For many parishes, this past year was a challenging and unnerving one, one that radically shattered our routines, stalled our ministries, and brought a steep decline in Mass attendance and collections. Many pastors, as a result, can’t wait for the “new normal” to look a little more like the old normal.
While we too, at Saint Paul and Saint Agnes, carried the burden of the day and the anxieties of this time, I must confess that this past year was, in many ways, a blessing. As it shook up our routines and reined in our activities, the pandemic re-centered our parish on the essentials, namely, the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession.
It all started in March 2020. As New York City went into lockdown, Masses were suspended and churches were closed. With Father Alexandre Morard, we started seeking a way to provide some sacramental relief to our parishioners at a time when they sorely needed it. We live-streamed our daily Mass, but this wasn’t enough. “The Word was made flesh” to meet us in the flesh, and the mediation of a digital screen does little to provide a real encounter.
So here is what we did: Every day, at about 8 a.m., we would expose the Blessed Sacrament inside our little chapel on Congress Street. We had set up an altar just by the glass door, so people could kneel on the kneeler outside, and in this way come close to the Eucharist.
Much to our surprise, our modest “pandemic chapel” was never vacant. One night, I went to repose the Blessed Sacrament at 10 p.m., and there was a young man, unknown to me, praying there in silence. I decided to let him pray. People would come from all over the city to kneel by the Blessed Sacrament. A nurse who was volunteering at the COVID tent at Brooklyn Hospital came every single day to entrust herself — and her patients — to the Lord. Recently, a local MTA employee came to thank me. “It saved my life,” he said with a grateful smile.
As soon as we could reopen our churches for personal prayer, we decided not to blow out the little Eucharistic flame that was lit in our parish during the lockdown. We have instituted a daily Holy Hour, this time inside Saint Paul’s church. Every weekday, we solemnly expose the Blessed Sacrament from 6 to 7 p.m. while one of us — Father Alexandre Morard or myself — is in the confessional, waiting.
It has been over a year now, and much to our joy, people show up every single day for adoration. At the beginning there were four or five, then around 10, then 15, some days up to 20. We hear confessions almost every day.
I have lost count of the number of times when I heard, “Bless me, father … It’s been 5 years … 20 years … 30 years since my last confession.”
The daily Holy Hour and confession time has become a kind of “center of gravity” for our parish, one that has helped many of our parishioners — and us, clergy, too — with a salutary refocus, and brought about profound, if silent, conversions.
Other events may be louder and more impressive on paper, but isn’t the Lord in the “quiet breeze” rather than in the storm?
Father Anel is the administrator at St. Paul & St. Agnes Parish, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.