After a year amid the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Lucia encourages return and renewal
Catholic Sun Editor Katherine Long recently sat down for a conversation with Bishop Douglas J. Lucia about Holy Week, the Easter season, and what lies ahead for the diocese on “Catholic Sun Spotlight,” a new video podcast interview series from the Sun and Syracuse Catholic Television. The text of that interview, edited and condensed for clarity and length, follows. Listen to and watch the interview at thecatholicsun.com or youtube.com/syrdio.
Catholic Sun: Last week, the Church celebrated Holy Week, and you celebrated Holy Week for the first time publicly since your installation as our bishop in 2019. Of course, last year public Holy Week liturgies were canceled due to the pandemic, so you did a lot of livestreaming and Zooming into people’s homes. Not that that was any different this year, but we were able also to be back in person and together. Can you tell us about the experience of celebrating those liturgies last week, especially as it compares to your experience last year?
Bishop Lucia: Well, I have to admit I felt like I had the best of both worlds last week, in the sense that we were still livestreaming to our shut-ins and those who could not be physically present in the Cathedral, but also at the same time we were able to have a live congregation be part of the rituals of Holy Week. I enjoyed it so much. As I’ve often told people, my heart is the parish church, so for me it was like being a parish priest and leading the Holy Week liturgies which, of course, are some of my favorites.
Last year you were celebrating these liturgies in front of, basically, an empty Cathedral. How did you manage to do that? Who were you talking to?
We talk about the grace of the moment, and one of the graces of that moment we were in last year — with the pandemic and with only 10 people allowed in church at most — I always felt the presence of the faithful, even as we were livestreaming. So for me, the church was never empty. I still felt like I was celebrating to a full Cathedral, that the people were there with me. The difference this year was that there were actual people in the pews, but even last year, I still felt — we call it the communion of the faithful — I still felt that presence with me.
Churches in our diocese are now able to welcome [congregations of] up to 50% of their capacity, as long as they can keep the 6-foot social distancing measurement, and everyone is used to wearing masks and keeping distance and using hand sanitizer. As churches continue to reopen and activities begin to resume, what do you want people to know as they prepare to re-enter parish life and worship?
One of the things I want people to know is that it’s safe to come to church. But in order that people might feel that it’s safe to come to church, they need to realize that we are going to use our common sense. For me, common sense is: we can’t let our guard down regarding safety, whether it’s the social distancing, whether it’s the hand sanitizer, whether it’s the mask, or even how we do things in church — we still will not have the Communion cup at this time, we still won’t have the handshake of peace, things like that. To me, it’s like two hands washing each other: one hand has to say, “Don’t be afraid. We’re taking the precautions,” while the other hand [says], “You need to take precautions.”
Further to that, last year as the pandemic was accelerating, the Sunday Mass obligation was suspended. That is still currently the case, correct?
Do you intend to return that obligation any time soon or are you leaving it suspended for the time being? What’s your thinking around that right now?
Well, there are a couple thoughts on that. First of all, the bishops of New York are in discussion regarding that particular obligation, that particular precept.
For me, though, even before the precept is the idea that I want people to come to church because it’s an expression of their faith. My first reaction is I want people to want to come to church. I shouldn’t have to issue a precept saying, “You have to go every week.” I want people to want to. One of the things I do think we need to do is to have a renewal of our understanding of what Mass means; of what the Lord’s Day means, which means keeping holy the Sabbath; what the Eucharist is all about; why is the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, why is that so important to us as Catholics? That’s really the approach I want to take.
I do want to encourage people — because we are getting vaccinated, the safety protocols have worked — so I want to say to people, “It is good for you to come back now.”
But it’s also with the idea that there are still some folks — because of their own physical conditions, their own health conditions, or even sometimes just the fear that’s still out there — that we have to be very respectful of. Again, that’s where I don’t want to feel like I’m putting burdens on people in the sense of, “I’ve got to go no matter what now.”
That’s the other misunderstanding when it comes to the precept about Sunday Mass. We often use the term “obligation” and, of course, when you think something’s important, you use the word obligation. You want people to realize, I wouldn’t be saying that you really need to do this unless I thought it was important. But on the other hand, when it comes to obligation, we’re not obligated to do the impossible. If we’re sick, we’re not expected to be there, or if there’s a pandemic and we’re in that vulnerable group, we’re not then expected to go to Mass; we are exempt from it.
But again, we don’t always think in those terms. We think of obligation as, “I have to.” Well, yeah, “have to” in the sense of “it’s important.” But on the other side of that coin, it might be that you’re not able to. And when you’re not able to, the obligation doesn’t exist.
We’re entering into the 50 days of the Easter season, and it begins your Confirmation season, among other things. What are you looking forward to in the coming weeks and months?
Well, I’m certainly looking forward to Confirmations and being out in the parishes again. I’m looking, hopefully, to do even more parish visitations, when I’m not doing Confirmations.
An emphasis I have in this year’s Confirmation ceremony is all on the idea of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Last year I focused more on the gifts of the Holy Spirit and how they helped us on the road of life. This year, though, I want to talk about how those gifts of the Holy Spirit can bear fruit in our lives. Matthew 7:16, which is the end of the Beatitudes, says, “By their fruits you shall know them.” I really want to focus on, both with our young people and with our diocesan churches, what kind of fruit are we bearing? We’re talking about going back to Mass, participating in the Sacraments again, but what does that do for us in our daily lives?
Do you have a message for our listeners, viewers, readers? What would you like them to know in the Easter season?
There were two themes I used over the Triduum this year. One was, “Forever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.” That goodness of the Lord is what we’re celebrating. Hopefully we can be joyful. I think we’ve been under so much stress, and I just want to invite people — we need to enjoy life too, the life that God has given us. He wants us to enjoy that life as well. So, this might be that perfect opportunity to connect with him, especially if we’re saying, “I don’t really feel that joy.” Maybe these next 50 days is where we can connect with Jesus and, just like he did to those who were in that locked upper room after Easter and others he met along the way, maybe he can — not maybe; I know he can — he can stir into flame that gift of the Spirit. And again, one of the fruits of that Spirit is the gift of joy.