Scroll to the bottom of the story for a video on the flight.
With the celebration of Mass on a temporary hiatus in parishes across the Archdiocese of St. Louis, a group of Catholics came together to offer the next best thing: a eucharistic blessing. From the sky, of all places.
Yes, that’s right, Jesus took to the skies March 25 as Father John Schmitz, a priest of the Diocese of Jefferson City, joined Deacon Tom Gerling of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in House Springs to fly over 12 parishes of the Festus Deanery to offer the blessing. The idea was hatched by Our Lady Queen of Peace parishioner Mary Myers.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson announced March 16 that Masses would be canceled in the Archdiocese of St. Louis due to the coronavirus outbreak. That day, Myers saw a video on YouTube in which the Italian Air Force flew over the country, while a priest on board offered a blessing with the eucharistic host, and accompanied by a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.
Myers immediately sent a link of the video to her pastor, Father Dennis Schmidt, and Deacon Tom Gerling. She asked them: Could the same be done here? Deacon Gerling, an Air Force veteran, contacted his friend Father Schmitz, who has been a hobbyist pilot since 2001. A plan was made.
Deacon Gerling worked with his grandson, Daniel Ryerson, on the logistics of flying over the 12 parishes of the Festus Deanery: Our Lady Queen of Peace, St. Anthony in High Ridge, St. John in Imperial, Immaculate Conception in Arnold, St. David in Arnold, St. Joseph in Imperial, Good Shepherd in Hillsboro, St. Francis of Assisi in Luebbering, Our Lady in Festus, Sacred Heart in Crystal City, St. Rose of Lima in De Soto and St. Stephen in Richwoods.
Their nearly two-hour flight took off from Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield. While Father Schmitz made two loops around each cluster of parishes, Deacon Gerling offered a eucharistic blessing, along with the U.S. bishops’ prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, for an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
The flight plan had been adjusted because of the weather forecast, they flew on a perfect day — the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord — with sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s.
Deacon Gerling brought a consecrated host with him contained in a pyx and burse, and vested and placed the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance for the flight. “We wanted to make sure that we paid proper reverence to the Holy Eucharist,” he said.
Father Schmitz said this was the first time he’s flown his single-engine Cessna 177 Cardinal for a eucharistic blessing. He said he has a feeling it won’t be the last, either.
“With people being asked not to gather in large groups at church, there’s either going to be, ‘Well, we didn’t care anyway,’ or, ‘We really miss the gathering of community and being one with the Lord and to receive Him in the Eucharist,’” he said. “There’s a real absence, but the Church is still celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass, even when the people cannot be there physically. This opens our eyes and makes us more aware.”
He cited a homily from Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, in which he spoke about the origins of eucharistic processions. “They were born from the very precise purpose of openly reaffirming the faith of the people of God and Jesus Christ, alive and truly present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist.”
Catholics from Festus Deanery parishes stood outside of their homes or gathered in cars at church waiting for a sight of Father Schmitz’ plane. At Our Lady Queen of Peace, Mary Myers and about 100 parishioners lined the parking lot while remaining physically distant from one another to wait for the plane to arrive. Once the plane was spotted, people “immediately started cheering and waving,” Myers said.
“People started praying and got on their knees and sang ‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name.’” she said. “The greatest emotion you could see from everybody was elation. It was incredible, just historical.”
With people being cut off from the Eucharist because of canceled Masses, Deacon Gerling said, “I think they are hungry for the presence of Christ in some way. Mother Teresa in her memoirs talked about physical hunger, but she was also very concerned about spiritual hunger. I look upon the Eucharist as satisfying our spiritual hunger.”
He also hopes that the denial of Communion right now will lead others to a greater appreciation and understanding of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. “We Catholics, we have such a gift in the Holy Eucharist. Jesus left His physical presence with us in the Church, and He becomes part of us every time we receive Communion. Just to be able to look upon the host and receive a blessing is so important.”