If I Were A Bishop During COVID

In a pretend world, if I was the abbot of the territorial abbey of Krafton (known by the locals as Krafton Abbey) and had the responsibility for a group of the faithful, as a bishop does for his diocese, I would write a letter like this to them.

Pʀᴀɪsᴇ ʙᴇ ᴛᴏ Jᴇsᴜs Cʜʀɪsᴛ…

Dear sisters and brothers!

When Our Savior walked amongst us, He healed the sick and instructed us to care for the sick as well. During the last 14 months, we have not only been asked to care for the sick but to help take care of the healthy, to ensure that we nor those amongst us get sick as well.

It has been a long road.

This has been a difficult and trying time for our Diocese, our Church, our cities, counties, state, country, and the world. I, first, wish to thank you for the extraordinary efforts we have seen since the beginning of this pandemic. We have completely transformed our day-to-day life with no person exempted. We have foregone worship, recreation, work. We have lost jobs and struggled to make ends meet. We have gone out of our way to help our neighbors through direct assistance, donations, patronizing local businesses, and more. Our health care workers have stepped up in a way I never hope is needed again. Our community has volunteered with public health officials to support increased testing, vaccination sites, and outreach efforts.

This is no small feat and we should take a moment to reflect that we are living in a time where we, as a community, must work together in ways not seen for a long time.

While we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the tunnel.

As much as I pray for the end of this pandemic, we are still in the midst of it. We have made progress through refined understanding of the virus, how to mitigate and reduce the risks of transmission and infection, how to better treat those who are infected, and how to vaccinate against it.

This progress is a challenge, too. I am tired of the pandemic. I know many of you are and have been for awhile. As we learn more and are better able to resume the activities of life, there is the feeling that “we’re done” or “we’re past that now”.

Sadly, my sisters and brothers, that is not true. Yes, we’re further along the road than we have ever been before during this pandemic, but we’re still on the journey. We still have new cases daily in Austin higher than we saw a year ago. While Texas is doing better right now, we’re still seeing other states having upswings. And, of course, we must continue to pray and grieve with our Indian brothers and sisters who are currently in a horrific situation in their own country with almost 400,000 averaged new cases a day when a month ago it had never been above 100,000 averaged new cases a day.

While, here in Texas, we can continue to take steps forward, we cannot act as if the pandemic never existed or is over.

We are the Church of faith and reason.

St. Pope John Paul II wrote in the opening of his encyclical Fides et Ratio that:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves

As a Church, we know that faith and reason are intimately related!

“The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason ‘mutually support each other’; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding.” (Fides et Ratio, 100)

Even renowned atheist Stephen Hawking was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences! Why? Because to better understand the Creator—God—and the creation—our universe all the way down to us individually, we must seek out and explore new knowledge. Trusting science to reveal what science reveals while using our faith to guide that pursuit aligned with what science can not reveal.

In today’s context, we have to embrace the scientific and medical communities working tirelessly to better understand this virus, what it does, how to mitigate it, and how to stop it. The Church joins with public health officials to help the world navigate these uncertain waters.

In other words, we must work with hand-in-hand with the best experts to get through this pandemic.

How do we continue to mitigate?

We have learned a lot in the last year when all public Masses were suspended. We are not in a position to even consider that. The Church also affirms that the manifestation of the spiritual life is an essential human right. We are part of the local community and do need to heed public health demands.

One of the many ways to explain the mitigation approach is the “swiss cheese” idea. Every single type of mitigation has gaps, or holes, like swiss cheese. But, if we layer various forms of mitigation, we substantially reduce the transmission risks to where we can return to normal or near-normal activities.

Again, the point of all these mitigation efforts is to restore normalcy.

To that end, I will decree that all Catholic institutions implement protocols and policies that align with the spirit of guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from public health officials.

I will address broad themes here. More particular details, that will be updated as this pandemic continues to evolve, will in an accompanying decree.

In-Person Attendance

Generally, obligation to attend events in-person is dispensed. For parish ministries, including religious education, an option should exist for virtual access. This doesn’t mean one-size fits all.

For example, children should have virtual access to religious formation. I understand that this is a heavy burden for a lot of parishes if they are opting to also do in-person opportunities. Within each deanery, parishes can join together to provide a singular virtual or singular in-person option to help spread the load of dual-formats.

