Like many relationships, the effects of separation are often not understood until after a return. The pandemic and the inability to go to Mass regularly had that impact on me in an unexpected way. Our family was separated from attending Mass, in person, for close to three months. While we had the opportunity to attend virtual Mass each week, the inability to physically attend Mass and receive the Eucharist left a large void in our lives.
The first weekend that my diocese in New York reopened public Masses in their churches was also the first time that Confession became more available. Upon arrival at the church on Saturday, my wife and I made our way down into the chapel located in the basement where a priest was hearing Confession. We waited in line, with our masks on and socially distancing ourselves from others. Although restrictions were clearly in place, the ability to be present in the Church building felt like a return home after a difficult journey.
It wasn’t until I was the next person up to make the long walk across the chapel to the confessional that it finally hit me. I was moments away from receiving infinitely merciful forgiveness and I was allowing my mind to drift into mundane and meaningless details. I was annoyed at how uncomfortable my mask was, consumed by trying to figure out the best plan of action in approaching the priest, and swallowed up by my agenda for the rest of the day. My wife noticed this, and she gave me a look that only a husband knows. She was clearly calling me to pay attention and this was beyond obvious for me because, with masks on, the only part of her face I could see was her eyes.
I gathered my thoughts, attempting to prepare myself for the power of God’s love that I had been waiting for. I made the long walk across the chapel and sat behind the screen, confessed my sins, and experienced an abundance of grace that can only be expressed as God’s presence hovering over that confessional. The priest absolved me from my sins, and gave me my penance.
My wife and I made our way upstairs to the main church and prayed for a few minutes in the front row, staring at the large crucifix above the altar. I was surprised at how powerful this felt. The effects of time spent away from church on Sundays and distance from the Sacraments had not become evident until the moments following my declaration of how the pandemic had negatively influenced my relationship with God and with others.
The experience of God’s presence in Confession pushed me forth to a longing to receive the Eucharist after months without being able to do so. The separation from the Mass had become an ordinary assumption, so the desire to return was numbed. Isolation from others, the suffering of thousands, the death of thousands, the uproar in our streets, and the violence around the globe added to that separation. In those few minutes after Confession, staring at the cross and tabernacle, I was reminded of a quote from Pope St. John Paul II: “In that little host is the solution to all of the problems of the world.”
I believe that wholeheartedly, and wanted to experience the solution that only God can bring. Mass the next day was different: only three people per pew, face coverings for all involved, but there was a feeling in the air that as much as this is not normal, it is so good to be back. In his homily, the priest spoke about separation and focused on how we respond when God is, in some ways, taken from us. His challenge was to live each day knowing that, at the end of life, the only thing that we cannot live without is God, is Christ present in the Eucharist, is faith.
Walking up for Communion, physically distanced, and computing the best way to move my mask quickly to receive the Eucharist was different, but exactly what John Paul II noted: God was saying to us all that he is the solution. A solution that is not caught up in directives or programs, but consumed by his inexhaustible love and presence which shouts out to the world at each Confession and Eucharist: you are mine and there is nothing that can separate you from my presence.