As we continue through this time of uncertainty, each weekend I will celebrate a prerecorded Sunday Mass in both English and Spanish. You will find those Masses by going to this link: A Living Church. The Masses should be posted by Sunday morning.
The prerecorded Mass is one way for me to be closer to the people throughout the Diocese of Cheyenne. There are so many changes to our normal daily lives, and to our life of faith. In a time of uncertainty, we need to be more closely united, even as we practice “social distancing.” I assure you that I am praying for you each day. Please pray for me.
In this weekend’s homily I want to begin by explaining why we have taken such strong measures. I have suspended all Masses, and even the Sacrament of Reconciliation is available only for serious illness and danger of death. Why? The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith. It is an immense source of grace for us. Only in an emergency situation should a bishop consider suspending all Masses.
In order to make prudent decisions, I have formed a COVID-19 Response Team. The team consists of four pastors from Cheyenne and Laramie and three lay leaders from the chancery office. In addition, I have been consulting two medical doctors who are lifelong devout Catholics, and who have practiced medicine for 40 years. Thus, our perspective includes devoted pastors who have dedicated their life to your spiritual welfare, lay leaders who bring the “view from the pew” and whose focus is to serve the entire diocese, and medical doctors who understand medical issues while having a deep appreciate for the Catholic faith. Our decisions are based on faith in God and key values which uphold the common good.
An essential value is solidarity with the most vulnerable. We have an obligation to do all we can to prevent the transmission of this virus, especially to the elderly and people with compromised health conditions. Solidarity means to be a brother and sister to every person. Solidarity with the most vulnerable means that we must act as family to the elderly and those with health problems. In addition, we need to act so as to prevent any person from being infected. Our Governor has asked faith leaders not to have meetings of large groups. The Center for Disease Control has recommended that people avoid all meetings.
Solidarity means to sacrifice my personal desires for the common good. It is a way for us to ‘Love our neighbor.’ For example, some people might think it is still okay to socialize. But it’s not just about personal preference. Every one of us can be a carrier to others who are more vulnerable. In solidarity, we always think of the least in our midst and how our actions affect them. Every person should avoid non-essential gatherings. We are co-responsible for the welfare of all people. Please join me and the clergy in being co-responsible for the common good of society. Think and act in solidarity, with co-responsibility and enduring faith.
Ceasing public Mass helps to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, Italy closed their churches, then some pastors had outdoor Masses. But their bishops and the police told them to stop. Those Italian priests are good pastors who want to feed their people spiritually. But the result was that more people were exposed to COVID-19 and are dying. In Italy eight days ago 175 died within 24 hours, but two days ago 627 people died within 24 hours. The Italian government expects the daily death toll to rise for two more weeks.
I cite those statistics to push us to grasp the reality of the situation. I refuse to live in FEAR, but I do not want to be STUPID. Rather, I want to see clearly what we are up against, and then act with faith. As your bishop I need to consider your spiritual needs together with your overall well-being, and the common good of all people, not just Catholics. We must be responsible citizens in the community of Wyoming and in the USA.
Furthermore, I am not just thinking of the next few weeks or months, but the next ten years. In the Italian Diocese of Bergamo, eleven priests have died from COVID-19. If we have several priests die from the virus, then instead of months with no Mass, some communities could go for ten years without Mass.
Now I want to talk about our internal response to COVID-19. When you find yourself lonely or burdened, then reach out to others who are lonely. Over the years, I have found that strategy so helpful. God takes away my burdens when I help others. That is how Jesus acted. He always lived for others. Loving others fed him spiritually. It is a source of grace similar to the Eucharist. In fact, it mirrors the Life poured into our hearts through the Eucharist. In these days, let selfless love be Eucharist for you. Watch how your heart is filled with the Joy of the Holy Spirit through your love for others. As St. Paul said, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17)
As fear and anxiety arise, remember that God is always with you, especially in times like this. Be confident of God’s loving concern for you. God even uses sickness for his glory. In the story of the man born blind (John 9:1-41). The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” God used a man born blind to reveal his power. God never wishes evil or suffering on anyone, but the Lord can use sickness to show his power.
At one point, St. Paul was suffering from a mysterious illness, and he said that he begged God three times to take it away. Then he heard God say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Then Paul wrote, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Cor. 12:9) How does the corona-virus makes you feel weak and vulnerable? Yet, when that weakness is combined with faith in God’s love, then God’s power is made perfect in us. Then God is our strength and our rock. Then we become as strong as God.
We need to bring this gift to our communities. People need us to be a calm peaceful presence and firm in faith, even though – at the same time – we are humble and meek because of the pandemic. This is a painful time, but God used the suffering of Jesus to redeem the world. He will use this suffering for his glory, and for the salvation of others, if only we imitate the faith and selfless love of Jesus manifested most clearly on the cross.
Pray with great trust in God’s love. In today’s Mass, the refrain for Psalm 23 is: “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” I encourage you to memorize that psalm. Jesus knew many of the psalms by heart, so I have memorized some of them, including Psalm 23. This psalm reminds us that “Even though I walk in the valley of death, I fear no evil; for the Lord is at my side.”
I too have been anxious, but peace returns to my heart when I take time to pray. On Thursday, I realized that I was extremely anxious, and I was not sleeping well. Then in prayer God helped me see that I was relying too much on my own efforts, rather than depending on the guidance of the Lord as my Shepherd. Peace returned when I turned to the Lord as the Good Shepherd. “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.”
Remember, if Jesus can heal a man born blind, then he can do anything. Right now, we all feel like we’re walking blind. We are in the darkness like the blind man. So this gospel invites us to have faith. Believe in Jesus, and he will heal your blindness. Trust in the Lord as the Light of the world. No sin, no sickness and no evil can extinguish his Light. Every year on Christmas morning, we hear from John’s gospel that. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5)
Finally, at this time of distance from the Eucharist, I want to remind you of the Sacrament of which you can never be deprived. The living water of Baptism flows deep within us. Through Baptism we were clothed in Christ; even more, we were inserted into Christ. We live in him, and he lives in us. By the grace of our baptism, we have direct access to God. We are God’s adopted children. We have the right to speak to God face-to-face. While you do not have access to the Eucharist, call upon your Baptismal grace. The Light of Christ filled your heart at Baptism. Live in that light. Let that Light shine in your community by your solidarity and selflessness.
In describing the grace of Baptism, St. Paul said to the Ephesians, “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. . . . Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” (Eph. 5:8,14) This is a time for us to wake up and live our baptismal faith.