsuit issue). We did have, however, a ham radio transmitter that allowed us each week to be in contact with our friars in Papua New Guinea where we had just started an exciting new mission. We were allowed to write one letter each month, that was read by the Superior, who also read our incoming mail.
The practice did promote good penmanship and spelling.
How different today’s world is, where our priests and seminarians can reach so many people by social media. It is such a great blessing, particularly at the present time when we are practically in lockdown. It is so encouraging to see the messages and Masses that are being live-streamed to our people in their homes. Facebook, Twitter, Zoom and so many other devices are being used most creatively by our priests, deacons and parish leaders. With the help of Father Eric Cadin, Father Paul Soper and their very able team, we are planning a mission for Catholic Television to be broadcast and streamed every evening this week.
It is truly amazing that with relative ease I can send this message by means of email to all of you seminarians at once. In the days of yore this would have been a Herculean task involving typewriters, carbon paper, mimeograph machines and the U.S. Postal Service. The only form of communication that is more efficient and more accessible is prayer. Without any Internet connection, wi-fi or hotspots, we can always lift our minds and hearts to our Heavenly Father who sees in secret and whose love is unfailing. We never have to ask: “Can you hear me now?” Our God is always listening.
In this strange Lent brought to us by the coronavirus, we will all have a little extra time for prayer. We have truly ventured into the desert that social distancing has brought us. We must be careful to use this time well, to pray, to reach out to those in need, to read and to study. The sudden unstructured pace of our lives requires a lot of discipline, and fidelity to rule of life.
My own seminary years coincided with the Second Vatican Council and the pontificates of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. It was a time of great hope and excitement, but also of great challenges. One of the things that we seminarians enjoyed so much was when Cardinal Wright, a Boston priest who was our Bishop, returned from the Council and visited our monastery. He would talk to us about what was happening at the Council and answer our questions. Cardinal John Wright was one of the most erudite and eloquent preachers of the Church in our country.
Our seminary years were also marked by great social upheaval: the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King and thus subsequent riots in the urban areas of the country, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is a wonder we learned anything at all.
Your seminary years have also had your own challenges: the aftermath of September 11, and the clerical sex abuse crisis, the Boston Marathon, the McCarrick scandal, and the seminary visitation, and all this culminating with the coronavirus pandemic.
In our Capuchin community we have House Chapters before Lent to decide what penances we will do as a community. I remember one such chapter where Father Guardian was receiving recommendations and writing them on a blackboard. Afterwards we had a vote to determine which penances we would embrace communally. After the guardian wrote the number of votes after each item and was about to announce what our Lenten penances would be, a lay brother who never spoke up at all in these chapters made a suggestion that shook up the process. He said that if we really wanted to do penance, we should choose those things that received the least number of votes. I always thought that was an ingenious insight.
The truth is the coronavirus is a Lent none of us would have chosen, but in God’s providence this experience can be our 40 days with Christ in prayer, fasting and resisting temptations. Let us try to discover what God is calling us to during this lockdown. Somehow all of this is an opportunity to draw closer to God and to one another. Our world seems smaller, more fragile, and yet more connected. Who had ever heard of the Wuhan? In the midst of all of this we must grow in our trust in a loving God who is calling us to follow Him. He never promised that it would be easy, but He did promise that He would always be with us.
This year I celebrate 50 years of priesthood. They have been beautiful years, but they have not been easy. When I took my vows at age 20, I never dreamed where those promises would lead me. I am grateful that despite my unworthiness and limitations, God has called me to serve in his Church. I have discovered that a priest’s life is like the rosary that has joyful and sorrowful mysteries, but all of it is a prayer. The coronavirus is part of the prayer, part of the purification, part of a process of learning to trust in God’s love that is beyond all imagining.
When you men reach your 50th anniversary of ordination, it will be a very different world, but what will not change is God’s unfailing love and the joy of the Gospel, and the great blessing of being a Catholic priest called to share in Christ’s saving mission. That will not change. So, when the coronavirus makes you feel frustrated, bored or lonely, please remember that your Bishop and God’s people are praying for you and your vocation. Find strength and enlightenment in St. Teresa of Avila’s bookmark:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
Until next week,