Now the silence: On priestly ministry and presence in time of pandemic

It will soon be three weeks since I’ve celebrated the Eucharist. The last time wasn’t a Sunday morning with a full church, choir, organ, and hymns, but our Wednesday noon service. There were eight of us in attendance. We were aware of COVID-19, concerned about sharing the common cup, but we weren’t doing any of the things that have become our routines. There was no social distancing. We may have refrained from shaking hands at the peace, but we closed in around each other to chat. None of us knew that it would be the last time we would gather like that for several months.

As I returned the sacred vessels to the sacristy and closed up the church, I had no idea that this was the last time I would be doing those things. In the nearly fifteen years I’ve been a priest, I don’t know how many times I’ve presided at the Eucharist. I do know that since I’ve come to Grace, it’s been three times a week, every week, except for vacations and six weeks of sabbatical. So that’s probably at least 1500 Eucharists at Grace.

1500 times saying the words of institution: “This is my body … This is my blood.”

1500 times saying the words, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”

An unknown number of times that I have said to people at the rail, “The Body of Christ. The bread of heaven.”

Now the silence.

We don’t how long it will be before we can again gather at the Altar of our Lord, to join in the messianic banquet and eat of Christ’s body and blood. The central sacrament of our life as Christians, the Eucharist, our offering of sacrifice to Him in thanksgiving and remembrance of his death and resurrection, is taking place in some places around the world but not here. Our offering for Christ, for ourselves, for each other, is an offering deferred, an offering of hope.

Looking back, had I known that the Eucharist would be taken from me and from us by COVID-19, would I have done things differently? Would I have made note to myself or to those present the historical significance of our little gathering? Would I have sought words to make sense of our situation in light of the Eucharist’s coming departure? In fact, I love the quotidian simplicity of that small Eucharist: spoken, not chanted, with so few present. The Solemn Prayer over the People for the Second Sunday in Lent a fitting way to go our separate ways and enter into the silence and absence of Eucharistic fast:

Keep this your family, Lord, with your never-failing mercy, that relying solely on the help of your heavenly grace, they may be upheld by your divine protection; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following days were filled with frenetic activity as we clergy began planning for worship and all other programming to move from the comfort of physical presence to the mystery of online platforms, and the uncertainty of how it would all work and whether any of it would be effective.

When gatherings of more than ten people were banned, and as our Diocese lowered that limit to 5, it was clear that nothing would be the same for some time to come, that the familiar rhythms, language, and sacraments of Episcopal worship and life would no longer shape our lives and our ministry. We experimented with Facebook Live, with Zoom, and with other methods. Some of us found them helpful and adaptable and were surprised at the response from parishioners. We struggled with questions about what sort of worship was appropriate and debates raged throughout the church on the validity of things like “virtual communion” or “private communion” or “spiritual communion.”

On a pastoral level, in spite of the distance, I have found this time to be energizing. Connecting intentionally with people brings great rewards and is far better than relying on the chance encounter on the street, or the random possibility of conversation on a busy Sunday morning. I’ve connected with some people more regularly in the last two weeks than I ever had before. We set up a phone tree for the first time to reach out to all of our parishioners and that has engaged an already active pastoral care team in important and ongoing ministry. I’ve watched as new friendships have begun to develop from those initial phone calls.

Inside the whirl of activity, as in a hurricane, there’s an eye of silence. As priests, at the core of our existence are the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In its absence, many of seem to be floundering for meaning and purpose. If we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what can we do? And if as priests we can’t celebrate the Eucharist, what’s the point of being a priest?

Our identity and vocation is bound up with the sacraments. They brought us to faith, nurtured us, ordained us. And as we celebrate the Eucharist we make the bread and wine the Body of Christ for the Body of Christ. We help to enact and incarnate the Body of Christ in our local contexts. Without that, what, who are we? Without the Eucharist, what are our congregations?

We flail about, looking for ways to continue celebrating the Eucharist and engage in debates in conference calls and on social media over the validity of such practices or the Eucharistic theology that might underlie them. Drive-through Eucharists; consecrating the bread and wine of a family at home through the wonders of modern technology; private Eucharists, celebrated by priests alone in empty churches.

I wonder whether our need to celebrate the Eucharist is so tied up with our identity and vocation as priests that we can’t see other possible ways for being priests in a world of pandemic. I wonder whether our desperate need to celebrate the Eucharist is more about how celebrating feeds our spirituality and egos than anything else.

At our ordination we are admonished:

In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the
riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this
life and in the life to come. BCP 531

The Eucharist is only one of many ways that we may nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. In its absence, let us explore other ways, through prayer, scripture study, and pastoral care, to help our people deepen their faith and share God’s love.

As I reflect on my own experience these past two weeks, I have found myself entering more deeply into the Daily Office. One of my Lenten disciplines this year was use Rite I and to follow the monthly Psalter reading, so that over 30 days, I read all 150 Psalms. I also decided to begin the Office with the Angelus, a practice to which I have grown attached during my retreats at the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The language of the Psalms speak to us across the centuries. They express our hopes and fears, our faith and trust in God as well as our doubts and despair. And the Angelus, that ancient prayer to Mary is as much a confession of faith in the Incarnate Word as it is to Our Mother to pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It seems to me that the example of priests saying the Daily Office on behalf of ourselves, our congregations, and our larger communities, might be an important way that we can continue to exercise our priestly ministry in this time. It’s reminiscent of the work of cloistered monks, whose prayers are offered on behalf of the world. But it’s more than that. By praying the Daily Office publicly we may also be offering a way for lay Christians to engage more deeply with a life of prayer, to develop new habits of prayer that might take root and have lasting consequences.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by images and video of Pope Francis’ “Urbi et Orbi” blessing last night. Alone, in a usually bustling St. Peter’s Square, he sat silently and spoke eloquently, offering a message of hope and faith in these dark times. And then there was that image of him, bearing the Blessed Sacrament, elevating it in the open window to the empty square and to the dark city, and to a suffering and fearful world. Then he turned and limping, carried it back inside the papal apartments.

My piety does not extend to Solemn Benediction or processions with the Host. Such processions were traditionally one of the chief ways the church acted in times of plague or pestilence. They seem quaint, outdated. But perhaps in this time, I need to nurture such piety. To display Christ to the world may be what we need in this crisis. I have not been downtown more than a couple of times in the last week but I know that the streets are for the most part empty, and that those who are on the streets are among the most desperate of our homeless neighbors—severely mentally ill; victims of substance abuse. The streets are empty except for pain and suffering There may come a day when we will need to offer our own blessing of the city as life returns to something like normal. There may be a day when a procession with Christ’s presence might bless Capitol Square.

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