Joining Bishop O'Connell for the Ascension Mass were Father Stanley Lukaszewski, St. Barnabas pastor; Father Carlos Florez, parochial vicar, and Msgr. Leonard Troiano, retired priest of the Diocese.  Staff photo
Joining Bishop O'Connell for the Ascension Mass were Father Stanley Lukaszewski, St. Barnabas pastor; Father Carlos Florez, parochial vicar, and Msgr. Leonard Troiano, retired priest of the Diocese. Staff photo
Amid confusion about access to churches and a growing call on the part of some Catholics to immediately return to normal religious practices, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., recently thanked his flock for their patience and offered hope that positive changes are coming.

The Bishop delivered the hopeful remarks at the end of the livestreamed Mass for the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord, which he celebrated May 24 in the chapel of St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville.

“Thanks for your patience, dear faithful people of God, in these days,” Bishop O’Connell said. “I hope to have good news for you soon as we begin the process of gradually restoring our Catholic life to its fullness – both with the Sacraments and with the Holy Mass.

“Please be patient until the announcement is made,” he added.

Transferred from the traditional Thursday to the Seventh Sunday of Easter throughout New Jersey this year only, the Solemnity of the Ascension commemorates when Jesus, in the sight of his Apostles, ascended bodily into heaven. Bishop O’Connell celebrated the Mass without a congregation, which has been the case since late March, when the Bishop suspended all public Masses over COVID-19 concerns.

Joining the Bishop at the altar were Father Stanley Lukaszewski, St. Barnabas pastor; Father Carlos Florez, parochial vicar, and Msgr. Leonard Troiano, retired priest of the Diocese.

Seeking Answers

The matter of when the faithful can return to Mass has been the focus of intense interest in dioceses throughout the nation for more than a month, including in the Diocese of Trenton. But statements made by President Donald Trump May 22, calling for the country’s governors to immediately reopen houses of worship, appears to have spurred a sharp increase in emails, calls and letters to parishes and Chancery offices.

The President observed that some governors "have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship. It's not right." He noted that America needs “more prayer, not less,” and called on all state governors "to do the right thing and allow these very important essential places of faith to open right now, this weekend.” 

He added, “If they don't do it, I will override the governors.”

While some of the President’s comments have spurred debate over their Constitutional soundness, the affirmation of the importance of religious life has been broadly welcomed. Still, the statements led to  uncertainty among some of the Catholic community as to who has the authority to reopen their churches.

In the Diocese of Trenton, Bishop O’Connell has spoken out frequently throughout the pandemic shutdown, offering pastoral concern and coping measures, and encouraging connection through livestreamed Masses and the recitation of a Spiritual Communion.  Consulting with state officials and being guided by data-driven findings on the progression of the virus, the Bishop  reported on a phased plan in early May to restore some aspects of normal faith practices.

As part of the first phase, he reopened the churches for private prayer in compliance with public health guidelines for indoor gatherings effective May 13, and he permitted in-car, outdoor Masses and the distribution of Holy Communion beginning May 18 in compliance with strict directives developed by a pastors’ task force. In conjunction with these advancements, Bishop O’Connell stressed the importance of keeping up to date on advice of experienced public health officials “who have cautioned us not to rush into reopening churches to the faithful before their safety can be assured or, at least, uncompromised.”

In the midst of measures to protect the safety of his flock, Bishop O’Connell also publicly condemned  the status given by Gov. Murphy’s executive order that identified abortion as a permissible elective surgery.

In a message posted March 24, Bishop O’Connell stated: “At a time when we are doing everything possible in New Jersey to protect people from COVID-19 and to preserve the health, wellbeing and lives of people who have been exposed to coronavirus, to permit the simultaneous, continued destruction of life in the womb just doesn’t make any sense.  It has never made sense even in good, pandemic free times.”

Safety First

Dealing more directly with parishioners’ questions and appeals, some pastors have tried to dispel confusion in recent weeks and assure parishioners that a process to reopen is underway. Using email messages and social media posts, they convey patience and pastoral concern in reaching out to their communities. 

In a social media post, Msgr. Edward Arnister, pastor of St. Rose Parish, Belmar, said: “As you may have heard, President Trump announced that churches are now considered essential. This is great news, but please continue to be patient as we await our guidelines from our Bishop. The safety of each of you is essential … [and] we will be preparing the church and undertaking all the health precautions required prior to opening the church for public worship.”

Earlier in May, another pastor addressed the perception that closing the churches has been forced upon the Diocese by the Governor. Conventual Franciscan Father Michael Lorentsen, pastor of St. Junipero Serra Parish, Seaside Park, told his parishioners: “Bishop O’Connell closed our churches in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These closures are temporary and are a robust attempt to lower the rates of infection, mitigate the spread of the virus, protect the members of the parish, most especially our senior members and now also our youngest members in light of increasing cases of Pediatric Inflammatory Syndrome that may be linked to COVID-19. The churches are closed to protect the people who gather in them. Again, these closures are TEMPORARY.”

Father Lorentsen also spoke to the moral obligation to pursue a careful and prudent course in reopening the churches.  He wrote: “Any right that a person claims necessitates a firm sense of responsibility as well. In this time of pandemic, opening our churches too quickly puts our people at risk. We will not do that. Catholic moral teaching articulates consistently and unapologetically the dignity of each and every human person and our common responsibility to work for the common good.”

Christ Is With Us

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell reminded his flock of the hope offered to believers in Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven. He said, “This feast that we celebrate today represents the end of the incarnate physical, bodily presence of the Lord Jesus here on earth and his return to the Father. It highlights the universal, eternal and spiritual presence of Jesus among us – ‘I’m with you always, he tells us.’ Just as Jesus’ Resurrection is our introduction to eternal life, so the Ascension is our path to eternal glory.

“The Solemnity of the Ascension whether celebrated on a Thursday or on a Sunday, offers us all hope,” the Bishop preached. “Hope that Christ will return to us in glory, that his Holy Spirit will remain with us now and always as we proclaim his love, his mercy and his truth, and that through our faith, we will be his witnesses until the end of the age.”

Citing the Gospel, the Bishop urged all “to remember and hold on to” the words of Christ, especially in times of difficulty and during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Behold I am with you all days until the end of the age.”

This article includes reporting from Catholic News Service.