The bicycle priest
Balancing the need to both protect and connect
By Fr. Clint Ressler
Early into the quarantine, I had the impression that God was inviting me and all of us to experience being “temporary monks.” The stay-at-home orders of varying degrees meant living a daily practice of deep interiority and prayer, being alone with oneself and God, but also the call to deep community with a (usually) small number of others.
I suddenly found myself with more quiet and alone time, especially in the mornings and evenings; whereas before, parish life used to be quite busy in the evenings, with lots of meetings, appointments and events.
However, as Pope Francis has been inviting the Church to adopt the self-understanding of being “missionary disciples,” I have also recognized the call to find new ways to live this concretely. The pandemic has given us a real opportunity to do this, because we’ve suddenly moved from a model in which the faithful come to us through parish-hosted meetings, events and ministries, to the current model in which ministry has to be “out there,” whether through modern technology or actual visits to homes and places of business.
Personally, I also felt the need to exercise, so I went out on my bicycle and visited my parishioners. This simple idea, to strengthen my physical body, became a way to strengthen our “spiritual body,” the parish. On social media and gradually by word of mouth, the invitation spread to send me the names and addresses of people who might like a sidewalk visit. On a loaned bicycle, I follow a route that takes me past several homes and some businesses.
Each day I find myself meeting Jesus himself in my neighbor, albeit from a safe social distance. We talk, we pray, perhaps we laugh a bit and take a selfie. Over the past two months, I have really come to know my parish better and especially my parishioners.
They have come to know me better, too. Our relationships are growing and deepening. Many of them have expressed how they felt that God had paid them a visit in the person of the parish priest.
This new approach actually focuses on encounter and accompaniment, further challenging us to listen and to discern, to call on the Holy Spirit to help us understand his will in each present moment.
Perhaps too, the whole Church and each of us are being invited to discern the “signs of the times” and to invite the creativity of the Holy Spirit to show us new ways and new possibilities of living and sharing our faith.
Finding the face of Jesus, crucified and forsaken in all the suffering has also stood out. Every day presents an opportunity to go out and dry the tears of many, both near and far, and to stand steadfast with Mary, who remained in desolation at the foot of the cross.
I visited one family whose house had just burned to the ground. Together we gazed at what remained of their home and all their possessions. I felt their fear and anxiety, but also heard strength, resilience and hope in their words. We also knew that whatever the future held for them, we would walk into that uncertainty together, not alone.
This crisis has shown us a vivid image of what solidarity is, and it calls us to acts of solidarity. The parishioners realized very quickly that there would be more people seeking assistance from the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry. A food drive was organized, and after three hours of cars and trucks passing by the drop off, we had collected five truckloads of food and about five times the normal amount of cash donations.
I remember when Pope Benedict addressed the people of Rome, calling forth a new sense of co-responsibility in the parishes and diocese of Rome. This pandemic has also called the laity, not just the clergy, into leadership roles. I’m seeing ordinary parishioners taking initiative, not waiting to be called by parish leaders but listening to the call from within. Then parish leaders simply step in to unify and coordinate the effort.
Nonetheless, the one challenge I have sensed is succumbing to the “survival instinct.” In a situation like this, when fear can be so high or when we feel threatened, our neighbor can be perceived as a threat to our own health or wellbeing. This begs the question: Are we to be fearful of each other?
Or, conversely, do we see ourselves as “in this thing together?” How do we balance being cautious but also loving to our neighbor? Perhaps more than in “normal” times, little acts of love and kindness can have big impacts on maintaining and even strengthening the fabric of our community.
New channels of grace
Early on I sensed that there may be hidden blessings in the restrictions regarding the Masses, other sacraments and gathering as a community. For example, the hunger and thirst for God could draw people to search for and find new channels of God’s grace. In fact, many often used to nourish themselves previously, rather inadequately, only by coming to Sunday Mass.
But then, they began to search for Masses online, and as they did so, they found other Catholic content online. They shared uplifting messages and experiences on social media. They began or resumed spiritual practices at home like the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, reading scripture and even semi-liturgical things like re-enacting Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with their children in their own home.
Homeschooling and working from home may bring some lasting changes to the ways families live. Here in the U.S., parishes have long complained that parents are so busy with work and outside commitments that they have often “outsourced” education and faith formation. They would drop off their children for faith formation, for school, for sports and other activities.
Perhaps we will see families adapt to being together more. Initially, this shift undoubtedly brings some stress and strain. But many of these families are waking up to the blessing of spending more time with each other.
Not everyone will respond to these opportunities, of course. Perhaps this is where the parishes and other entities can fill in the gap and help teach and guide families how to reassume their roles as teachers and coaches.
I think our parish staff, our school staff and our deacons are grappling with the present crisis, but also looking ahead to new ways of doing things. Perhaps we will do more in small groups rather than overly relying on forms that emphasized “efficiency” and large groups.
Best practices revisited
As we restart public Masses with restricted numbers, we are carrying out an experiment. We need the faithful who come to Mass to be in the church early. We need time to seat them with proper social distancing, to instruct them in how to receive Holy Communion, etc. We have decided to keep the lights off or dimmer than normal to create more of a prayerful atmosphere.
Those attending Mass now come early and sit quietly, thus preparing better for Mass. We use a few minutes before the start of Mass to give some instructions, but also to interact with them, share an experience, or give some background on the Scripture readings. I would love to see this catch on and remain even after the restrictions are lifted.
Recording the Masses has led to a strong interest in continuing this even after the pandemic, especially for our homebound and those whose work prevents them from attending daily Mass. Along with all of this, our parishioners, especially the older ones, are adapting to new ways of being connected, learning how to access YouTube, Facebook, our parish website and app.
Lastly, faith formation may also change; the use of catechetical videos and websites will ease the access of faith content. Maybe we will have sharing and discussions via Zoom or other platforms. Of course, service, communal prayer and community will have to be included as well.
If I could create a desired future for parish life, it would include all the components of the past: sacraments, prayer, education, outreach, pastoral care and community events. But these would also be accessible through new methods and technology, involving the whole mosaic of the parish together, rather than subdivided by age, language, etc.
“Communal” or “community” won’t mean, by necessity, that everyone is physically present, but that we all feel part of everything. Practically speaking, instead of assigning service hours to Confirmation candidates, we could have a parish service day and invite everyone to participate in some way.
Looking back, as Easter season unfolded, I personally felt the call to praise God more, to attest to a firm and “lived out” belief that he “has overcome the world.”
“The light has come into the world and the darkness has not overcome it.” Can we find a real and renewed hope in this? Can we live through these challenging times with an even greater hope? All signs seem to point to an encouraging “Yes!”
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