There is a profound reason a priest is called “Father,” and in the parish setting, the pastor really must be the father of the community. It is a wonderful gift and grace — something that we all, priests and people, perhaps do not fully appreciate until it is taken away. This unnerving moment that we will all have to live through, perhaps for many months, is striking at the heart of both faithful pastors and their people.
Dividing my time between the United States and the United Kingdom, with visits to the Middle East, has been my priestly ministry since July 2016. Before that, since I began to perceive the call to devote my life to aid and advocacy for persecuted Christians in late 2014, I was beginning to find it increasingly difficult to be the pastor of a parish and find the time to help the persecuted. Most of my 25 years as a priest (I was ordained in 1994) have been in parish ministry, with my last eight years as pastor of Blessed Sacrament parish in Stowe, Vermont.
When I am in England I stay, for extended periods, with my elderly mother, who, with multiple health issues, is in the most danger if she were to contract the coronavirus. So after a visit last week to a small summit on the persecution in Africa at Ave Maria Law School in Florida, I was due to spend a week in Washington, D.C., meeting with journalists and lawmakers to continue the work of advocacy. Then came the travel ban. Managing to change my ticket, I flew out of Dulles International Airport last Sunday — an airport much quieter than normal. The night flight was spent thinking, praying and — just because I am a strange fellow — reading a history of the flu pandemic of 1918.
The time of reflection was profound. In the first place, I meditated deeply about how important it was to be able to regularly receive the gift of sacramental confession and absolution. While the restriction on public Masses and gatherings by the bishops is understandable and probably wise, at least until the virus subsides, the stories that are emerging of individual priests refusing to hear confessions, or strictly limiting baptisms, is very disturbing. There have even been cases, apparently, of the denial of the sacrament of the sick.
Most of my transatlantic meditation focused on my unique priestly ministry in what will be the most extraordinary time in most of our lives. I assist, when able, in a delightful and devout parish of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — yet my “parish” has been, as I grew to understand through the night, the persecuted Christians (especially in Iraq and Syria) whom I have come to know over the last six years. This work will be very difficult, apart from writing and some broadcasting, in the coming months.
I feel, as all parish priests must be feeling at the moment, both a mixture of tremendous pain and some guilt that our ministry is impeded. I was due to be back in both Iraq and Syria very soon. That is impossible. Also, because of my mother’s health, I am writing this piece in semi-isolation at my sister’s house, not returning to my mother’s place for several more days. Then, because she will need care, I will not be able to assist in the parish. However, as the plane got closer to Heathrow, my anxiety diminished as I asked what the Lord was asking of me and other “Fathers” or pastors.
In the first place, our people will not, and cannot, be abandoned. The Lord is very clear about the shepherd who is merely a hireling and abandons his sheep in time of trouble. It will be up to each pastor to decide different ways to help his people, but two things are critical: first, that daily Mass continues to be offered, albeit “privately.” Second, for both priests and people to develop a new understanding of the Mass “pro populo” — “for the people.”
All pastors are required, by canon law, to offer one Sunday Mass every week “for the people” of his parish. Most of us, myself included, have sometimes not thought too deeply about the significance of that Mass. I remember reading a meditation by Pope Benedict XVI a number of years ago, saying that one of the main purposes of the priest was to pray for his people. Indeed he was meant to be the chief “pray-er” — especially for the people who did not pray. That is something we can all dwell on over these months. Both the daily Mass and the priest’s recitation of the Divine Office can be a truly powerful form of intercession for his people who are not physically with him. Is it going too far to say that this is a lesson we all need to learn, or re-learn?
In my little chapel I have a piece of a statue of Our Lady, which I picked up from the floor of a desecrated church in Iraq several years ago. ISIS had burned the interior of the church and smashed all the crosses and statues, including the statue of the Virgin. As I will pray for my “parish of the persecuted,” that relic, and the images I have of priests like Father Ragheed Ganni (martyred in Iraq) and Father Jacques Hamel (martyred in Normandy) will keep my people very close. Time and time again, as I have visited with Christians in the Middle East, I have been told that they feel forgotten by the Christians of the West — or worse, that western Christians do not really care about them. Yet always when I ask them what can we do to help them, the first response is invariably, “Please pray for us.”
My heart is broken that I cannot be with my people, that I cannot travel to speak and advocate and certainly try to raise money to help them. They must not be forgotten as we all focus on a kind of suffering that many of them have endured in a different way for many years. Yet that constant appeal for prayer may be the lesson God wants this “Father” to learn during these difficult days — that there is nothing more important or powerful than worship of God and prayer for his people.
Father Benedict Kiely is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and the
founder of Nasarean.org, dedicated to relieving the persecution of Christians in the Mideast.