CNS photo/Octavio Duran
CNS photo/Octavio Duran
" It is up to us all to find some spiritual good coming from this difficult sacrifice we have been asked to make.  Complaining, angry protesting or writing petitions – although maybe a means to vent our emotions – will not yield any spiritual good.  They will not make the pandemic go away, will not make us safer, will not open our churches or tabernacles any quicker and will not strengthen our faith.  " Bishop O'Connell
The temporary closure of churches to the faithful in the Diocese of Trenton and its effects on the public celebration of Mass and Sacraments in their usual ritual form were the most difficult and painful decisions I have ever made.  They were equally difficult and painful decisions for the priests and people of the parishes of the four counties to receive, especially at the holiest time of the year.  

At first, I tried to leave churches open for prayer during the day and, then, to implement the “no more than 10 persons” guideline for safe social distancing recommended by public health officials and epidemiologists much more knowledgeable and experienced in responding to a massive and highly contagious disease than any of us. Public and parochial schools as well as parish religious education programs had already been temporarily closed, with the “until further notice” dates changing twice.

Soon it became health experts’ recommendation that any public gathering could expose people to the rapidly spreading COVID-19, especially by those who were asymptomatic.  What was a “state of emergency” in the nation and the state was now a “pandemic.”  The churches had to temporarily close to the public and any liturgical or sacramental ceremonies had to be temporarily postponed. On April 1, I made that decision.

The situation was unprecedented, and emotions have been running high. Some consider the decisions an overreaction to the coronavirus.  Others are overwhelmed as the numbers of the sick and dying steadily climb higher with each passing day.  Still others do not know what to think or how to process the overload of information. Confusion, fear, anxiety and stress grew as the contagion evolved and spread. We are told over and over again to continue observing careful hygiene and strict social distancing and, simply, to “stay home.”  

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), along with the NJ Department of Health, have helped organize and coordinate our national and state response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Diocese of Trenton carefully follows their guidance and advice.

I am not a doctor, epidemiologist, microbiologist, scientist, researcher or government official.  I am a diocesan bishop and my primary responsibility is to provide for the pastoral care of the faithful of the Diocese and to help them grow in their Catholic faith. That task, however, cannot ignore the physical welfare and common good of the faithful entrusted to my care. For that I need to follow the counsel of doctors, epidemiologists, microbiologists, scientists, researchers and government officials.  As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, in response to this pandemic, I have followed their advice and our churches will remain closed until it is safe to reopen them to the public. I will not put the faithful at risk.

In the meantime, the pastors, parish priests and I have encouraged the faithful not to lose faith or become discouraged.  In fact, in this time of crisis we all need to be more convinced than ever of God’s care and constant presence.  We all have to express our faith in different ways in these times.  Parishes and the Diocese have live-streamed Masses and prayer services online.  Although we all wish we could return to normal soon, many of the faithful have expressed appreciation for these efforts and outreach.  

All of us can and should continue to pray each day.  As we watch live-streamed Masses, we should listen to the readings, homilies and prayers and make the traditional “spiritual communion” that saints and fellow Catholics have made for centuries when it wasn’t possible to receive the Eucharist.  Saying the Rosary and our Catholic treasury of prayers complement our own personal prayers and devotions.  Reading Scripture and other spiritual works serves to strengthen our life of faith.  

The uplifting video messages presented by our pastors and parishes online are also a source of spiritual comfort.  The spiritual sacrifices we are making should be joined to the Cross of Christ.  He asked that of us several times in the Gospels: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:23; Matthew 10:38; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27).”

Earlier this week, I read an article online by Carol Glatz in the Catholic publication Crux that addressed the sacrifice now being asked of us who are temporarily unable to receive the Eucharist.  In her report, Glatz points to a reflection in the April 18 edition of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, written by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, former director of the Holy See Press Office (2006-2016). Glatz writes:

Experiencing the forced abstinence from the Eucharist “can become a time of growing in faith, of desire for the gift of sacramental Communion, of solidarity with those who for various reasons cannot benefit from it, of freedom from the sloppiness of habit.”

“To understand once again that the Eucharist is a freely given and unexpected gift of the Lord Jesus,” which should be desired with one’s whole heart all the time, “couldn’t this also be the outcome of this disconcerting time?”

The Jesuit priest looked at the church’s long-standing, but, until recently, more neglected practice of “spiritual Communion” – inviting Jesus into one’s heart and soul when receiving the actual sacrament isn’t possible.

Physically receiving the Holy Eucharist is extremely important, he wrote, “but it is not the only and indispensable way to unite oneself with Jesus and his body that is the church.”

During the pandemic when so many people are obliged to go without the Eucharist, many are increasingly feeling how much this “daily bread” is missing from their lives, he wrote.

The church accepted imposing this sacrifice on the faithful “as a sign of solidarity and participation in what is happening to entire peoples constrained by limitations, sacrifices and suffering from the pandemic,” he wrote.

“Fasting is a sacrifice, but it can be a moment for growth,” he wrote.

“Like the love of a married couple,” who, because of reasons beyond their control, “are far apart, can grow and become more deeply faithful and pure, similarly fasting from the Eucharist can become a time of growing in Faith,” Lombardi said.

Being without the Eucharist during this pandemic is certainly far from ideal and certainly not preferable to receiving the Lord Jesus’ Body and Blood. No one is arguing otherwise.  But, when such reception is not possible, as is temporarily the case in these days, Father Lombardi makes a good and valid point.

It is up to us all to find some spiritual good coming from this difficult sacrifice we have been asked to make.  Complaining, angry protesting or writing petitions – although maybe a means to vent our emotions – will not yield any spiritual good.  They will not make the pandemic go away, will not make us safer, will not open our churches or tabernacles any quicker and will not strengthen our faith.

Patient suffering and sacrifice is the example the Lord himself has given and the Lord himself has asked of us until the community of faith is safe enough to gather together in church and receive him again in the Eucharist. That time will come, have no doubt.  Until that time, however, let us spiritually welcome the Lord into our hearts and pray for one another.