Cardinal Seán's Blog

Cardinal Seán O’Malley shares his reflections and experiences

A Letter to the Faithful

Hello and welcome!

In Boston we are physically miles away from Minneapolis. But no American city, and, really, no American citizen is separated from what we have seen this week in vivid detail. The killing of George Floyd has catalyzed reactions across the nation. It has done so because it is not a singular, isolated event.

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis this week was morally wrong and must be legally prosecuted. To say this is to state the obvious, but it is worth saying because there is a powerful link between the moral and legal dimensions of the killing which has now sparked protest across the country. As a nation we entrust power, even lethal force, to our government and its representatives in law enforcement. But there are both moral and legal limits to how force can be used. If officers of the law use force in the way millions of us saw in an eight-minute video, then trust in the government, in the law and in the legal system is deeply wounded. That is why the legal prosecution, following constitutional standards, must proceed with care and urgency. The police failed the moral test in George Floyd’s case; now the court will be tested. What is morally wrong must be pursued vigorously by legal standards. That much is lucidly clear.

There is a history here, one documented over decades in print, and now in social media and on television in our homes. The history is clear and tragic: George Floyd was an African American man who died at the hands of a police officer. This is a narrative which has been repeated often and in multiple locations across the country. The history is well documented, but it is known experientially in the African American community in a way that is not widely shared.

The wider community is aware of some cases, but the African American community lives with the experience and memories of these deaths in an entirely different way. It is a daily reality – one they must speak to their children about and live themselves with some fear.

This gap between different communities in what is one country, one civic community, is the broader reality which this week’s events force any of us to reflect upon.

George Floyd’s death occurred in the midst of the most catastrophic healthcare crisis in our history. We are all threatened by it. But the African American community has been impacted in numbers far beyond its size in the country. This fact in turn is related to and repeated in other issues of healthcare, employment and housing.

Responding to George Floyd’s death reaches beyond one person to some of what it reminds us about in these larger realities of our nation. In responding to his death, some have used violence. I can understand the frustration but I must strongly oppose those methods. For any of us, the singular voice of Dr. Martin Luther King still rings true: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

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In recent weeks, I have been issuing periodic messages to different communities in the archdiocese — seminarians, priests, deacons and religious. This week, I would like to share with you my message to the faithful of the archdiocese.


May 26, 2020

Letter to the Faithful

So much of modern life has been upended by the pandemic. Social distancing keeps us from the routine contact that we took for granted for a lifetime. But the pandemic has had an almost opposite effect on family life. Modern families have, up until now, developed social distancing into an art form.

A generation ago, the typical American middle-class family had their own home. Often, there were many children, but one automobile, one telephone, one television set and one or two bathrooms. Family life was about being together and sharing. Meals were a family affair. Children even came home from school for lunch.

The evening meal was a time when the whole family gathered to enjoy a good home-made meal and to bond with each other through all the back-and-forth that took place at the dinner table. The modern family, often a one-parent family, is pulled in a thousand directions by different work schedules, extracurricular activities, organized athletics, addiction to social media and many other aspects of modern life that promote isolation and individualism.

Enter the pandemic, and suddenly being part of a family is like living in a treehouse on Treasure Island. It is a challenge and an opportunity. It can be a time for us to reconnect with our families, to get to know each other better, to overcome our innate selfishness and learn how to give, how to forgive and how to be part of a community.

One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, “Lumen Gentium,” describes the family as the domestic Church. Pope John Paul II often spoke about the family as the domestic Church. He outlines the four tasks that each family should strive to accomplish: 1) Forming a community of persons, 2) Serving life, 3) Participating in the development of society, and 4) Sharing in the life and mission of the Church.

I know this can all sound kind of daunting when discussions over who is going to wash the dishes and empty the garbage can take center stage. The lofty goals of the Christian family can be achieved only where the family is a school of love and a sanctuary of life. For many people, the stay-at-home order was an invitation to rebuild family life.

Suddenly, many parents who used to struggle to get their children dressed and ready for school each day have morphed from school bus driver to teacher, counselor and recreation director. Parents who were so often critical of teachers, coaches and school personnel have discovered how short their child’s attention span can be. The helicopter has crashed.

One of the challenges of working and studying remotely is to avoid treating every day like a Saturday. We need the discipline to map out a schedule that will allow us to have a productive and satisfying day. Hopefully, families will be able to recoup the meal as a time for conversation and sharing without the intrusion of television and smartphones.

