by Michael O’Connor
One thing we know for sure about Covid-19 is that the over-60s are at greater risk than the general population. Most Catholic priests are in this age group. As lockdown measures are relaxed, they are going to be under considerable pressure to show up; and the pressures will be both external and internal, unconscious as well as overt.
I tried to imagine what that would be like: I met up with four fictional priests who were on an imaginary zoom call celebrating 45 years since their ordination. I asked them how they are preparing themselves to open up their churches for public masses. This is what they told me:
Fr. Chris Crozier: I was ordained to serve, period. This is what it looks like in 2020. I don’t recall specifying, on my ordination day, the situations in which I would not serve. I am trying to respond to the Lord’s call, to read the signs of the times, to minister word and sacrament, with a trusting and generous heart. I won’t say that I am not concerned – but I am concerned every time I drive on the freeway or climb on board a plane. Perspective is important.
Fr. Tim Tremblay: Perspective is difficult when the fear is real. I was getting used to the “Celebration of the Order of Mass with a Single Laptop” – a fully sterile environment. But now I’m losing sleep about people coming back to church. I’m not in the best of health and I actually feel bullied into putting myself at risk. And it’s not just me: so many of my parishioners are old and infirm – where will this end? I search my heart and I really don’t know what to do; I feel frightened, ashamed, and guilty. What will they say if I just don’t open up my church?
Fr. Freddie Faraday: Yes, the danger is real – no world is risk-free – but, let’s be honest, it can be kept under control. I wash my hands, keep my distance, wear a mask whenever necessary – it’s not hard to protect ourselves and our people. Follow the guidelines, say your prayers, and you’ll be fine. And if you do get sick, help will not be far away; no one wants you to be the next Michael Power or Father Damien. And ignore all that overblown talk of being frontline heroes – it’s not very helpful.
Fr. Graeme Green: I rather like the idea of being a hero – and a saint. It’ll make a change from being “not as kind as father so-and-so,” or “not as hardworking as father such-and-such,” or “not as funny as our last priest” (they can’t even remember his name but they still know he was funnier than me). I know I’ve been lazy and – God forgive me – too often taken shelter in a drink. This disease is a great leveller; it could be my best shot at genuine holiness, delivered right to my door.
A couple of months ago, I tried to imagine the feel of Sunday mass as lockdown measures were eased. One thing I had assumed was that seniors would be asked to stay home. Looking at recently issued guidelines from several dioceses, I see that I was wrong. My prayers for priests have taken on a new hue.
Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. He is Coordinator of the Christianity and Culture program and is a Lay Dominican.