A letter to his people from Father Geoffrey Mackey. He’s a priest of the Byzantine Catholic Church serving parishes near Pittsburgh. He sent it on March 29th, which in the Eastern Catholic calendar is the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt. It begins “My Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ.” He closed it “In the love of God and in anticipation of our gathering together once more, I remain, Yours in Christ.”
In the midst of this strange and uncertain time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we observe the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, a saint who, after her dramatic conversion at the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, received the Holy Eucharist only once in her long life. As we are separated from the eucharistic gathering during this time, I thought this a particularly appropriate occasion on which to communicate to you.
It is a hard time and many are wondering where God is in all of this. Why has God allowed this time in which we are barred from coming together as a community, in which many are barred from the sacraments except in case of emergencies? Why he has allowed businesses to be shut down and people laid off? Why he is allowing such sickness, even unto death?
I would like to try to encourage you in two ways.
Japan’s Hidden Christians
The first comes out of the history of Japan. The Catholic faith was brought to that great nation by the Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier in the 1500s. They made considerable numbers of coverts and a healthy Catholic community developed. However, in 1587 the missionaries were banned from the country and beginning in 1597 a persecution of all Christians in the country began. (The extreme nature of this persecution was fictionalized in the popular novel, Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, which Scorsese made into a film in 2016.)
It was not until the mid-19th century that Catholicism was permitted again. For over 200 years the “Hidden Christians” of Japan lived — and sometimes thrived — without recourse to the Sacrament of the altar. One person put it this way: “Imagine being raised with the near certainty that you would never in your life attend a Mass, knowing of the Eucharist only because your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother once went to Mass. It puts social distancing in perspective.”
And yet, these Japanese Catholics performed lay baptisms, promulgated the faith, catechized their young people, and buried their dead without any priests or bishops among them. So that when the Catholic missionaries were finally allowed back in the country, they found a small but devout community, still committed to practicing the Faith.
We find ourselves in this temporary time of inability to receive the Body and Blood of Christ on Sundays and Holy Days. We are not able to gather. Our “diaspora,” however, will not be for over 200 years. Nor are we required to keep our faith hidden. While we are socially distant, we are in no way hindered from proclaiming in word and deed the love of God which has been poured into our hearts in Christ Jesus.
Second, I would like to recount to you the words of a priest of the Pittsburgh Oratory. When he announced that public Masses would be cancelled there, he wrote, “I know some are wondering if this is the right thing to do. Do we not need the grace of the sacraments now more than ever? Is the Church abandoning Christ? Are we abandoning Christ?” Father Michael Darcy continued:
In a sense, yes, we are abandoning Christ. But we are abandoning Christ for Christ. St. Philip Neri said something very similar once. He insisted to Oratorians of the need to leave Christ for Christ. When they were at prayer or engaged in some work of piety, they should always be ready to abandon it immediately for the sake of helping another person in need. If some poor person came to the door or otherwise needed help, the priest should always be ready and willing to leave Christ in prayer in order to welcome Christ in his neighbor.
This helps explain what the Church is doing, he wrote. “We certainly are leaving Christ. We are even leaving . . . the celebration of the Eucharist, the very heart of Christ, in order to do our part to serve Christ in the countless vulnerable persons at risk in the current crisis. Our departure from the Mass, the sacrifice of Christ, is our sacrifice. It is a painful one, but one that the Church tells us in necessary, and if it is necessary, it must be pleasing to the Lord.”
Our Lord Never Abandons Us
We all pray that this time of separation and uncertainty would be quickly ended, and that our God who loves us all will see fit to mitigate its impact, both in terms of health and life and in economic terms. But although we are limited in finding Christ in our communities gathered, our Lord never abandons us. He is challenging us to see Him in the face of our families and closest neighbors. He is asking us to find new ways to show His love and to receive it.
Let us not fear, remembering the words of St. Paul the Apostle: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor demons, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
Father Geoffrey Mackey is pastor of St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. A former Episcopalian, he also serves as the dean of students at Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican seminary in Ambridge.
The picture is of the Stavropoleos Monastery in Bucharest. It is not an Eastern Catholic church but their churches look alike and it’s a beautiful picture. It is taken from PhHere and used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.