Children need to understand that the inconveniences of social distancing are an expression of a desire to protect the vulnerable. Love is always about making sacrifices for others.

Just as parents are thrust into a new role of teaching mathematics, earth science and social studies, I hope the parents will now embrace their role as the chief catechist for their children. I am always edified that our Catholic people, even those who are not great churchgoers, still have a desire for their children to receive religious education. Parents are content to entrust the religious formation of their children to the parish catechist.

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the parish staff and volunteers who dedicate so many hours to preparing and imparting classes on the faith. Passing on the faith to new generations is one of the primary responsibilities of every parish community. But the pandemic brings home to us that religious education is primarily the responsibility of the family.

Social distancing makes it difficult to give our young people the religious formation that we all want them to have. At the same time, this is an opportunity for parents to exercise their special role in passing on the faith to their children. Although it is not something we do spontaneously, we need to learn to talk about our faith, to share our ideals and to pray together. Religious formation is not just about imparting information; it is about molding people’s hearts, helping them to have a relationship with Jesus Christ and to embrace a life of discipleship in a community of faith. Our religious formation is to help us to discover how much God loves us, who we are, why we are here, and what is our mission and purpose. An important part of discipleship is discovering our own vocation, the special way that God is calling us to live a life of service, to make a gift of ourselves and to share the treasure of faith with those around us, to build a civilization of love rather than greed.

This week, the Catholic Church is reliving liturgically that first novena: the nine days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday, when the Apostles with the Blessed Virgin and the disciples were sequestered in the Cenacle. It was an exercise in social distancing because of the fear of persecution, but it was also a very powerful experience of shared prayer that prepared the community of faith for the transformation of Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

I hope that the experience of being thrown together will not be wasted on our families, but rather that it will be a time of intense experience of community and solidarity, renewal in prayer and a deep sense of identity. May our days locked in the Cenacle help us to emerge as stronger, faith-filled disciples ready to embrace our mission to carry on the work of Christ in the world.

In the history of salvation, the great plagues of Egypt were a preface for the liberation of God’s people. I hope that this modern plague will lead to our liberation from a culture of death into a Promised Land of people ready to make sacrifices for each other and who are deeply aware of how much we need God and one another. Social distancing can teach us that we are meant to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

When Pope Francis went to Lampedusa shortly after his election as Pope, he called on everyone to overcome the globalization of indifference, to be a people who care about people, not just about money and having fun. The text that the Holy Father used was from Genesis, where God asked Cain: “Where is your brother?” Cain answers God: “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” The pandemic has forced us to stop pretending that we are not connected, that we have no responsibility for the suffering of others and that, somehow, we can make our own life and happiness without reference to the rest of humanity.

Pope Francis, in his encyclical “Laudato Si,” refers to this planet as our common home; it is more than just a metaphor. If you live in the penthouse suite of a 30-story apartment building, and there are several apartments on the first, second and third floors that are in flames, you cannot be nonchalant about the situation. The Gospel of Life in the Church’s social doctrine is a treasure trove of wisdom that can help us to find paths forward for humanity crippled by individualism, materialism and greed.

The temptation in a time of pandemic is to seek an anesthetizing distraction and entertainment rather than taking the time to examine the meaning of this pandemic and its repercussions for the future. Typically, it is only when we lose something or someone we care about, that it dawns on us how important that person, experience or treasured possession was for us. Watching them slip away and disappear from life is often a rebuke for having taken them for granted.

When I was growing up, the Church observed a very strict Communion fast. We could not eat or drink anything — not even water — from midnight before we were going to receive Holy Communion. In the Catholic school that I attended, there were covers placed over the water fountains to remind people not to break the fast. Some people were afraid to brush their teeth in the morning for fear that they might swallow a little water and thereby be ineligible to receive the Eucharist.

At one point, the Holy Father changed the discipline so that water would never break the fast, and later, the fast was changed to three hours before receiving Communion. More recently, Pope Paul VI further mitigated the fast to one hour before receiving Communion. I presume many people are unaware of the fast because it has been reduced to such a short period.

The practice of the Communion fast dates back to the 4th century and, indeed, St. Augustine claimed that it went back to the time of the Apostles. The motivation for the Communion fast was always presented as being out of respect for the Lord’s Body and Blood. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the fast responded to the Lord’s injunction, “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Some spiritual writers suggested that the pre-Communion fast was a way of ritualizing the spiritual hunger that should characterize all those who gather at the Eucharistic table.

