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Reflecting on Lessons Learned During Year of Pandemic and Social Consciousness

HNP Communications Features

Life, not just in the United States, but throughout the world, was disrupted in 2020 by a new and deadly human pathogen. Here in the U.S., it gave rise to a social consciousness not seen since, and perhaps more intense than, the 1960s. Care for creation, community, and environment – and the distressing economic and racial divides, as much a plague as the novel coronavirus itself – dominated the headlines. Political upheaval further contributed to the chaos and uncertainty.

How did we get through one of the most difficult years our lifetime? What are lessons learned during 2020 – personally, and as a society? Recently, 10 Holy Name Province friars shared their thoughts and observations.

John Anglin, OFM, St. Petersburg, Florida
John, stationed at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg since 2006, has been a member of Ministry of the Word – HNP’s itinerant preaching program – for 33 years, 14 of them as co-director. Ordained to the priesthood in 1971 with Immaculate Conception Province, he transferred three years later to Holy Name Province, where his ministerial life has included parish, formation, and missionary work.

This year has been a very different life for all of us. I was active and busy as a Franciscan itinerant preacher, but I haven’t traveled to preach since March 10. For me, it has been a time of change and contemplation, with a great deal of reading, praying, and reflection. I have also watched more than my fair share of movies and television series. So much has happened – a crazy presidential election, and racial unrest precipitated by the murder of several African Americans at the hands of police. We have learned lessons as society and as Church.

I am deeply distressed by the number of people who ignore the warnings of healthcare professionals – most recently, those who traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday, a phenomenon likely to repeat itself over the Christmas and New Year holidays. We Americans are impatient, accustomed to quick fixes and instant results. I myself feel weary at times and ask, “When will this end?” The truth is we really don’t know, although the promise of COVID-19 vaccines provides hope. There are many stories in the Bible telling of the need for patient waiting and trusting in God, all of which provide encouragement.

These are challenging times for the Church. Aside from clergy abuse, my concern during the pandemic is the way in which many felt that government restrictions were interfering with the right to worship. I agree that some of the restrictions have been too harsh, but as Pope Francis pointed out, governments have an obligation to protect public health for the sake of the common good. They are striving to protect us. The biggest challenge has been learning how to be Church when we can’t gather in our buildings or celebrate the Eucharist – the source and summit of the Christian life. Even when we can’t participate in this wonderful gift, we are still Church. Vatican II says the family is the domestic Church. But instead of lip service, the pandemic has shown that it’s time for clergy and laity alike to claim this truth and live it.

Ross Chamberland, OFM, Allegany, New York
Ross holds several positions at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York, including associate vice president for student affairs, executive director of the Lateran Center for Catholic Identity, and adjunct professor of theology and Franciscan studies. He is a member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ subcommittee of the Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees, and Travelers. Ross professed his first vows in 2011 and was ordained in 2015.

Living for most of the year with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 has carried many lessons. The strengths of our Franciscan community at St. Bonaventure University were challenged like never before. The friary and university are a living-and-learning community – with community, perhaps, SBU’s most recognizable strength. The core of our charismatic identity was put to the test when we went from a fully-engaged residential community to a forced virtual world of relationships. Our environment felt like a ghost town. I learned many things – especially the importance of human contact, even if it became virtual. I realized that face-to-face contact and conducting routine business is critical to the businesses of our community. With the outbreak coinciding with Lent, I learned to enter into the Lenten season with a sense of global solidarity as I’d never felt before.

I learned that even in a crisis that cries out against human contact, Franciscans find a way to share and cultivate community. Our face-to-face engagement zoomed onto the internet and allowed for mask-less faces to see one another. Celebrating liturgies online in a world deprived of sacramental access gathered people across the globe into Christian and Franciscan fellowship. Committing our resources to the service of local businesses helped all of us grow in gratitude. While many have bemoaned the limitations and restrictions of 2020, especially during the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I learned how to become more deeply thankful for the things that I have – community and the sacraments of Christ that make community possible, even if they are from a distance, 

David Convertino, OFM, New York City
David has been director of HNP’s Development Office since 2011. He is also a member of the Provincial Council for the past six years and guardian of the St. Francis of Assisi Friary on West 31st Street since 2017. David, who professed his first vows in 1973 and was ordained in 1977, has served as guardian and director at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, and in parish ministry and Franciscan marketing enterprises.

