Not Alone

July 21st, 2020
Bishop Vasa

My Dear People of the Diocese of Santa Rosa,

We continue to operate under the scourge of COVID-19. Fortunately, there had been some lifting of restrictions which allowed for a more human and humane interaction. Unfortunately, what was temporarily gained has now been lost again. While there is certainly a danger in making contact with our fellow inhabitants of this world there is also a danger in not making contact. I have said over the past months that we must be concerned for human life and so we cooperate with social distancing, masking and hygiene. This is something which your pastors and I have spent a great deal of time preparing for and discussing. We have shown and continue to show a great respect and reverence for human physical health and human physical life.

At the same time, as a Church, we must be equally, if not more, concerned about true human flourishing. This flourishing, which includes such things as practice of our faith, reception of sacraments and ‘live’ communal prayer was ‘put on hold’ for several months. This was and is a cause for distress and suffering. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth and after he created man, He said, “it is not good for man to be alone”. While this certainly refers to the beauty of marriage, it also refers to the social nature of all people. We are not made to be alone.

We can and must follow proper health protocols but we can never forget that, as human beings, human persons, there is more to us than simply physical bodies and emotional experiences. We are persons created in the image and likeness of God. We have immortal souls.

Now we face the possibility that our children will not be permitted to attend ‘live’ school when schools are due to open in August. The need for these children to be in contact with the friends in the safe environment of the school cannot simply be set aside. This need for social contact is real. The need for isolation to avoid COVID spread is likewise real. Answers are not easy.

I pray, as we plan again to move to expanded freedom, that all of you are kept safe, that you exercise prudence and good judgment and that you can re-establish your necessary connection with each other and with the Church. We have been consoled over the past months in the knowledge that we have never been totally disconnected from Christ but we have not been totally connected with him either. I do not believe that Jesus would be contented with an internet connection and it will be good to have a ‘Real’ connection again.

Over the course of the past months many activities had to be cancelled and every parish had to deal with the problem of empty pews. There was a stronger reliance on electronic means of social communication and a great increase in video conferencing. This is a tool which I have used with the priests of the Diocese as we ‘met’ on-line to discuss the challenges facing individual parishes. I have also used the video conferencing tool to meet with the Permanent Deacons of the Diocese. In some ways the communication bond, which is always difficult due to the distances, has actually been strengthened during the time of shelter-in-place.

While our Churches were open, and still are in a couple of counties, there was a significant reluctance on the part of our parishioners to return to the public setting of Church in order to attend Mass. This is COVID Caution and I fully recognize and understand it. COVID-19 still represents for us an unseen force which has the potential to make individual lives very miserable and, in extreme cases, actually result in death. This is not something to take lightly. At the same time, since we are working in all of our parishes to minimize the risk of transmission, we are assured that our Churches are as safe as any public area. The conscientiousness of the many who come to sanitize our Churches between Masses and even during Masses is born, not only of a healthy respect for the virus but, more importantly, it is inspired by a love of God and a love of neighbor. These are selfless volunteers who take on this duty our of love and care for those who want to come to Church. I express my profound gratitude to all of you who have stepped forward to embrace this very unusual and presently necessary form of ‘service’.

At the same time, I recognize the reluctance which some people have to do anything which even remotely puts them at risk. Since the thought of being in Church is distressing for some souls, even with masks and social distancing, the permission to be excused from the normal obligation to attend Sunday Mass continues. In some venues outdoor Masses have again begun to be offered.

In those instances where someone is more comfortable with the much smaller attendance on weekdays, then attendance at weekday Mass is an option. This is not a substitute for Sunday Mass, since that obligation has been dispensed, but rather a reminder that the desire to attend Mass can be fulfilled without undue fear about a large crowd.

These days of continued isolation provide an opportunity for us to pray and reflect more deeply upon the meaning of the Cross, the meaning of the Sacraments, the value of the Mass and our need for community. It is also an opportunity to take greater personal responsibility for our own preparation for Mass especially Sunday Mass. Reviewing and praying over the texts for the Mass of the day as well as the Scripture readings of the season allows us to be more than passive by-standers as we attend Mass, either live or streamed. There are opportunities for grace here.

We are also all painfully aware of the fact that racist attitudes have not entirely disappeared from our culture. While most of us do not experience the negative effects of these attitudes, the present disruptions, protests and expression of frustration and anger are clear sings to us that there is great need for ongoing healing and reconciliation. In the Church we are constantly involved in conversion. We often view this need for conversion in terms of our need to have a better, more substantial, relationship with God. This is a necessary first step. At the same time, we are called to recognize those hints of injustice which are all too frequent and which to a disproportionate degree touch our brothers and sisters of color. While the present challenges are centered on the Black community there is also a similar reality touching the Latino community. This time of secure in place can be a grace for each of us to more deeply reflect upon our attitudes, and possibly, prejudices. These attitudes and prejudices are often woven into the very fabric of our upbringing and thus form a part of our lives that we simply do not question. We can thus become, in our own minor way, a part of the ‘systemic’ prejudice which is at the root of today’s racial challenges.

Some expressions of the outrage can, at times, be misdirected. Businesses are destroyed and this serves no good purpose. Statues, which serve as reminders of an unfortunate past, are pulled down. It seems to me that educating about the wrongs committed while visiting such statues could assure that we do not forget. Pulling down the statues may actually ensure that we do forget the injustices of the past and thus minimize the injustices of the present. Sometimes statues are pulled down, such as Junipero Serra, because of alleged injustices when the historical record manifests something quite different.

I pray that the present manifestations of anger subside, not to be forgotten, but to allow a deeper personal and communal engagement for the betterment of peoples and the healing of these rifts in our society and, indeed, in our world. Fundamentally, we need to restore God to the center of our lives and society. The extreme absence of God, a God who is the Father of us all, means an absence of the unique Father whose fatherhood makes us all brothers and sisters. Without God any talk of being brothers and sisters redounds to a human factionalism based on race or nation. Policies, plans, legislation can change some actions or behaviors but only God and his grace can change hearts and what is needed now is a serious change of heart.

These days call for an abundance of prayer, begging for an abundance of grace and a great outpouring of God’s mercy. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us!!

Please pray for me as I promise to pray for you. -  Bishop Robert F. Vasa