The pandemic has brought a new kind of Eucharistic fast to our Church, which has made it difficult for many of the faithful to receive the Sacrament. We can only hope that this forced Communion fast might result in a deeper hunger for the reception of Holy Communion.

Being a disciple of Jesus is always about being part of a community — the community that gathers around the Eucharist. May we never take this great gift for granted. In the Eucharist, Jesus makes a gift of Himself to us. At the first Mass, Jesus made it very clear that the Eucharist is the key to understanding discipleship. Jesus gives us the gift of Himself and urges us to wash each other’s feet and to love each other the way he loves us, to the point of making a gift of ourselves.

Some of our brothers and sisters are in solitary confinement. Our consolation is that we are never really alone in the Body of Christ. Cardinal Van Thuan spent 13 years in a communist prison, nine years in solitary confinement. He documents his experience in the powerful book: “The Road to Hope.” In the midst of the isolation of the pandemic, we must find hope in Jesus Christ’s promise that he would be with us always. Social distancing cannot destroy the spiritual accompaniment that is born at the moment of our Baptism and connects us to the Lord and our brothers and sisters in the faith.

May social distancing make us more aware of our vocation to community and solidarity; may our forced fasting from Holy Communion augment our hunger for the Bread of Life; may all our homes be like the Cenacle where the disciples were united with Mary in prayer waiting for Pentecost. May our experience of staying at home be not so much a house arrest but a retreat that will allow us to experience the peace and love, simplicity and hospitality of the Holy Family at Nazareth.

May is the month of the rosary, and we are currently within the Pentecost Novena, the nine days between the Ascension Thursday and Pentecost when the Apostles and disciples were in the Cenacle praying in union with Mary, the Mother of Jesus. During this novena, we are called to have our own Cenacle experience with the Blessed Mother through praying the rosary.

There are a number of special opportunities to pray the rosary with the larger community during this time. For example, during this time of quarantine, Ascension Press has been holding live-streamed rosaries daily at 4 p.m. led by a different person each day.

Last Saturday, Ascension asked me to lead the rosary for their viewers.

This coming Saturday, on the Vigil of Pentecost, the Holy Father is leading a rosary with many of the principal Marian shrines of the world joined together online. These will include Lourdes, Fatima, Lujan, Milagro, Guadalupe, San Giovanni Rotondo and Pompeii. cq5dam.thumbnail.cropped.750.422

You can find out how to join the Holy Father for this special event here.

Also, on Pentecost Sunday, the actor Eduardo Verástegui is aiming to get a million people to pray the rosary together for the end of the pandemic, for peace in the world and for the unity of the family at 1 p.m. Central Time (2 p.m. Eastern).

The rosary will be in Spanish, but I encourage all of you who can to join him. Eduardo

This past Sunday, a number of our parishes in the archdiocese opened again for the first time since March. Some of the most successful were places where the Masses were celebrated outdoors, such as at Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted in Waltham, St. Patrick’s in Lawrence and Immaculate Conception in Marlborough.

But, at the cathedral we are not opening until Pentecost weekend, so our Sunday Mass was the televised Mass.

We will continue to celebrate televised Masses even once we have resumed our public Masses, in order to make sure that vulnerable people and those who are unable to come to Mass still have an opportunity to participate at home.

This week, I continued my meetings with classes of seminarians. On Sunday, I met with the second year pre-theology class, and on Thursday, I met with the first year pre-theology class. With these, I have now had an opportunity to meet virtually with each of the seminary classes. It has been very encouraging to hear how well they are coping during the pandemic and participating in the life of the parishes. Many of them mentioned that they were involved in helping with the live-streaming of liturgies and Masses, setting up online meetings and the like.

Monday was, of course, Memorial Day. For obvious reasons, there were no large gatherings or other activities at the cemeteries, but we trust that people prayed for and remembered all those who gave their lives in service to their country. And, in these days, we also hold up in prayer all those who are fighting the pandemic and putting their lives at risk in order to care for those who are ill and those who are in nursing homes.

Tuesday, we held an extraordinary meeting of the bishops of the Boston Province — the four dioceses of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Typically, we meet only twice a year, plus gathering for our summer retreat. The purpose of this special meeting was to share information about the pandemic. We spoke about our plans for reopening, best practices and ideas around how to safely administer the sacraments, and how to launch a reopening of our parishes in a staged and prudent way.

