I write this letter to you on the feast of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests. I pray I may have a portion of the love and zeal he had for the salvation of souls. I also pray, through his intercession, there be a renewed practice of the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (confession) in our parish and throughout the Catholic Church. Incidentally, they tell us he spent eleven hours in the confessional in winter months and sixteen hours there when the weather was warmer. Oh, that this would be the case today!
Having been in the parish for less than a month, you can only imagine what must be going through my mind. While administration is not new to me—this is now my fifth parish as pastor, in addition to having been a principal and president of a Catholic high school—each parish has its unique challenges and particular character. Moreover, entering a new situation during a "pandemic" adds to the number of circumstances to which one needs to adjust.
In my former parish (Holy Angels in Woodbury) we had eight weekend Masses in three locations served by four priests. Fortunately, I was not aware of anyone getting ill or dying because of the manner in which we celebrated Mass, distributed Holy Communion or conducted ourselves in and around the churches / worship center. Those whom I was aware of dying with the virus were often situated in long-term care facilities or assisted living centers. (We had at least six such places in my former parish.) Often they were quite elderly and had underlying conditions. I pray for the repose of their souls.
Why I bring this up is because of what appears to me to be a type of paralyzing fear of this coronavirus I have sometimes seen exhibited. If you are not aware, I have an eighty-six-year-old mother whom I try to go and visit weekly. I usually spend an overnight with her in her condo to keep her company. I am privileged to offer Mass in her presence and give her Holy Communion. I would never want to infect her (or anyone else) or accelerate her demise. Ever. I am well aware of the recommended protocols, which have varied in importance, effectiveness, etc. on more than one occasion. Yet, I also remember we are dealing with a virus—invisible to the naked eye, without a current vaccine or guaranteed cure, and which may be around for quite some time. While I try to do what is reasonable, I also will not let fear paralyze me.
At this parish there are more than enough safety precautions in place, probably more so than my last parish. I have joked that you can probably do surgery in the building, it is so sanitized. However, when a person leaves this artificially created safe space, he or she still has to face the rest of the world with all of its complexities. The virus is still out there somewhere.
But so is God. God is still in control. He knows everything about everything. He knows about this and other corona-viruses. That is why I trust Him completely and I concern myself with the spiritual health and well-being of my parishioners first and foremost. I am not disregarding the other aspects of a person's life, but I take Jesus' words seriously:
And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. (Mt. 10:28)
Please don't think I am heartless or insensitive. I am not. Rather, I consider myself somewhat of a realist . . . and I place my faith in Almighty God.
Jesus, I trust in You!
Fr. Ed Namiotka
St. John Vianney