It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that now is a time for reaching out. Just when it seems that the COVID-19 threat is diminishing somewhat, at least in New York State, why take chances? It is true that personal social contact does present risks. But so does social isolation. Striking a balance is not easy.

Listening to people I know who are involved in EMS and who work in hospital emergency rooms, I hear heart-wrenching accounts of how isolation has affected so many emotionally and physically. The loneliness has been almost unbearable — so much so that incidents of domestic violence, child and elder abuse, depression and suicide, massive substance abuse and other addictive behaviors have skyrocketed as this pandemic persists.

The gradual opening of churches has helped to ease the burden somewhat for those who have been longing for the sacraments and some sense of community that worship sites provide. The good news is that Mass is one of the safest ways to find spiritual, emotional and social comfort. Catholics have always been law-abiding citizens, and everyone knows it. They may get little credit but the cooperation and responsibility that our congregations have shown in abiding by the health norms, keeping churches sanitized and maintaining best practices is nothing short of exemplary. Many churches are now occupied to the maximum of the 30 percent or so allowed so that the appropriate safe distancing can be maintained. But what of the 70 percent?

Like many other pastors, I have been spending a considerable amount of time on the phone. I do not like the phone particularly. But it is accessible to most, even those who are not tech savvy. So I spend a good deal of time listening. Occasionally the calls are initiated for practical purposes, getting and giving information, participating in a conference call at a meeting with a specific agenda. But often it is just listening.

Listening is essential to the health of any relationship, and that includes family and community life. In these times, it often takes a conscious effort — love is always an act of the will — to engage in such conversation. I know pastors who call 10 parishioners each day, just to check up on how they are doing. In a month, that could be almost 300 people. Experience is showing that such outreach is not only appreciated but quite effective as a means of maintaining parish support levels and the pastor does not have to do it alone.

A team of 10 volunteers, working in tandem with a pastor could increase the number of contacts to embrace an entire parish of 3,000 in the course of a month’s time. Conversations could include prayer as well as listening. Those are two of the essential elements of any faith community, but there is a third requirement that does not come so easily.

In addition to prayer and listening, a healthy relationship requires constant forgiveness. During the strict lockdown months, many people experienced the loss of the Eucharistic presence of Christ as a severe form of soul starvation which streamed Mass and acts of spiritual communion could not overcome. I know as a pastor how painful it was to be able to celebrate Mass each day without a congregation. I heard the plaints of lay persons and priests alike often at the point of tears. Thankfully, this period has receded into the past somewhat, but some of the hurt has not.

Anger and resentment have unquestionably built up over feelings that the clergy did not do enough to reach out to their people, even to the point of civil disobedience when the norms applied by some states seemed inconsistent and particularly unfair to worshippers. I would rather hear that anger expressed against me personally than directed at the entire clergy or Church — or even at God. Sometimes I sense that such anger is an attempt to work out a feeling of abandonment by God which, again, speaks volumes about our need to reach out to one another, to listen, to pray — and to forgive!

In last Sunday’s Gospel we heard Jesus’ response to Peter’s question of how many times we are expected to forgive one another. Not just seven times — a perfect number — but seventy seven times, an infinite number. And Jesus illustrates this with a parable about an unforgiving debtor who himself had been forgiven an infinitely greater debt by his master. Forgiveness must be without limit and from the heart. Or else, we cannot grow spiritually and inherit eternal life.

In some ways, the absence of those acts of forgiveness — not only in sacramental confession but in terms of positive acts of the will whereby we acknowledge mutually our sins and shortcomings — is almost as devastating as isolation from the Real Presence of Christ! For the whole point of the Mass, the unbloody sacrifice of Calvary, is the revelation and abiding presence of God who reveals himself as mercy.

To see the Eucharist only as a meal — albeit a meal that feeds us spiritually — is to miss the point. Jesus is not just hosting a meal in which we dine with him together at the same table, celebrating his presence among us. He is giving us a meal in which He himself is the sacrificial lamb. He died to feed us with himself as the consumed man, God’s mercy poured out in his self-immolation.

Though without sin, he showed us the way of forgiving love which does not deny the injury, the injustice, but absorbs it even as the sinner is pardoned from the debt owed. No one is entitled to be forgiven. It is always a gift. But without forgiveness, no relationship could continue, no friendship could survive, no family or community could endure.

These three — listening, forgiveness and prayer — are essential to our Church, our community of faith. Without them actively practiced by every disciple, the Mass can easily be reduced to an empty ritual, a rejection of the Real Presence of Christ because there is no conversion of the heart.

This then is a good time for mending fences. For letting go of harsh words and thoughts for what might have been or who might have done better. It is a time to reach out — to God and one another — as we trust in the Holy Spirit to renew our hope and trust. May God renew our hearts and increase our faith in his presence among us, sinners all, but called to be saints. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

 facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd
 @AlbBishopEd