April 3, 2020

Priests offer a unifying message: ‘It is in times like these that our faith really shines forth’

During this time when public Masses have been suspended in the archdiocese, the photos of the families of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis have been a source of connection for Father Todd Riebe when the pastor celebrates online Masses in the parish chapel. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

During this time when public Masses have been suspended in the archdiocese, the photos of the families of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis have been a source of connection for Father Todd Riebe when the pastor celebrates online Masses in the parish chapel. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

When Father Todd Riebe entered his parish chapel that late March morning, he had an “almost eerie” feeling as he prepared to celebrate Sunday Mass without any of his parishioners physically present there.

Then he looked at the photos of all the smiling parish families that Deacon Michael Prakasam had pinned to the chairs of the pews. And the pastor of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis smiled as he felt again the special bond that connects pastors in the archdiocese with their parishioners.

“I began to feel a spiritual connection with all the people of the parish precisely during the celebration of so-called ‘private’ Masses,” Father Riebe recalled.

Then another surprising feeling overwhelmed him during this time when all public Masses and services in the archdiocese—including liturgies during Holy Week and on Easter—have been suspended indefinitely because of the coronavirus crisis.

“Even when the restrictions imposed on us by the virus are over, I will be more aware than ever of the presence of people at Mass who are not physically with us,” he said. “I think of people in nursing homes or hospitals who would love to be with us, people in jails or prisons who cannot be with us, and people who don’t feel welcome or who have been hurt by the Church or who are still finding their way.

“The Mass—and the love behind the sacrifice that takes place at every Mass—embraces the entire world. It’s ironic that I would come to experience the presence of so many people in an empty church.”

Father Riebe is one of three archdiocesan priests that The Criterion contacted to share their thoughts on how this uncertain and unprecedented time has impacted their lives and their connection to their parishioners. Yet something greater has come from the insights of Father Riebe, Father Chris Wadelton and Father Tony Hollowell.

The three priests, from different parts of the archdiocese, have essentially combined to provide an informal spiritual guide to help members of the Church in central and southern Indiana make the most of the upcoming Holy Week—and their faith life—during this difficult time. (Related story: Online Masses help priests continue to connect people to God) 

Embracing the opportunity to sacrifice 

“God’s word is always heard in a particular context,” Father Riebe noted. “The context of Lent 2020 is, undoubtedly, the coronavirus. How could the words of John’s Gospel from the Fifth Sunday of Lent not jump off the page at us in the context of the coronavirus? ‘Lazarus come forth!’ (Jn 11:43). How we long to hear those words addressed to us. 

“In the overall context of Lent, the coronavirus has offered us the opportunity to sacrifice so many of the good things we enjoy, such as freedom of movement and association with friends, for a greater good—the protection of others, especially the most vulnerable. It’s exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross.” 

Staying spiritually connected 

In this time when public Masses have been suspended, it’s important to make an act of spiritual communion, noted Father Hollowell, administrator of St. Paul Parish in Tell City and St. Mark Parish in Perry County. 

“In fact, it has been practiced by many Catholics who, over the centuries, were not able to receive holy Communion,” he noted. “One of my favorite examples is Father Walter Ciszek, who spent six years in a Soviet prison without bread or wine to say Mass. During this time, he made several acts of spiritual communion each day by praying the rosary. He found great consolation in these daily rosaries.” 

Father Hollowell encouraged people to make praying the rosary a part of their spiritual communion. He noted that there is “no more frequent prayer found on the lips of the saints.”

Sharing the hope during Holy Week

Father Chris Wadelton already knows the main theme he will share in his online homilies for Holy Week. 

“It is in times like these that our faith really shines forth,” said the pastor of St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. “Because of our belief in Christ, we are better able to accept adversity without losing hope, and share that hope with others. 

“It is when it gets dark that you can see the smallest flickers of light. We can be that small light that will help someone else who is struggling in the dark. The overall message will be one of looking forward with hope, not fear; patience, not despair; love, not guardedness. 

“There are a lot of silver linings in the storm clouds above if we can help people by pointing them out.” 

Celebrating Easter 

Father Riebe believes that “Easter will be experienced by many of us in a new and a much deeper way this year.” 

“Easter is the story of new life, new beginnings,” he said. “It’s the story of the power of a love that conquers even death.  

“While we may not be able to celebrate Holy Week in our usual manner this year, all the same, paschal candles around the world will be blessed and lit in the early darkness of Holy Saturday night, with or without a congregation. That light and the victory that it symbolizes will be carried into our churches and will be waiting for us when we return—whenever that may be.” 

Relying upon the grace of God 

For Father Hollowell, this period of “social distancing” has been a blessing in some ways, giving him the opportunity to experience increased times of “quiet and stillness.” But that blessing has also involved challenges. 

“There have been some periods of boredom, fear, doubt and confusion, but … every cross given has also come with a corresponding grace to carry it. And there are many friendships and relationships which have been a source of renewal right when I needed it, especially my relationship with God. 

“Through these graces, I continue to believe what I have always experienced ... [that] my ultimate source of hope does not lie in sociological or medical strategies. My hope lies in the Providence of God who is always at work in the world as a healer and a savior.” 

Taking our direction from Christ 

In conversations about the coronavirus crisis, Father Wadelton said that many people have asked him, “Does God have a plan in mind for all of this?” Here’s his answer: 

“I don’t believe that God sent the coronavirus into the world with some plan in mind. However, we can take direction from Christ on how to deal with adversity. We can choose to work with God to bring something positive out of the situation. We can resist the tendency toward fear, and instead turn toward God to pray for a cure. 

“Also, I feel a strange sense of being united with people right now in a special way because we all have this common enemy we are trying to defeat. There are all sorts of lessons we could learn from that.”    

Living the Mass 

During this time and always, Father Hollowell said, the greatest goals we have as Christians are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:29-31). 

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is living the Mass,” he said. “It is always possible to live in our very bodies the love of the one whose sacrifice we commemorate at every Mass. 

“Even outside of this current pandemic, most Catholics do not become holy by attending or watching daily Mass. They become holy by surrendering to the will of God, which often looks like getting up early to go to work, taking care of children when they are sick or need help, and never having a moment to yourself. 

“The summit of the Mass is found in Christ’s words, ‘This is my body, given up for you.’ And we always have the opportunity to live these words.” †

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