Serving the Suffering Church: The Deacon in Lockdown in New York
Thoughtful, prayerful, enterprising people connected through wires and antenna are people to give us hope
A couple of times a day I have to get up from my desk, go to the window and check.
Yes. New York City is still there.
But it feels like it isn’t. Life in quarantine is like that. The world seems to have stopped, and nothing is quite what it was.
For the last several days I’ve been working from home. The office building in Manhattan where I work as a writer and editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) has closed for the foreseeable future, so I’m doing what I can from my laptop here in Queens.
It’s a strange time to be a New Yorker. The streets are deserted. The sidewalks are empty. The store shelves are barren. The local bagel shop is struggling to stay open. My parish’s go-to restaurant, Portafino, just across the street from our church — the place where families have gathered for decades after baptisms and first Communions and funerals — is shuttered.
And then there is the church itself, a stone landmark on Queens Boulevard, standing there now, strangely unused. Yet the bells still toll for the Angelus. They remind us of a time before — before the lights were dimmed and the doors were locked. They remind us of a time when voices filled the air and incense wreathed the altar and that vast space inside teemed with life, as light streamed through the stained-glass windows and elderly women with rosaries made their way around the church, whispering prayers at the Stations of the Cross or slipping a folded piece of paper under the foot of St. Jude, with a prayer intention scrawled on the back of a grocery list.
Now that’s gone.
So much has changed. It happened so quickly, didn’t it?
My wife and I are self-quarantined in our apartment several blocks away. Now and then I venture out to buy some milk or mail a bill. I bravely visited my barber for a haircut the other day. “How’s business?” I asked as he draped a cloth around my shoulders. He shrugged. He explained, in his thick Russian accent: “Yesterday, two people. Day before, one. Today, you. What you gonna do?” I asked him if he was going to close. “Nah. Forty years, 365 days open, never close. Never.”
“Never” is about to become history. As I write this the governor just ordered beauty salons and barbershops closed.
The day I had my haircut I walked past people wearing masks and rubber gloves. We are space aliens now. People don’t talk if they don’t have to. They scurry, wanting to get back home as quickly as possible.
So much has changed.
That extends to my ministry, too. With a lot of things canceled — Masses, sacraments, parish meetings — familiar patterns are broken. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the life of the parish.
But in the midst of all that we are reminded that being Church is larger than being in church. Faith endures.
It is there every morning when I click on my Mac and behold an astonishing world of prayer, resilience and hope. I scroll through social media and am amazed. There is a priest offering confession in a parking lot in Maryland; another priest is offering Adoration from the window of his church in Massachusetts; there are people creating prayer groups, rosary societies, online perpetual Adoration. Parents are sharing ideas for homeschooling, catechesis, ways of watching Mass together through FaceTime or Skype.
So much has changed.
But I’m realizing, too, that much has not.
We are still the Body of Christ. We are doing our level best to support one another, pray with one another, encourage one another and worship the God we love.
In my life as a deacon — a deacon who is, not insignificantly, engaged in a ministry of communications — that means sharing as many of these stories as possible on my blog, connecting readers to the larger Church and helping all of us realize we are not alone. Grace is everywhere — streaming to us across Twitter and Facebook and YouTube if only we take the time to look for it.
We need to look. This pandemic is forcing most of us to watch the world through a screen and over a keyboard.
What do we see?
Mr. Rogers used to tell people during times of strife, “Look for the helpers.” We need to look for them, even more, these days; they can be harder to spot, because so many are at home, hidden. But in quiet but resolute ways, they can remind us that the world isn’t entirely composed of teenagers who are determined to get drunk during spring break or hoarders who have to grab that last roll of Charmin.
There’s the professional concert pianist who was unable to attend a conference out of town, so he set up a portable piano outside to play for his neighbors.
There’s the group of high school students who found their spring concert canceled, so they recorded a lovely rendition of “Over the Rainbow” via Skype, and the whole thing went — pardon the word — viral, uplifting and charming thousands around the world.
Thoughtful, prayerful, enterprising people connected through wires and antenna — these are people to give us hope. And we need that during these early days of the pandemic. We’ll need it for days to come, too — because, in fact, this is only beginning. With travel restrictions tightening and quarantines spreading, it is harder for a deacon right now to be where he wants to be, where he needs to be — with the people. He can’t do what he feels compelled to do, what he is called to do.
So — for now, perhaps — the best thing he can be is prepared.
If the economic predictions are accurate, when this crisis passes, another will be taking its place. There will be a large population of people needing support and care. Some of those will be people we know.
We need to be ready for them, with open arms and open hearts. We need to be ready to re-evangelize a broken, beaten world.
And we need to be prepared to face a different Church than the one we knew. Parishes are going to be hit hard by this crisis. Staff may be trimmed. Some places may even close. Demographics in the pews may change, too, as people move on like gypsies to places where there are better jobs or more dependable opportunities.
I think the world we will face in a year or so may be different from the one we knew before this began.
So be prepared.
Use these days to get ready. In some ways, they are a gift.
Add more time for prayer. Seek out sacred readings and study the lives of the saints — they have much to teach us right now about persistence, resilience and faith. Focus on “the domestic church” of the family. Check out online prayer resources — videos, podcasts, live chats — when you are able. Stay connected to those you love, using whatever electronic resources are available. Remember them in prayer. And don’t be shy about asking them to pray for you.
We all need that.
There is much we are missing these days, and I’m reading online again and again about people who are saddened, and even angry, that they cannot receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
I texted a friend the other day: “Maybe we are being given this time to realize that being Catholic Christian isn’t just about what we receive; it’s also about what we give.”
Maybe, I explained, this is a moment for us to pause and consider other ways of being Catholic.
Even in times of quarantine and solitude, we have much to give the world. I think of our cloistered brothers and sisters around the world who united their prayers with ours and wonder if this is a moment for us to be more intimately connected with them — and, by extension, with others who are isolated, imprisoned, held captive by weakness or illness or persecution. In a peculiar way, we are all captives now.
And, finally, speaking of prayer: when you can, offer up an “Ave” for our priests.
When the history of this time is finally written, it is the priests who will be remembered as some of the unsung heroes. Our world will be remade and our Church will endure, in part, because of a stalwart, largely anonymous band of men who spent quiet afternoons before small altars, blessing and breaking bread, praying for the world.
As I write this, private Masses are being said in churches, chapels, rectories around the globe. Intentions are being remembered. Sacrifices are being offered. The vital spiritual work of the Church is continuing, often in places where no one can see; sometimes it is being recorded on an iPhone or streamed on social media. Most of the world doesn’t even know it is going on. But it is.
And thank God for that.
The world outside my apartment window is still there. (I just checked.) Trees are beginning to bud. On Yellowstone Boulevard, flowers are struggling to break through the earth. Spring is here.
When this has ended and we are once again gathered around altars, praying together, singing together, clasping hands, sharing chalices and sharing stories, we will marvel at what God has done, and what we have been able to do through his grace.
And the deacon’s words of dismissal will have even more meaning. “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”
There will still be so much we have to announce. The world will still be waiting to hear it.
DEACON GREG KANDRA is the creator of “The Deacon’s Bench” and is the multimedia editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).