The Sunday Obligation and Mass

The Sunday obligation remains, but can be fulfilled broadly:

  • Attendance at Mass in-person.
  • Praying along with Mass in any form (radio, television, live stream) for that Sunday, recorded or in real-time.
  • Praying the Readings for the day and sincerely reflecting upon them.
  • A major hour of the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Office of Readings in a solemn way.

I ask everyone to worship the Lord on Sunday in a way that matches your current situation. If everyone in your household is vaccinated and you’re comfortable with a more normal life routine, please come back to Mass. If your home includes those who are not yet vaccinated, pray with your family from home.

Every time I lift my eyes to heaven, I pray for an end of this pandemic, or at least for it to evolve to where we can be “near normal” soon. We miss you. The Church loves you. I love you. As much as I want us to join together as we did before 2020, the Church realizes that, as we’ve done over our 2000-year history, we sometimes have to exist outside of the ideal. I think of the Early Christians who had to meet in secret in homes to avoid being martyred. I think of the Japanese Christians who had to go into hiding and persisted hundreds of years without a priest. What we’re asking is nothing like what our ancestors had to endure.

Virtual Mass is not ideal. Sacraments can never be conveyed virtually. They require presence. They require physical action. I admit that attending Mass, the time in which we worship the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist while we are, in fact, not present is awkward.

As the primary meeting time of the community, a time to hear and reflect on the Word of God with a homily, I ask that parishes continue to provide a virtual Mass option. That said, I also ask that parishes offer other liturgical options that exist in our faith tradition as well. I encourage Deaneries to work together to offer more ways for the faithful to pray liturgically while away without the duplication of effort or adding an undue burden on any particular parish.

For my part, I will be livestreaming Vespers I (that is, Saturday Evening Prayer as we begin our liturgical Sunday).

Masks

Wearing face coverings has been shown to be the relatively easiest way to make a sizeable reduction of transmission of Covid. As this virus is primarily transmitted via droplets, the vast majority of types of face coverings provide some benefit.

Generally speaking, masks will be required while on Church grounds. Exceptions, such as age, medical exemptions, staff working in a private office or very small meetings with all parties vaccinated, will be noted in the coming decree.

Additionally, I ask that we all act with charity. We do not know why any particular person is wearing or not wearing a mask at any particular moment. Any enforcement or questioning regarding this is for our pastors or their delegated staff members. In other words, please don’t shame each other either way.

While masks aren’t enjoyable, it is a relatively small corporal work of mercy toward our broader community. If you don’t want to wear a mask because of the inconvenience, let us join these small penances together as an offering toward the Lord who innocently suffered so much for us.

Vaccines

In accordance with announcements from the Holy Father and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), we have found it is morally acceptable to receive any available vaccine for Covid-19. The USCCB, through joint work from the Doctrine and Pro-Life Committees, have noted that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are preferable over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In Catholic teaching, there is a concept of “cooperation in evil”. In an ideal and perfect world, we would never at all cooperate with any form of evil or sinfulness in any way anywhere. However, there are situations where we have to look at the level of cooperation between the evil act and the act we’re trying to judge.

In full transparency, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed, in part, by research done on fetal cells acquired through an abortion decades ago. The abortion was not procured for the sake of research, but, as a secondary by-product of the horrible instance of abortion, fetal cells were acquired.

For the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, fetal cells, acquired the same way, were used as part of the production process.

In both cases, that Holy Father, the Vatican, and the USCCB all agree that the connection between us and the abortion is so remote, that there is no guilt associated when there is a proportionately serious reason. Covid 19 and the severe impact it has had on our communities, our nation, and our world qualifies.

Given the above, if you have an option, aim for the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. But, all three are morally acceptable if that is the dose you’re able to get.

Vaccines are our ticket back to normalcy. Vaccines are shown to provide better immunity than natural immunity (e.g. already catching Covid), the side effects are minimal, and their effectiveness is very high.

I strongly encourage all Catholics to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. For those who have any health concerns, please contact your doctor and follow their advice.

To that end, all parishes should make themselves available to the local health department to assist in any way possible in the vaccination campaign. This could include, but is not limited to, having flyers with vaccine information, host public health experts to be available following Masses, host vaccination sites at no cost to the health department (please contact me if there are any issues with this).

In short, I bind all of us to do what we can to help.

Other Mitigations

I repeat from earlier that all institutions should have a mitigation plan that implements protocols and policies that align with the spirit of guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from public health officials.

If any institution has questions, concerns, or needs assistance in any way, please contact me directly.

