A year of the unexpected

We start a new liturgical year today, and 2020 is almost over, and I think everyone would agree that this was a year of the unexpected. A lot of unexpected things happened to me as well, and not just due to COVID-19.

In January, while I was in Rome, my superiors asked me to transfer to the new Legionary community in Raleigh, founded in July 2019. We decided on waiting until Easter so that I could help out during Lent at St. Brendan’s. Lent was a busy liturgical season, especially with the extra penance services. As January drew to a close COVID-19 was arriving in Northern Italy, and I returned to the U.S. right at the start of February. Not long after that the first COVID-19 wave swept over Italy and they implemented a complete lockdown. The professors at the Athenaeum had to do everything via streaming, and to leave your home you had to present a form at watch stations showing you had a legitimate reason to be out. I barely missed that.

In the United States things were starting to heat up, but it took a few more weeks. They locked down the assisted living communities first. It first came home for me when I was denied access to an assisted living community because I had recently been travelling to Italy. Masses continued at first, and a family asked me one day (before Mass) whether I was comfortable giving them Communion on the tongue, since most at St. Brendan’s received in the hand and those who continued to receive on the tongue made them nervous. I told them I didn’t have a problem giving them Communion on the tongue, but I also told them to be aware that they made others nervous doing so. I also told them that we had to take precautions but ultimately it was the Lord who would watch over us.

Pretty soon the parish buildings were shut down, as well as public worship. We heard confessions on a patio behind the parish social hall that allowed for social distancing and ventilation. I only helped with a penance service at one parish before the others scheduled for Lent were cancelled as parishes were closed. Sick calls were restricted to those who were in hospice (in the process of dying). A lot of my work is not direct parish ministry, so most of my projects (studying, writing, researching, working on online courses for RC Spirituality) were not impacted by COVID-19, but the parish was scrambling to see what we could do. We started with recording a daily homiletic reflection, but soon saw the need to stream Mass. Since I had some equipment for my online classroom work I became the streaming engineer for the Masses we celebrated and streamed from the parish rectory’s chapel. Other than one music minister for the Easter weekend only the priests were at Mass; everyone else watched via streaming.

Five years in the making, my book Maximizing the Mass was published in March. I did an open webinar to present the book, and I can honestly say I would have never imagined releasing this book, on the liturgy, when the faithful could not participate in Mass. I would never have imagined we would ever have a situation where the faithful couldn’t participate physically in worship. The sacraments are the lifeblood of the Church, and they not only benefit us, but the whole world. As a priest I was always aware that having even that brief personal interaction with faithful, from hearing a confession to simply giving Communion, was a moment where the virus could spread. When the diocese announced it was suspending public worship one of the main reasons was because most of their clergy were at-risk due to age. With a lot of unknowns and uncertainty about what medical expert to believe it just reminded me that we are always in the Lord’s hands. If he wanted me to get sick, it would happen, and if I sought to do his will, he would help me continue. However, among some of the faithful there was an unhealthy fideism, which made them suffer the restrictions more and reject some of the measures being taken to check the virus’ spread. While Our Lord can work miracles we shouldn’t count on them being frequent or automatic. Good and holy people get sick every day and Our Lord permits that suffering for many spiritual goods. COVID-19 is not an exception, so we have to be prudent.

I still had the grace of daily Mass and Adoration, so I can empathize with all of you how difficult not having the Eucharist was. There was a lot of heroic obedience out there and it was not without spiritual fruit. The recent Supreme Court decision regarding attempts in New York to restrict worship was very encouraging, because freedom of religion means that worship is an essential service and should be legally protected like other essential services. Good Friday was surreal this year, since I spent it in the rectory when normally we’d be hearing confessions from morning to evening. On Easter Sunday I published a farewell video for the parishioners of St. Brendan’s:

On Easter Monday I left for Raleigh. A lot had changed since I was told in January that I would be transferring to Raleigh. I wasn’t sure whether I’d be stopped, so a I had a letter from the Legion explaining I was being transferred, just in case. Traffic was light from GA to NC and I made it without any problems. Raleigh was on lockdown too, so I focused on my projects and started settling in. An academic seminar I was scheduled to attend in July (in PA) was postponed to 2021, although we had one Zoom meeting to prepare for next year.

In Raleigh we reside in a house on the property of St. Joseph Catholic Church, in southeast Raleigh. This view of the parish is from the house where we live. The community is myself (from left to right below), Fr. Peter Devereux, Fr. Joshua West, and Fr. Stephen Ellis.

In late June it was confirmed that after the 1st semester of the 2020-2021 school year I would no longer be going to Rome annually to teach theology. The Athenaeum was re-structuring its Bachelor’s program and it provided a logical opportunity to bow out and pursue teaching opportunities in the U.S.. Until a few months previously I did not see this coming, making it another reason this year was a year of the unexpected.

