St. Brigid’s pastor Fr. Carlos Sierra Tobon says we can never take the Eucharist for granted. Michael Swan

Priests try to adapt to empty churches

  • March 25, 2020

Parish priests, whose life’s work revolves around other people and their relationship with God, have experienced COVID-19 losses as they adjust to life without Sunday Masses, prayer groups and close contact with parishioners.

Jesuit Fr. John Sullivan, pastor at downtown Toronto’s Our Lady of Lourdes, said he’s not suffering any more than his parishioners, but the sense of loss is real.

“It’s extraordinarily different,” said Sullivan. “So much of the life of the Church and so much of the life we receive personally is through coming together. Really, through the celebration of the sacraments. 

“Not to be able to do that — I mean, as priests we are encouraged to say private Masses — but the coming together as a community, you really feel that hole within you.”

For the second Sunday of the COVID-19 Mass shutdown, Sullivan live-streamed his usual 11:30 a.m. liturgy from a mostly empty church (a small choir was present). Sullivan also kept the church open all day through the week for private prayer. Without libraries, community centres or even coffee shops open, many people from Canada’s densest high-rise neighbourhood across the street have been dropping in.

“Just to see people, it was very beautiful and moving to see people come in. And especially most of them are over 70 years of age — they ventured out. You just get the sense of their own vulnerability, and yet they still come,” he said. 

But those drop-ins ended when Toronto churches were closed March 24.

In Brampton, Ont., St. Patrick’s pastor Fr. Vito Marziliano has been celebrating Mass alone, but not lonely. “What I have is a list of parishioners on the altar. So when I celebrate Mass it’s like having them there,” he said.

With Holy Week celebrations certain to be different this year, Marziliano is considering taking the Blessed Sacrament on a tour of the parish with him on Holy Thursday, bringing it to the driveways of St. Patrick’s parishioners. He might do the same on Good Friday with a crucifix for adoration at a safe distance.

Marziliano reminds himself that social distancing does not mean disconnection. “Wherever we go, God is present. We connect with that as well,” he said.

St. Brigid’s pastor Fr. Carlos Sierra Tobon watched a small trickle of parishioners arrive one by one to the east end church on the first Sunday without Mass.

“I felt so sad, so bad,” he said. “Because I felt myself being deprived of what is mine. Do you know what I mean?”

He’s quick to point out the loss of Mass is not his alone.

“For many parishioners, I would say they are regular church-goers, they feel it too. They have, I believe, the same feelings,” he said.

Now that Sunday Masses are suspended, Sierra hopes Catholics come to better appreciate the Eucharist.

“That is something that we took for granted for many years. Now that it has been taken away from us, we feel the emptiness,” he said.

He believes Catholics are being tested. The question is whether they have developed an inner life of faith.

“First we have to look inside of us,” he said. “The resources of faith, hope and charity that we hold within are the things we have to apply first to ourselves in these times, and then certainly to reach out to others…. Looking within, many people find that they don’t have any resources.”

Sullivan believes Catholics have answered the bell in trying times.

“The archdiocese has responded well, with care and concern for the faithful,” he said. “The faithful themselves, in all the different responses we receive from people, they’re very grateful.”

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