As faith leaders and faithful Catholics, we are the “experts” in the spiritual life. Our public health officials are the experts in public health. Let us “lean into” that expertise and use it for the betterment of all.

We are close.

I thank God every day that the situation locally is moving forward. I pray often for those around the world who are not. As we continue to move ahead as a community of faith, let us not be “blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel”, but walk forward fully aware of the current realities with confidence that, by the will and help of God, we will complete this time of difficulty soon.

…Nᴏᴡ ᴀɴᴅ ғᴏʀᴇᴠᴇʀ.

McCarrick

The Vatican released today a report from the Secretariat of State on Theodore McCarrick, the sexual abuser and predator who rose the hierarchy’s ranks to became a Cardinal.

I’ve only had a chance to skim it, so this isn’t a full summary except to say that some bishops didn’t share their full knowledge, some ignored reports or actively discredited the reporter. There was an implicit bias that worked in McCarrick’s favor (forms of clericalism). There was a failure to treat the reports as potential (and now confirmed) serious crimes against people, replaced with treating this as potential public relations and public scandal problems.

I don’t want to get into who, more specifically, is to blame or not without reading the report in more detail.

As a Catholic and a former lay minister, thus a tiny part of the institutional Church, I’m sorry. The Church failed on so many levels for such a long time.

I don’t have confidence that the lessons have been learned yet. Yes, a report of a sexual crime is taken far more seriously with a more objective process. Has the Church—specifically the bishops—learned to put humility and holiness over protectionism? Some always put humility and holiness over protectionism, some have learned to, but all of them? All of them in higher positions?

In addition to my continued prayers and support for those who have suffered at the hands of the Church, I pray for the institutional leaders that they receive this report with open arms and minds, learn from it, and make the sometimes radical change to return to the first principles of their vocational call. I pray for myself, too, for the grace and wisdom to help in my future roles within the Church.

Dedication of the Archbasilica

Today’s feast day in the Latin Church is the Dedication of St. John Lateran. It’s the only “archbasilica” in Christianity as the chief and highest-ranking church in the world—the Mother Church.

Briefly, this area of Rome just inside the city walls was given to the Pope around the year 300 or so with a church on the site dedicated in 324. For a long time, the Pope lived at the Lateran and a number of councils were held here over the years.

It was–and still is—the Cathedral for the Diocese of Rome and for the Bishop of Rome, which is just another name for the Pope. St. Peter’s is just another church, but St. John Lateran is the Cathedral.

I’ve been able to visit a couple of times; here are a few pictures from April 2019, including the Baptistry adjacent.

Whenever we come to church, we must prepare our hearts to be as beautiful as we expect this church to be. Do you wish to find this basilica immaculately clean? Then do not soil your soul with the filth of sins. Do you wish this basilica to be full of light? God too wishes that your soul be not in darkness, but that the light of good works shine in us, so that he who dwells in the heavens will be glorified. Just as you enter this church building, so God wishes to enter into your soul, for he promised: I shall live in them, I shall walk through their hearts.

St. Caesarius of Arles as found in the Office of Readings.

One Priest Can Make All The Difference

Today is the birthday of Fr. Ivor Koch, who spent hours sitting outside of the funeral home with my mom after my dad died. We were lapsed Catholics and a family holding a lot of pain from church mistakes decades before.

I was baptized, but we never went to church for the 11 years that followed. But, nevertheless, he sat there, listening to my mom’s grief about my dad and her pain about the church.

We always considered ourselves Catholic. But the Church had burned us. Fr. Koch wasn’t pushy. He was simply present.

He was present in ways that the priests weren’t in the 70s when my mom wanted to talk about her brother’s suicide.

And that made all the difference. He cared. He brought Christ to us again.

He wasn’t perfect. He was a bit grumpy. But, he made all the difference, healed a massive rift in my family, and gave me a spiritual home when I needed it most as a 12-year-old dealing with losing a father.

He died a few years ago, but I keep his birthday on my calendar. If you’re one of the priests that follow me, know that you’re changing lives every day by just being you. Keep fighting the good fight.

Palm Sunday

This Sunday marks one week before Easter and so it is Palm Sunday. Usually, we would begin Mass with a more formal beginning—a reading of a Gospel passage of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the blessing of palms, and a solemn procession.

Due to the circumstances—and in accordance with the Vatican’s decree on Holy Week with the Coronavirus—the full beginning to Mass will not be happening this year.

