This stained-glass window portrays Jesus healing the sick. Though COVID-19 currently keeps the faithful apart, "He is never distant from those who believe," Bishop O'Connell says.  File photo
This stained-glass window portrays Jesus healing the sick. Though COVID-19 currently keeps the faithful apart, "He is never distant from those who believe," Bishop O'Connell says. File photo

Editor’s Note: On Monday, April 6, the day the annual Chrism Mass would have been celebrated in the Diocese’s Co-Cathedral if not for COVID-19 restrictions, priests across the four counties will instead celebrate Mass from their respective churches, simultaneously, with Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M. 

Officially titled The Mass for Holy Week in the Time of Pandemic, priests across the Diocese will renew their priestly commitment, and, in addition to any special intentions already requested in their parishes, will celebrate this special Mass for the people of the Diocese – all clergy, religious, seminarians and the laity.  

The following is Bishop O’Connell’s homily:


At another time, the priests of the Diocese of Trenton would gather around their bishop, in the presence of the faithful, on Monday of Holy Week, to bless and consecrate  sacramental holy oils at the Chrism Mass. 

They would stand with the bishop and renew their sacred commitments as priests, together, before celebrating the Holy Eucharist together and distributing the Body and Blood of Christ to the faithful.  It would be an occasion of great joy as we begin the holiest week of the year.

This is not “another time.”  It is “this” time.  And this Monday of Holy Week is unprecedented “this time,” unlike any other in our memory.

Tonight, the priests are not together with their bishop, or with one another.  They are alone for the most part, scattered at the altars of empty churches throughout the four counties of the Diocese.  The faithful are not present, and Holy Mass, this night, is celebrated in private, without a congregation.  Holy oil and sacred chrism will be blessed and consecrated “another time,” yet to be determined.  And the bread and wine transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood will be received by priests alone and reserved for the rest of the faithful for “another time.”

What has made “another time” – the ones past and the ones yet to come – what has changed “another time” into “this time” is the virus that has ravaged our world, our state, our Diocese.

The joy of celebrating the Eucharist is still present – how could it not be when Christ becomes present among us in our churches at the hands of the priest, as our faith assures us is always true – but our joy tonight and throughout this Holy Week is shared, although at a distance, in a spiritual communion, because the deadly coronavirus keeps us physically apart ... this time. 

In our spiritual communion, in our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ comes and continues to dwell in our hearts.  He is never distant from those who believe. He is with us, and we are with him.  Tonight, through the miracle of modern technology, we are together spiritually. 

So, let’s listen to God’s word from tonight’s Mass.

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks to a community in distress.  We know that from reading the Old Testament.  When Isaiah spoke 800 years before Christ, God had already delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and made a covenant with them, but the journey from Egypt was not without its challenges.  There were good times and bad times, fidelities and infidelities, confidences expressed and moments of doubt, victories and defeats along the road to salvation. Through it all, God reminds his people again and again that he is God, that he walks with and among his people.  

“Thus says God, the LORD,” proclaims Isaiah ... “I the LORD have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand.” 

The image here is comforting for us to recall, especially in this time of “social distancing.”  God is with us. He takes our hands, an intimate gesture – the way a Father takes a child by the hand and leads the child who follows with absolute trust.  Isaiah tells us that the Lord anoints and sends his “servant” – a “suffering servant” – to make things just and right and holy and good.

In these dark and frightening times, we respond to this message in words the Psalmist sings, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge, of whom should I be afraid?  I believe that I shall see the bounty of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD with courage; be stouthearted, and wait for the LORD.”  This must be our song, too, as we face this pandemic.

Then, in John’s Gospel tonight, we find the Lord Jesus again with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he just raised from the dead, a story we heard at Mass last weekend. 

Mary lovingly anoints Jesus’ feet with precious oil as was customary in their day, and Judas (who would betray Jesus a week later) protests the loving gesture as a waste of money, better used for the poor – although Judas could care less.  Jesus utters the prophetic words “the poor you will have always but you do not always have me.” 

John writes that many people came to believe in Jesus because of Lazarus and his being raised from the dead by Jesus, a miracle that they witnessed – a miracle that greatly disturbed the religious leaders of the day.

My sisters and brothers, three ideas emerge from God’s word, from our readings this Monday of Holy Week, that offer – let’s call them a scriptural “pandemic perspective” – for our prayerful reflection for our own troubled times: 

     1. God has us by the hand, in good times and bad; grasp his Fatherly hand with faith, like a child; let’s all allow God to be God and have faith in his loving, healing presence;

     2. The Lord is our refuge in times of distress, a light in times of darkness, our salvation in times of loss – salvation history bears that out again and again; so wait for the Lord with courage as we confront COVID-19;

     3. People are quick to turn away from God when the going gets tough or things happen that they cannot understand; they begin to doubt; in the face of disbelief, pause, take a breath and recognize what the Lord has done, can do, will do for those who have faith.

Holy Week draws us into the central mysteries of our Catholic faith: the servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah is the suffering servant who entered Jerusalem Palm Sunday on a mission to die on the Cross for our sins. 

Our faith calls us to walk the path to Calvary with him, carrying the cross we now bear.  Many have died, and many more are sick.  We carry them.  Many are worried and anxious caring for their loved ones.  We carry them. Many are medical professionals and first responders, many others who do the most common of tasks to feed and clean and comfort those infected.  We carry them to Calvary.  Many are the very priests who this night reconfirm their holy priesthood, loving from a distance those they are called to serve.  We carry them as their prayers carry us. Many cannot practice the customs of their religious faith.  We carry them as we share their burden in our own parishes. 

Dear God, deliver us all, and strengthen our faith.  We see the Cross ahead of you on your journey and with you, ahead of us all.  Help us carry it together.  This is not “another time” we simply remember.  It is “this time,” “our time.”  We see the Cross.  Help us not forget that the tomb will be opened, the stone will be rolled back.  And your beautiful light will shine once more.