Tuesday afternoon, we had a webinar for priests, during which we heard the experiences of some of the parishes that opened on the weekend of May 23 — 24, as well as some that are still in the process of planning and preparation. Greg-Reopening-02

For example, we heard from Father Jonathan Gaspar about the preparations they are making to reopen their parish in Brookline on Pentecost weekend. We also heard from Father Jim DiPerri about the outdoor Mass they held at Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted in Waltham. 100737635_2336196626674344_2938693198895120384_n

I was also talking with Father Wellington Oliveira from St. Joseph Parish in Lynn about their experience. They had extra Masses over the course of weekend and held celebrations simultaneously in the church and the parish hall to accommodate the number of people who came while maintaining social distance. Jacqueline-Reopening-05

Only about one-quarter of our parishes opened last weekend, and we are encouraging the remaining parishes to take the time that they need. Although the government is allowing for 40 percent occupancy of our churches, that is also conditioned on maintaining social distancing of 6 feet. In most churches, once you measure that out, it is significantly less than 40 percent of the permitted occupancy that can be safely accommodated at the liturgy, and there are many other requirements, as well. All of this requires careful preparation, and I think hearing the experience of the parishes that are in the process of opening is helpful to those that are still in the planning stages.

Also on Tuesday we had a trustee committee meeting for the Catholic University of America. Obviously, our meetings are all online now. President Garvey was himself ill with the coronavirus, as was his family but, thank goodness, they are doing fine now. CUA-Logo

CUA, like all schools, is facing great challenges because of the pandemic, and so we held this meeting to help prepare for our full board meeting, which will take place next week.

Wednesday, we had our spring board meeting of Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary in Weston.

Of course, we were all disappointed that the seminary was forced to cancel their annual Lawn Party and golf tournament, but we were happy the seminary was able to finish the academic year on a strong note. The students were all able to finish their studies in place, and there were no cases of coronavirus among them. POPESTJOHNLOGO2014-200x281

There was also a diaconal ordination held at the end of the school year, one of the few times they have had an ordination in the seminary itself. It was for a couple of men from outside of the archdiocese, and their bishops wanted them ordained before they came home. So, it was celebrated privately by Bishop Hennessey.

Of course, we are all focused on the fall. Though it is a little bit early to forecast what that will look like, we are blessed to have such a competent and devoted Board of Trustees.

This week, we were all very saddened to learn that Donna Morrissey, an executive with the American Red Cross who had formerly served as the Communications Secretary of the archdiocese, passed away from complications of COVID-19. Donna Morrissey
George Martell photo

Her funeral was held at the cathedral on Thursday. It was the first public Mass held in the cathedral since March. Bishop Mark O’Connell, who had worked with Donna in the chancery, was the celebrant, but I was able to offer a few remarks at the beginning of the Mass.

In my comments, I shared something Donna once said: “I have learned the importance of community service and giving back to others not only from my church, but also from my family. My aunt was a Sister of St. Joseph for almost 75 years. My father, mother, and extended family were devoted to giving back to their church, country, and communities throughout their lives. For me, my faith enables me to come into very challenging and devastating situations and provide a shoulder to lean on, a caring embrace and provide relief for those who need it most.”

I think this quote sums up the kind of woman that Donna Morrissey was — someone whose life was one of service to the community and who was guided by her Catholic faith. We are very grateful that Father Kevin Staley-Joyce, one of the priests on our COVID-19 response team, was able to give her the last sacraments in the hospital. I know that was very important to her.

Like so many other victims of the coronavirus, she died alone on a ventilator in the hospital, but at least now the churches are open and we were able to hold a funeral Mass for her. We know that for all our families that have experienced a loss in this time, not being able to have a wake and funeral has been a great source of pain and sadness. So, were very pleased that Donna and her family were able to have this Eucharist at the cathedral.

Thursday afternoon, we had a meeting of our Presbyteral Council, during which we heard a report from Joe D’Arrigo, the executive director of our Clergy Health and Retirement Trust, on the excellent care that is being given to our senior priests.

We also heard a very hopeful report on Regina Cleri. There had been an outbreak of the coronavirus there early on but, due to a quick and thorough response, it was quickly contained. Sadly, we did lose three men to the coronavirus, including Bishop Emilio Allué, but all of the others who contracted the virus have recovered and there are no current cases of the virus at Regina Cleri. That is a great consolation to all the priests and great testimony to the wonderful work of Stephen Gust and his very capable and dedicated staff, as well as to the work of Joe D’Arrigo and his team.

Until next week,

Cardinal Seán