All of the travel in my work for the Province and Development Office came to an end when the pandemic forced my return to the 31st Street friary on March 5. I have been working remotely since. But I have enjoyed being home more than I thought I would. Our strong fraternity and the goodness of the friars have been reinforced during the pandemic. We really banded together to keep the older and more susceptible friars safe from the virus. I haven’t seen my mother during these months, except through a family Zoom that we do every Sunday. We also used the Internet to maintain fraternity and contact with friars throughout the Province – establishing a weekly “friars Zoom-and-learn” program. A friar provides a presentation on either a spiritual, medical or theological topic, followed by discussion among the virtually gathered friars. It has been fraternally sustaining and supportive, and great to see the guys we haven’t seen in a long time. We are continuing this monthly.

At times during 2020, I found myself angry over the politics in this country. It was difficult to watch every time I turned on the news. I was frustrated with the hypocrisy shielded behind some sort of Catholic notion of citizenship. I can’t understand how someone could be anti-abortion, but not care about migrants at the border, or the poor and homeless. The incongruity of this came to light even more so during the pandemic.

Not that there is anything good about the pandemic, but on the plus side, good things have emerged in different ways. We established the Franciscan Relief Fund, providing supermarket gift cards to struggling families who have fallen through the cracks – the working poor and unemployed, mostly in the hospitality industry. These people have been at wit’s end, choosing between paying rent or a utility bill and putting food on the table. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the Franciscan Relief Fund has provided more than $200,000 in gift cards to more than 2,050 families. We hope to make it a permanent program when the need arises to provide relief to victims of hurricanes and other disasters.

Kevin Cronin, OFM, Butler, New Jersey
Kevin, stationed at the St. Anthony Friary in Butler since 2008, is a member of the Franciscan Ministry of the Word through which he traditionally preaches parish missions and leads retreats and days of recollection around the country. Last year, he marked the 50th anniversary of his first profession. Ordained in 1974, he has served at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, conducted pilgrimages to Rome and Assisi, and served as chaplain for a cruise line.

I have become more conscious than ever about the power of the media and its influence on the American public – and globally – on the two dominant issues of 2020: the presidential election and the pandemic. An old lesson learned in media literacy class – whoever tells the story creates the culture – could not be more true this year. There has never been a time in history when so few are telling the story to so many. This has been obvious in what the media deems appropriate and worthy of reporting when it comes to the coronavirus, presidential election, protests, and riots, Black Lives Matter marches, and large-group political rallies. It was even more evident in the double standards of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. They choose what to feed, or not report, to the public in order to meet their own agendas. Whoever tells the story – and how they tell it – creates the culture.

I feel very sad about the current state of affairs, especially for Americans – and friars – who feel judged and left out because of their opinions, which sometimes clash with the politics and the brainwashing power of the media. I hope we will not be sorry for the election of a president who boasts of his Catholic faith but sadly compromises on abortion. Hopefully, 2020 will be a lesson for all Americans – especially Catholics – to stand by their ideals and not be led like sheep by the media.

Dan Dwyer, OFM, Loudonville, New York
Since 1995, Dan has been an associate professor of history at Siena College, his alma mater, not far from where he grew up in the capital district of Albany, New York. Dan is a member of the Province’s Admissions Board and Higher Studies Committee and is president of the Board of the Academy of American Franciscan History. He recently published an article in the 2019 issue of The Provincial Annals on the impact of the 1918 influenza pandemic on HNP. He was ordained in 1988.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a time of challenges and opportunities. Thanks to Zoom, I have spent the bulk of two semesters teaching from afar. Although you lose something in student-teacher interaction without in-person presence, remote instruction has enabled everyone to interact in their natural habitats. Students sometimes share personal stories and experiences that help me better understand their situations. Other than an occasional technical glitch, I have enjoyed these virtual interfaces. I have also enjoyed the early morning alone time in my office setting up the lessons. The pandemic has certainly fed my contemplative self.

Although I have had to forego scheduled events and meetings – and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, California, and Québec, all of which I was looking forward to – I have gained a new appreciation for nature and have become more aware of my surroundings. I am lucky to be on the campus grounds – with all of the trees and flowers – and, within easy reach of the friary, a whole universe of nature. I find myself snapping pictures of beautiful and unusual things – sometimes just right outside my window – that I share with friends on Zoom calls or in text messages.

I have had to be more innovative in terms of ministry by conducting pared-down weddings and funerals, and often celebrating Mass for a ‘congregation’ of one or two in my mother’s garage, not far away. Someone desperately wanted to go to confession, so we met outdoors – in a cemetery of all places – both wearing masks, walking on opposite sides of the road, and celebrating the sacrament amidst the gravestones and beautiful fall foliage. I have also developed a new appreciation for my friar community. We have been more attentive to one another, and more in tune with how we can face these challenges together. All in all, there has been a slower pace to life, which has provided more time for reading and writing. I realize every day that I have so much to be thankful for.

