Monday, May 18, 2020

Who Was that Masked Man? The Priest at the COVID-19 Deathbed

One Christmas when I was a boy I received a Lone Ranger set. They were like the old GI Joes, except it was the Lone Ranger characters, horses, guns, campfires etc. Years later, the only references I'd ever hear about the Lone Ranger were in terms of it being an unsatisfactory model of the priesthood. Quite often you hear cautious criticism over the "Lone Ranger Priest." It basically means a guy who does his own thing, keeps himself isolated from the rest of the presbyterate, and lives a secretive life. And, truth to be told, those characteristics are not good for a priest. I, however, want to come to the defense of the Lone Ranger who provided me countless hours of entertainment as a young boy. 

For the past month, I have been one of twenty or so priests in the Archdiocese of Boston assigned solely to the ministry of brining the Sacraments to those infected with COVID-19. This assignment has been a spiritual treasure trove for me, providing me with a deeper faith in and appreciation for the Church, the Sacraments, and the priesthood. One such spiritual jewel for me has been the lack of individuality that this ministry involves.

When a priest vests for Mass, he is "putting on Christ." The vestments are a good reminder to the priest that what should become more visible is the person of Christ and what should become less visible is the priest's own personality. Or, perhaps better put, the priest's own personality should not obscure Christ. What is important during the Mass is that the people are able to see Christ offering Himself to the Father, using the individual priest as an instrument. The priest lends his voice and his hands to Christ.

I've thought more about the importance of the priest vesting for Mass during these past weeks because those of us involved in this ministry spend a considerable amount of time carefully "vesting." Outside each hospital room, we don gloves, gowns, N95 masks, and face shields. While these medical vestments are donned in order to protect us from infection, they have also served a spiritual purpose for me. They have reminded me that what is important when I walk into that room is not me. What is important is Jesus Christ. With each piece of PPE that is placed on, the individual priest disappears and the One True Priest becomes visible. 

There has been something very beautiful about being hidden under
those garments. When one of us walks into that hospital room, we carry with us all of our brother priests who ardently desire to be there. We carry with us our bishop who consecrated the Holy Oil that we will use. We carry with us the whole Body of Christ. When we walk into that room, hidden under our masks and gowns is the whole Church, its tradition, its prayer, men and women who support her works. We invoke the saints and angels. We bring with us all of those who build up the Church by their holy lives, by their prayers, and by their sacrifices. The individual priest enters that room and carries with him the whole Church. When we go into that room, Christ--both in His Head and in His Body--enters that room.

The Lone Ranger show often concluded with someone asking, "Who was that masked man?" Happily for the sick and the dying, the answer to that question is not merely the name of an individual priest. How disappointing that would be! He is not some heroic individual. Even that would be drastically disappointing. No, that masked man was not the Lone Ranger. Faith reveals to us what the eye cannot see. That masked man standing at the foot of the deathbed is the whole Jesus Christ, in His priestly headship and in His Body, the Church.