On July 1st the Legionaries assumed the pastoral leadership of the parish. Fr. Peter Devereux, L.C. was installed as pastor on July 30 and the bishop came to preside over the Mass, as well as Legionaries from out of town:

I didn’t work much in the parish, since it is much smaller than St. Brendan’s, but I often help out with Sunday Mass at the nearby Our Lady of Lourdes. I also received a new assignment that was internal to the Legion around this time: Territorial Prefect of Studies. I oversee the intellectual formation and doctrinal fidelity of all the Legionaries of the North American Territory. It mainly consists of coordinating the review and approval of books published by Legionaries that touch on faith a morals, supporting the Deans of Study of the two formation centers in the territory (the Sacred Heart Apostolic School in IN and the Novitiate and College of Humanities in CT), and helping the fathers and brothers not currently studying full time to form whatever study habits they need to be more effective in their ministry or apostolate.

In July there were also protests regarding the disgraceful George Floyd incident. Demonstrations were held downtown, but nothing happened at the parish, although some parishioners had to board up the windows of their businesses, and there was a curfew imposed a few weekends, including the weekend of the installation. Mid-July we had a scare that a member of the parish staff tested positive (without symptoms) for COVID-19, so we all got tested and a couple of days before my scheduled trip to CA to visit my Mom I found out I had tested negative. I spent the beginning of August having a quiet visit with my Mom. Since Santa Cruz county was on lockdown we didn’t go out to eat or visit family (at their request), so it was the quietist visit home I’d ever had. The parishes were closed, so for the first time I celebrated privately with a Mass kit at home, another situation I would have never expected.

After returning from CA I’d planned to visit Philadelphia and then stay with my old Legionary community in RI, but RI had mandated a 14-day quarantine for visitors, so I ended up staying in Raleigh and doing a staycation instead, visiting the NC Zoo (highly recommended) and hiking in some parks. As I prepared for my return to Rome in September there was guarded optimism and things started opening again. Until late July it wasn’t clear whether I would be allowed to return to Italy at all, since the border was closed, but on September 21st, mask worn for the duration, I returned to Rome, passing through JFK. All the airports I’d visited in August and September were well under capacity, almost ghost towns, and JFK’s International Terminal ever more so, although, strangely enough, there was a large group of Asians. The plane to Italy had 33 people on board. One passenger was bipolar and suffering from a Messiah complex (and tried to recruit me to his cause–pray for him). I made it to the CILC (Collegio Internazionale dei Legionari di Cristo) and had to self-quarantine for 14 days, during which I did my annual eight-day spiritual exercises. It’s a large house, and one father did come down with COVID-19 (with symptoms) requiring a group of fathers and brothers to quarantine. At the end of my quarantine I was told to take an antibody test, and, to my shock, the antibody test said I had COVID-19 at some point, but not currently.

The last time I had experienced anything resembling symptoms of the cold or flu was in December of 2019, but one doctor told me that was too long ago to register on the antibody test results, so I must have been asymptomatic. I said some extra prayers for anyone I had contact with whenever I was infected, with no way to know whether I was the cause. Another unexpected thing to add to the year. Classes began the first week of October, and my first day of class was the day after my quarantine ended (not scheduled that way; it just happened). No one was allowed in the building without a mask and a temperature check, and every day we had to submit a signed form saying we weren’t sick and hadn’t been knowingly in contact with someone who had COVID.

Within a few weeks the cases of COVID began to rise, so they restricted in-person classes to those doing their first year of study. That meant I had to stream all my lectures from my room in the CILC. Since I do a lot of meeting by Zoom and work on creating online courses I had a good microphone and so far, so good. It also has the added advantage of not having to lecture wearing a mask. The decree is schedule to expire on December 3rd, so we’ll see if they extend it.

I voted with an absentee ballot and the election continues to be crazy. I think everyone was hoping COVID hysteria would die down with the election, but since Trump is contesting the results (as is his legal right) the election hasn’t really ended and the COVID hysteria either. At least some hope seems to be on the horizon with the vaccines, but I don’t put my faith in vaccines. Realizing, despite my precautions, that I had been infected with COVID at some point just reminded me that our faith must be in the Lord.

That goes for the election too. I watched a documentary recently called the Social Dilemma, and one of the points it made is that social media, in trying to cater to the views and preferences of its users (in order to get ad revenue), has contributed to a polarization where the two sides are confirmed in their beliefs so much that they are more hostile to the beliefs of the “other side.” This is one factor in recent campaigning on both sides presenting this election as either world-saving or world-ending. The result is if your side seems to be losing it seems to be the world is ending. This has happened on the liberal side of politics as well as the conservative side before. We must keep praying that what is best for the U.S. happens and remember that the Lord is much bigger than one country or one political agenda, I had this especially in mind last weekend when we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King (full name of the solemnity: The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe). Trust in the King, not the election.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Italy, but being an international community we had a Mass in English (over which I was invited to preside), and in the homily I reminded everyone how important gratitude is, because if we don’t give thanks the void is often filled by the opposite: an attitude of entitlement which is a recipe for frustration that focuses on what you don’t have instead of what you do have. Thanksgiving this year was hard for many who couldn’t be with family or friends, but especially for those who have lost someone this year. Let’s continue being grateful for what we do have, not frustrated for what we don’t. Have a Blessed Advent.