Edgardo Lalo Jara, OFM, Triangle, Virginia
Lalo is parochial vicar and director of Hispanic ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Prince William County. Becoming a quick study in social media platforms during the pandemic led to the launch of Cafeteando Con El P. Lalo (Drinking Coffee With Fr. Lalo) – a live online faith formation program on his YouTube channel and Facebook page. Ordained to the priesthood in February 2017, he served in the multicultural Parish of St. Camillus in Silver Spring, Maryland, until September. Lalo is near completion of his doctorate degree from Fordham University.

We have learned that we are not in charge of anything, a difficult lesson because we think we are in control of everything. But even with advancements in science and technology, we don’t have the answers to everything that can happen. As human beings, we are used to planning weddings, vacations, and other events. The pandemic stopped everything in its tracks. I had to cancel my annual summer visit with my parents in Costa Rica. We’re tired and frustrated over the isolation because we are used to being in relationships with others. It has been challenging for us as friars – especially in our call to fraternal life and community outreach. Through social media, we manage to stay connected with other friars and our ministry communities, but it’s not the same as being with people in person. We also experienced moments of great pain and suffering. It was difficult to experience death in my own house while living at St. Camillus, losing our brother Chris Posch, OFM, after he was sick with pneumonia for a month.

People are losing their jobs. The undocumented are unable to receive government financial relief. Most don’t have the choice to work from home and must risk their health if they want to put food on the table. When we don’t understand these situations, we tend to judge. The pandemic has challenged us to live in solidarity with others. We are not individualists, it’s bigger than each of us. That’s why I wear a mask and social distance. The pandemic has provided opportunities to meet the challenge of working together and understanding this commitment to loving and caring for one another. We truly are our brother’s keeper.

This has been an opportunity for self-reflection, seeing the things that are important – spending more time with family, paying attention to children and those around us. COVID is terrible, but we can find some good just as God always finds good in evil. This has been a rough time, but it has also been a blessed time if we can be positive by learning to be more human, more caring, and more respectful toward others.

Christopher Keenan, OFM, Bronx, N.Y.
Chris is stationed at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, where he lives in a fraternity with several friars and serves in campus ministry. Until recently, he served as chaplain of the New York City Fire Department – since September 2001 when he succeeded Mychal Judge, OFM, who perished on Sept. 11 while ministering to firefighters. Chris has seen his health affected by the countless hours he spent at Ground Zero during the search, rescue, and recovery. He professed his first vows in 1965 and was ordained in 1971.

During the pandemic, there has been time to receive the graced daily invitation: Embrace the “contemplative dimension” of being a Contemplative Fraternity in Mission. It has been a wonderful gift for Ben Taylor, OFM, Ron Pecci, OFM, and me to receive the big-hearted Chris Dunn, OFM, in our fraternity at the campus of the College of Mount St. Vincent, where we live among the students. Fraternity has been even more important for me during these past nine months.

A week after returning from a wonderful US-6 Holy Land pilgrimage with a chronic hip issue, I was admitted to the respiratory ICU with double pneumonia and the flu just around St. Patrick’s Day – and, gratefully, was COVID-negative. Many of my health challenges are related to having worked in the pit of the World Trade Center as an FDNY chaplain. But I have been fortunate for this Contemplative Fraternity in Mission and having Ben Taylor helping me through my multiple health issues. Jesus told Peter, “If I do not wash your feet, you will no longer be my disciple.” Thank you, Ben, for living the Gospel and the words of Jesus. We have also taken the time to acknowledge Ben’s 60th anniversary of joining nine other ordained Black friars in the United States in 1960. Now more than ever, the programs that Ben established in Harlem more than five decades ago are needed in response to the cries of those experiencing unemployment, homelessness, addiction, and hunger.

Ron Pecci, OFM, Bronx, New York
Ron lives at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, where he works in campus ministry. He has served in a variety of ministries during his 42 years as a Franciscan friar, including as longtime pastor of Saints Rita and Patrick Church in Buffalo, New York, and as director of the postulancy program at Holy Name College. He has also supervised volunteers serving with the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry program.

The year 2020 has been unusual from the beginning, but I am grateful for my health and the many good things in my life. Visiting our friars who reside in skilled nursing care facilities has been an awakening. COVID protocols prohibited these visits for a while, but I have been able to get back to monthly visits with the friars and continue to keep them in my daily prayer. The wonderful discussions that I have with these retired friars give me hope and encouragement.

