I will let you in on a secret. It’s a secret that we priests are a bit ashamed to admit, but it’s true. Sometimes we complain about you. Complaining about parishioners has been a temptation for priests throughout history, and some would say such ill-informed, nasty things about the laity that they came to think they didn’t need you. To combat this sort of attitude, Cardinal John Newman quipped that us clergy would look pretty foolish without you.
Justified or not, we still complain. We talk about how parishioners have annoyed us or made our lives difficult. I’ve done this, too. I’m not proud of it. The Body of Christ, like any family, has its ups and downs, and I’m sure parishioners have been exasperated with my stubbornness on more than one occasion. These things happen. In an ideal world, we would be generous and patient with each other. We would overlook flaws and quickly forgive. I’ve been blessed to have parishioners who have done that for me, and I work hard to return the love. Still, I know I’ve been impatient with you. I’ve taken you for granted.
And now you’re not here.
Each morning, I pray Mass in an empty church, my voice echoing off the pews. I also know that, because our city has placed us all under a strict limit of 10 people per gathering for the foreseeable future, I will also be celebrating Holy Week on my own. I will celebrate Holy Thursday — which is the anniversary of the gift of the priesthood — without parishioners. I will light the paschal candle and welcome Christ as the light of the world by myself. As the Easter dawn arises this year, it won’t illuminate the faces of my beloved brothers and sisters praying in the darkness. I’ve already cried about this more than once.
If I ever thought that, instead of being a parish priest, it would be better to pray Mass alone, I would have been horribly wrong. I miss every single parishioner. I miss your quirks, your smiles, the way you pretend to laugh at my jokes. I even miss the ones with whom I have had personality conflicts in the past. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? Never has a cliché rang more true.
Friends, the Body of Christ is suffering. It’s OK to feel that suffering. It’s alright to be frustrated. We cannot avoid the suffering, but we can put our faith in God that He will turn all situations to the good. If you are missing Jesus and feeling the pain of being separated from the sacrament, consider that feeling. I don’t think any of us will be taking Mass for granted anytime soon. Never let that feeling go. You are probably also missing seeing each other and feeling the separation as much as I am. This drives home how important our spiritual family really is. I will never take this family for granted again. Please pray for me and I will pray for you.
Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.