Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on the differences in my life and ministry as a priest, of being useless and being helpless. First and foremost, any sense of uselessness must be recognized for its source. God does not make anyone useless. Each and every person has a purpose to fulfill; it is part of being made in the image and likeness of God, that our very existence reflects His glory. St. John Paul II gave us such an incredible symbol of the dignity of the human being, in the experience of his own suffering, we looked upon someone who witnessed to the end what it means to glorify God in our living.
Almost three decades ago, I was blessed to work part time with children at Maryhaven. This was before I was a priest, in fact, it was that part of my life which was far from priestly, where friends were surprised that I would end my Saturday overnight shift by going to Mass. At the place, there was a little boy, I’ll call him John, who was not high functioning, like many of the kids. There was one thing that I will remember about him, and that was his habit of saying “I love you”. It was earnest in its utterance and came from a child who could do little for himself. He was far from useless. John gave a witness to the world, because his very existence, his brief life on earth was a testimony to the glory of God. So let’s set aside the idea of any human being being useless, as that does not come from God, but somewhere else.
These past few weeks have been a challenge to most of us. Even those who have found activities to keep themselves, and loved ones, busy, those who are on the front lines in helping to get us through the Covid19 pandemic, and other essential workers, still experience a feeling of helplessness. What do we do to keep the kids occupied. How do we make sure the rent or mortgage is paid. How do I protect my parents. Since we have had an unparalleled opportunity to reflect, there are probably many more questions running through our minds, and they are real and legitimate questions.
Recently, the governor of New York made a statement on the rate of new infections leveling off. He said that the decrease was the result of social distancing and not an act of God. Personally, I’m grateful that in America we have a Constitutional Amendment that prevents politicians from dictating what we believe. My own opinion is that the prayers of so many people, throughout the world, have had a definite impact, and that God is answering our prayers. However, I can see how Gov. Cuomo’s statement is both a reminder to be vigilant and practice precautions, as well as a response born from his own sense of helplessness in the face of this global threat to life and health. Someone who worries about the normal operations of the State, in abnormal times, while concern for his own brother’s fight with the virus can feel helpless.
My own sense of helplessness is both a blessing and a curse. Looking at it as a curse or hinderance is inevitable, but not a place where I want to remain. I can obviously see the limitations that have been placed on my ministry as a priest, first and foremost my ability to celebrate the Sacraments for the people. Because other pastors and priests have been going online, to broadcast their Masses live, I bought a video camera for the same purpose, and set up a YouTube account just for the parish, with plans to livestream the Palm Sunday Mass. Unfortunately, I was not able to get the livestream to work, whether because of the internet, the equipment, or just my own lack of technological skills, but after watching the Chrism Mass on the Catholic Faith Network, live from the Cathedral, I realized it might have been a good thing I didn’t go online. My Palm Sunday Mass was just myself, alone, no music, no lectors, no Passion Sunday décor of Palms to make it more engaging, because I have been here alone. For the sake of the health of the people of God in this parish, and the workers, and ministers, whether liturgical, musical or others, we have had to stay apart. Because of this, I feel helpless.
Because of my inability to be around other people, I feel helpless. Because of my inability to do the things I want to do for the parish and the wider community, I feel helpless. Because of the economic hardships that people are going through, that I cannot help them with, because the parish itself will be going through more tough economic times, I feel helpless. But that helplessness is not something that I can focus on, or it will overcome me.
There is on the other hand, a helplessness which I experience that I have to let overcome me.
Since becoming pastor three years ago, even before that as a priest in other parishes, people have commented on the wonderful things I have done, whether it is the various liturgical, social or faith formation activities, people have often complimented me. My normal responses are “It’s not me, it’s Him” or “I have been blessed with many talented and faithful people.” While there are times my ego is inside singing, “Yes, I did it! Me, Me, Me, Me, MEEEEE!”, I do my best to bring that part to the altar and ask Christ to change it, to alter it. It has also been pointed out to me that I need to practice taking a compliment, which I admit is difficult. But the overwhelming majority of the time, the response is born out of a genuine realization that God is working through me, and not just through my ability, but through my inability.
On my continuous journey of conversion, I become aware with greater depth, the need to surrender myself more completely to God. This time of Covid-19 is part of that continuous journey of conversion, as it allows me the opportunity to recognize my own helplessness, and place my trust in God, maybe to get back to a place of trust that I skipped over because I needed something done right away and couldn’t wait for God. Now the reality of that presents itself as God tells me, “You, Henry! Sit there, this one isn’t your’s it’s Mine.”
We, as human beings, don’t like being helpless, especially in these modern times when people demand they be allowed to shape their own reality, decisions that they force others to recognize as reality even when it contradicts the personal reality of others, or Reality itself. It’s one of the reasons so many people have fallen away from God, from Religion, partially because they refuse to be limited or directed, but mostly because they do not want to feel the helplessness of not being in charge of their own lives. However, the beauty of this feeling of helplessness in the presence of the Almighty, this commitment to surrender one’s self to God, is the freedom from recognizing that there are things beyond what we are capable of dealing with, things that we can bring to Him, and leave with Him.
There are times I am envious of my friends who are in twelve step programs, because when they “finish” the steps, they go back to the beginning and begin them again, especially the first three: Step 1 – We admitted we were powerless over our addiction– that our lives had become unmanageable. Step 2 – Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. Step 3 – Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Unfortunately, it may have taken a pandemic, to allow us to recognize our helplessness and our addictions to self; fortunately, God continues to come to us, and make Himself known in our weakness.
Pax, Fr. Henry