COVID hit all of us in different ways, and for a lot of us clergy, it changed us in ways we never imagined.
One priest I know said that in the early days of the pandemic, he felt (as he put it) “like a man without a country.” He found himself celebrating Mass alone, then with just an iPhone on a tripod; the days stretched before him with little to do and no flock to lead.
I know my experience of the pandemic challenged me to reassess my life and what I wanted to do with the time I have left. The fatalities were climbing week after week. A hospital two miles from my living room ran out of room in the morgue, and brought in refrigerated trucks to handle the extra bodies. Funeral directors were overwhelmed. It seemed like every other day we heard of another priest or deacon headed to the hospital. (The first priest in the United States to die from COVID was a priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn, not far from where I live in Queens. In all, we lost about a dozen clergy in the first year of the pandemic.)
One result: I decided to retire from full time work in March, to focus on writing books, directing retreats and leading parish missions around the country.
Now The New York Times has taken a look at how clergy from various faiths have found their lives and ministries altered:
When many New Yorkers most needed their faith communities, houses of worship were either closed or operating with limits on attendance. The solace of grieving with family and friends, the comfort of the communal rituals of prayer and the joys of ceremonies celebrating births and weddings, were missing…
… Priests, rabbis, imams and ministers leaned on the teachings of their faiths to comfort their flocks, and themselves. They also employed modern technology, including Facebook Live and Zoom, to pray with congregants safely.
This month, Ramadan, Easter Week and Passover overlap, and New Yorkers are gathering at their houses of worship, many for the first time in two years, now that many Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted. And although some houses of worship appear to be returning to a semblance of normalcy, conversations with clergy members revealed the profound ways in which the pandemic has altered their lives and their work.
The newspaper interviewed several clergy members of different faiths, including a priest who ministers in my own backyard:
I will always remember the last Mass on Sunday, March 15, 2020, because it was like a funeral. The parishioners were crying and crying. The churches closed the next day because of Covid, and people were knocking on the doors out of fear. I remember being very disturbed by the feeling of not knowing what to do…
… But it meant a new opportunity to rediscover my faith because of all the limitations, and the problems compelled believers to understand that faith was something even deeper. And we had much more time for prayer and a very, very deep need. There were so many deaths here in Corona, often several people from the same family.
I think now, after two years, that the faith of the people is stronger. I see a rebirth. People understand the value of the Eucharist and of a very personal relation with God. And we realize that everything we do affects our neighbors and can even mean death or life in certain cases. We belong to a family, to a community, that is one body, always connected.