Focusing on the plight of so many who have been forced into isolation by the pandemic, or who were abandoned well before coronavirus restrictions, Bishop O’Connell observes, underscores the importance of staying connected with one another and united with God in the everyday of our lives.  Catholic News Service photo
Focusing on the plight of so many who have been forced into isolation by the pandemic, or who were abandoned well before coronavirus restrictions, Bishop O’Connell observes, underscores the importance of staying connected with one another and united with God in the everyday of our lives. Catholic News Service photo

As the pandemic passes the one-year mark and continues to stretch into 2021, a profound side-effect has emerged: isolation. 

The experience not only leaves people separated from each other through illness, social distancing and quarantining, but often leaves them “wondering where God is,” writes Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., in his new release: “‘Behold, I Am with You Always,’  A Pastoral Letter on the Presence of God.”

The title of the letter is taken from the Gospel of Matthew 28:20, which reads, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of time.”  Formally issued Feb. 22, 2021, on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, the pastoral letter was published March 1 across diocesan media as a written text and podcast in both English and Spanish.  It was also sent to all parishes and schools for distribution in their local communities. 

Pastoral letters (derived from the Latin noun pastor meaning shepherd) addressed to laity and clergy are part of the role of bishops, who serve as shepherds of their dioceses.

In this, his third pastoral letter as 10th Bishop of Trenton, Bishop O’Connell addresses the painful reality of separation and loneliness, offering guidance to the faithful for developing the assurance of faith and recovering a sense of the presence of God.

The Bishop also remembers those for whom “social distancing has been their way of life for a long time and not by choice: “… The poor, the outcast, the bullied, the marginalized, those living alone, ‘quarantined’ for whatever the reason.  Social distance and isolation are sentences imposed by society upon them, without parole. … We must not forget them.”

Bishop O’Connell’s first pastoral letter, “One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church: I Believe, We Believe,” was released in 2012 in response to the “Year of Faith” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. His second pastoral letter, “Mercy and Truth Shall Meet,” was released in 2015 in observance of the Holy Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis.

In introducing his latest letter, Bishop O’Connell writes: “My purpose in writing this pastoral letter is not an attempt to prove the existence of God or to convince non-believers. I write simply as a believer and a pastor of other believers in the Catholic Church to affirm the fundamental and non-negotiable belief that we share; namely, that God exists.”

Quoting 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart, Bishop O’Connell shares, “I am as sure as I live that nothing is so near to me as God.  God is nearer to me than I am to myself.  My existence depends upon the nearness and the presence of God.”

In three focused sections – The Presence of God,  Practice of the Presence of God, and Living in the Presence of God,  Bishop O’Connell stresses the importance of prayer, emphasizing “the origin, essence and goal of all prayer: God himself and placing ourselves in his presence.  Awareness of God and his eternal presence is what gives all our ‘prayers’ their meaning and significance.”

The “‘take away’ from this pastoral letter,” writes Bishop O’Connell, “is this: If we let ourselves meet God where he is – everywhere in our life – then we can be sure he will meet us where we are.  That meeting, again and again and every time and place it occurs, is prayer if we live in the presence of God.”

To read the new pastoral letter in English, click HERE.  For the Spanish text, click HERE.  To listen to a podcast of Bishop O’Connell reading his letter, click HERE for English and HERE for Spanish.