Last week I had the pleasure of leading a group of Navy chaplains in their annual retreat. I also shared with you, in last week’s column, some reflections on memories from my father’s life. These were perhaps inspired by prayers I had been saying for weeks before, asking God to help give a message of hope, thanksgiving and encouragement to those spiritual fathers who, in turn, so needed to pass this message on to those they serve.

My dad had passed on Jan. 21, 2015, so the retreat and the commemoration sort of dove-tailed. I felt inspired to tell the chaplains, first of all, that God loved them unconditionally. To the point of sending his only-begotten Son incarnate, who would have died for each and every one of us, if we were the only person in the world.

One priest raised his hand after that conference to say, if he himself were the only person in the world and Jesus would have died for him even so, then who would do the crucifixion?! Checkmate. The corollary of the message of God’s unconditional love is that it always comes as mercy. The only way God can love us is by forgiving us. And that’s a given!

Taking that a step further, we can say — we must say — that we cannot love God unless we acknowledge our sins and ask God’s forgiveness. If we wonder, if we want to know whether we are really loving God we need only ask if we are thankful for the gift of his Son, who died for us on the Cross.

It is said that gratitude and attitude take up the same region of the brain, but cannot both inhabit it at the same time. Another way of saying this is that if one is struggling with anger management issues, with deep-seated resentments, and attitudes that provoke cynicism and retribution, substitute a thankful heart. Begin with God’s mercy and the gift of his Son to each of us, personally. Imagine a person whom we cannot forgive asking God for forgiveness, kneeling before him, and commend that person to the Lord. Leave that person and the judgment in God’s hands.

People look to priests for forgiveness. That is what they are anointed for, to be instruments of God’s unction of mercy. So many scriptural references come to mind, like the oil flowing down the beard of Aaron, his priestly anointing, extending to the rim of his cloak. The woman who touched Jesus in the crowd, because she knew he had something that she needed, is a good practical example. The doctors whom she had consulted for decades could not stop her blood flow. If she could just touch his garment, healing would come out from Jesus. And it did.

I reminded the fathers of something Pope Francis had mentioned in his first homily to priests at the Chrism Mass in 2013, shortly after his election. People love priests! God loves them and their people love them. Priests do not always understand or even see this. They may feel people are pestering them, asking for (in their minds) things that are petty or unimportant — but only seemingly so, as Pope Francis notes. It may be just a blessing or a prayer, but the people know that the priests have something they need, a connectedness with God as his anointed. They’ve got the oil! Francis goes on to say that even if the priest is stingy or indifferent, it’s okay, because the people will take the oil from them anyway. Ordained to be bothered! I have a T-shirt with those words in my office draped over a chair to remind me of just that. Please forgive me if I have not always been as responsive as I should be!

After that woman is healed, Jesus wants to know who touched him. Once again, it is his own apostles who, typical of priests who do not understand the power and importance of their vocation, wonder why he wants to know the identity of this one face in the crowd that is pressing all around him. But that one woman matters. He wants to look at her. The real healing, the life-change that woman experienced, I would submit, is when she saw the loving eyes of Jesus. He did not just want to “fix” her, he wanted to love her. Not just to do something for her, but to be with her.

The need to touch and be touched by love are closely connected. That touch is not always something we can feel physically — or even emotionally when we want. It cannot be ignored or taken for granted that every sacrament involves a touch, some contact between the persons between whom the sacrament is conferred, often with the hand or with some other medium such as oil or water. Even the sacramentals involve something that is more than a wish or a blessing. Palms, ashes, holy water and incense are all palpable.

I realize we are still enduring a pandemic and looking for clever ways of touching without touching. Ashes, as you know, may be sprinkled instead of imposed on the forehead. Some parishes will use this perfectly traditional method, used commonly in Rome. And you don’t need a salt or peperone shaker! The priest or deacon can dirty his two fingers to bring out the grittiness that makes this more than a function of getting the ashes onto the person, but a form of contact. “Unction, not function,” as Pope Francis puts it.

Many pastors have been going the extra mile of keeping in touch with their people by electronic means. Phone calls and messaging are not the same as a house visit, though I know of a priest in Brooklyn who has been cycling around his parish and giving shut-ins communion through their tenement windows. I don’t know if he is climbing fire escapes yet, but the need to be as close as possible to his flock is something he takes very seriously as I know all good priests want to. And their people want them to as well.

I commend those priests who have discovered or invented ways to keep close to their people. And I am so grateful for the heroic patience so many people have shown awaiting their presence. Prudent caution remains the order of the day. Churches, however, are mostly open and, to be frank, are as safe and accessible — even more so — as supermarkets, gas stations, salons or medical offices, if you go to any of these.

The care that is taken throughout the parishes in our Diocese to be sure surfaces are kept clean and spaces aerated, distances observed and masks used properly, has by and large been outstanding. Let our gratitude outweigh the occasional quibble we might have with the brother or sister who lets the mask slip or offers a hand instead of an elbow. None of us gets it 100 percent perfect all the time. That’s one of the marks that makes us perfectly human.

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