While we can join with our parishes and our bishops in livestreams, it is also important to act as a domestic church—offering worship within our smallest units of community.

To that end, I put together a brief prayer service we’re going to hold at home this weekend.

Some key points of this liturgy:

  • Procession — My kids love singing and love being active. We will start near our front door with palms. Yes, I ordered a palm altar decoration last week, but historically, churches that could not source palms would use branches of local trees. This seems like a good time to utilize that tradition, so use any branches that you’re willing to have inside! We’ll gather at the front door (inside), bless ourselves with holy water, offer a prayer, and then process through the house with our palms and incense.
  • Readings — We will read, basically, the Sunday readings. The first reading, the psalm, the second reading are the ones for Mass this year. The Gospel will be the one that is said at the beginning of the solemn Palm Sunday entrance. The assigned Gospel is the Passion and, with the kiddos, we are going to just focus on that piece of our faith story on Good Friday.
  • Intercessions — The guide says leader, but I’d like to try to have each of the older girls read one of them.

Nothing fancy and most of it has been pulled with slight adaptations from official texts.

If this is fruitful for your family, please let me know!

Sundays at Home

We are living in a new time with the Coronavirus. I’m not sure if we’ve ever had a time where public Masses were suspended across the country—maybe during the 1918-1919 flu epidemic—but not within virtually any of our lifetimes at least.

Our technology allows us to livestream Masses from our parishes into our home and I appreciate the comfort that comes from seeing our priests and hearing them.

Without judging anyone who finds following along with a livestream Mass fruitful, it isn’t my bag.

Have I watched Masses on television before? Absolutely. I followed the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II live from within St. Mary’s Cathedral. I’ve watched liturgies from Rome with three different popes.

But, as the form of Sunday worship, I submit that we have such a breadth of Catholic tradition that we can look to other forms of worship to add to our homes and, perhaps, maintain once we can rejoin our parishes in person.

Why not the Mass?

Personally, there are a few rough edges with a livestream Mass as the primary form of worship.

First, while the Mass is effectual without my presence, when I am watching it on TV or my laptop or phone, I’m not in that presence. I’m watching a video. Do I kneel toward the TV? What am I kneeling toward? Is Christ, in the Eucharistic form, in front of me? Kinda? Maybe?

I’m a techie. I’m a distributed employee. Some of my best friends are work friends who I only talk to via Slack, Telegram, and sometimes on video. I have more beers with my friends via Zoom than I do in person. I’m not a Luddite who rejects technology, but when seeking out the Real Presence of Christ, I do want to be in the presence of the Real Presence.

Second, I fear that reducing our Sunday worship to the television opens the door to us not being active participants in our prayer. When we watch movies or TV or YouTube videos or Instagram stories, we can fall into a trap of being mere spectators. Sometimes, that’s okay, but if this is the form of worship we do, there’s something missing.

Third, we have so much Catholic tradition to draw from! The Liturgy of the Hours! Little Offices, Stations of the Cross. Seven Sorrows, litanies, the Rosary, and so on.

So what instead?

First off, if you find watching the Mass via livestream fruitful, still do it. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m saying it should be, as the cereal commercials tell us, part of a balanced breakfast prayer practice.

The family is the domestic church. Whether you’re a family of one or of eight, through our baptism, we have been baptized into Jesus’ role of prophet, priest, and king and we have the grace and permission to act as Church within our own homes.

Let’s pray together as a family! Not gathered around a device, but gathered as a family.

The readings from Mass each day are available on the USCCB website. Light a candle, sing songs, offer prayer (something already written or from the heart) and read them as a family together.

Liturgical Press, the Benedictine apostolate from St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, has released a “Holy Week at Home” guide.

I mentioned our family’s celebration of Night Prayer last week—there’s not only Night Prayer but the whole Liturgy of the Hours. I admit, though, that if you’re starting a home liturgical life, Liturgy of the Hours can be a bit scary. There are a lot of guides online and publications like Magnificat or Give Us This Day provide simplified Morning and Evening Prayer for each day.

This doesn’t mean don’t pray with the community.

I still think listening to the homily from your parish (or elsewhere too) is a great idea. I have a priest friend out of the Archdiocese of Atlanta who is praying the Angelus and Midday Prayer on Facebook Live and Instagram every day. I appreciate this since both parties—the broadcaster and the “viewer”—can fully participate.

While these are trying times, we can use them to strengthen our home prayer life in ways that can continue after we return to our churches.