The pandemic has made me take a longer look at what is ahead and behind. The thoughts of my past and presumed future are humbling, making me realize how vulnerable I am. The pandemic has had a massive impact on human life and all of Creation. Even the trees and plants, and animals and insects, have been affected. I feel the sadness and bad news brought about by the pandemic. The hurt and division in our world – both politically and socially – is not something we can ignore. We can’t pretend that the pandemic is not connected to other disruptions, such as global warming. Black Lives Matter, sexual abuse of minors, unjust laws, economic disparities – all of these contribute to a feeling of smallness and helplessness. I sometimes feel empty, but the emptiness goes away when I think how fortunate I am for my brother friars and coworkers, many of whom bear heavy burdens but continue to flourish and grow. That gives me great encouragement. I welcome 2021!

Gabriel Scarfia, OFM, Buffalo, New York
Gabe serves in pastoral ministry with two other Province friars at the Parish of Saints Columba-Brigid in downtown Buffalo. Before that, he served three years as a member of the pastoral team at HNP’s St. Francis Chapel mall ministry in Colonie, New York. Gabe, who professed his first vows in 1958 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1964, taught graduate theology courses for 47 years at Christ the King Seminary.

I have been overwhelmed by the suffering of so many people – suffering which, perhaps, could have been avoided if there was an effective national response to the pandemic. We have seen political divisiveness at a time when our leaders should be bringing people together in common purpose and values. This divisiveness and absence of national policy – and the underlying disrespect for truth and those with more experience and knowledge – has affected individual response to the pandemic. We see it in the unfortunate resistance against the things that scientists and health experts are advising us to do – masking, distancing, handwashing, sanitizing. I admit that it has been personally frustrating not to be able to go out and be with others, and I don’t enjoy wearing a mask. But I am reminded of my responsibilities as part of a network of people to do these things to keep others safe.

Of course, it is natural to feel deprived when we can’t go to a restaurant, movie theater, or sporting event. But no one is an island, and freedom is not individualistic. We have to acknowledge our responsibility of social bondedness to others, even if it means living a life and existence of deprivation. The most important lesson is to understand our bondedness to others, whether or not we like them, and whether they are part of our close circle or complete strangers. Who knows what’s in store for January and February once we get through the holidays? Even with a vaccine on the horizon, that horizon for most won’t be until April, May, or later. One thing we know is that the divisiveness and suffering have been contrasted by unbelievable generosity and by the heroic work of first-responders, particularly healthcare professionals. These people are working beyond limits, and they have shown us the important reality that we are responsible for one another.

Patrick Tuttle, OFM, Macon, Georgia
Pat is pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Macon, where a fraternity of five friars ministers to two parishes about five miles apart.   Prior, Patrick served for 15 years, 13 of them as the pastor, at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Greenville, South Carolina, where he also served the greater Greenville community, mostly African American, in a number of ministries that included hospital and prison chaplaincy and diaconate formation. He professed his first vows in 1989 and was ordained a priest in 1994.

The year has been profoundly challenging for a people made in God’s image. God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is community in unity. But we, against this likeness, have been separated in many ways. Fears and regrets separate us from feeling well personally – whether they be about politics, Church crimes, illnesses, and the incapacities we have to endure as we meet loved ones on social media platforms or through the glass window of a rehabilitation center. Yet, I have been powerfully filled with hope as so many creative tactics and fruits come from the Spirit within us – a Spirit that will not be taken away from us. “There is a light which can overcome the darkness, and there is no darkness that can overcome the light,” as the song by Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam, says.

How I have enjoyed hearing pieces of music on National Public Radio, which they commissioned during the pandemic to address this global health crisis poetically and with meter and verse to help us express the good and evil of it. I have enjoyed hearing parents say, “You know what? Now I can bring prayer back into school!” I also have been deeply gratified to observe YouTube and Facebook present a daily Mass, which in normal times would have 10 to 30 viewers, but now records more than 500 being fed by the Word and Spiritual Communion. Live-streaming and televised Sunday Masses are now viewed by the thousands. One of my favorite realizations is the new crowd of “homily hoppers,” who take in anywhere from three to five homilies of a priest they know or recommended by others. But I am deeply moved mostly by the way COVID-19 has slowed us down, brightened the formerly smog-filled sky, and brought us together around meals and evening home life. It seems to me that the Holy Spirit is at work bigger than the virus.

Compiled by Stephen Mangione and Jocelyn Thomas 

Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources section of and in the Features section of the HNP Today webpage.