In a wide-ranging interview with The Evangelist, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger said during the coronavirus pandemic it is critical to remember, "that God is with us in everything we are going through."
Bishop Scharfenberger touched on a variety of subjects including his decision to suspend Masses, the impact of social media particularly through livestreamed Masses, as well as when public worship would return, but the idea of "Letting go and Letting God," as Bishop so often says, was a paramount thought.
"Allow the feeling of longing and the feeling of separation to stir up in our hearts the desire to come closer to the Lord and one another in every way we can," said Bishop Scharfenberger during this period of isolation and social distancing. "Allow it to stimulate in us that real part of our humanity that teaches us that we are more than individuals, that we are connected to one another and that we do need to maintain relationships. ...
"... and thank God for the opportunities that we do have to make those connections and to increase the ways that we can maintain those relationships ... through the sacramental life of the church. It increases in us a deep sense that we truly need those connections."
An area that causes the Bishop some pause are people who don't have those connections at the moment.
"One of the things that I am conscious of is that a lot of people are getting support from their families and they do have that blessing. But I am also concerned about people for whom family is not a comfort zone," he said. "What I am encouraging people to do is be conscious of people that you know who may not have family stability, or may be alone and reach out to them the best you can.
"Social distancing doesn't have to mean social isolation. Many parishes, for example, I know have arranged phone call trees; people who may be in hospitals or homes, they are reaching out to them by phone and that is a wonderful thing. ... Keeping those phone calls and texts going, any form of contact you can make to overcome the isolation. That is one of the biggest fears, 'Will I be alone?' Keep those connections going."
As to when the faithful of the dioceses of Albany and Buffalo could make those connections in a public way, in a church, Bishop Scharfenberger could only speculate on how the process might look. President Donald Trump has floated different dates; first April 12 and now May 1 is being bandied about. The governors of seven states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware — have formed a multi-state council that will implement how the states will gradually reopen. On April 16, Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the New York State on PAUSE guidelines until May 15, which means all social-distancing rules must be followed at least until then. So as for a specific date on public Masses, it's anyone's guess.
"We are probably going to end up doing what seems to be likely across the nation in terms of opening up the country, opening up the state. I think it's going to be phased in different ways, it may happen in some areas more than others," Bishop said. "Obviously, people that live in large concentrations, in urban areas, are going to have to be more careful about how that is done.
"I don't know if that is something that will be done by the snap of a finger, on one particular date. I imagine what we will see, and this is just my speculation, the numbers that can gather right now is 10 in New York State. At some point there will be relaxation of those rules, it may go back to 50, may go back to 100 and as those numbers change, that would also affect our ability to gather."
He was also pragmatic about suspending public Masses in the dioceses of Albany and Buffalo on March 16; there are 126 parishes in Albany, with about 1 million Catholics combined in both dioceses. Some of the faithful didn't agree with the decision, but one Erie County executive said the prompt action "saved lives.
"We have to do what is best for the common good, for the greater community. At this point, we are trying to get (the pandemic) under some sort of control as best as we can," Bishop said. "And so far the regulations that I have seen have been reasonable in order to get ahead of this curve. So I have been encouraging parishes to do this, to abide by what the regulations are.
"We have been fortunate in Buffalo and Albany not to have to close churches themselves. So people can go to churches, pay visits. So far as we know everybody has been respectful of the rules up to this point. I am very conscious of the real pain that people are feeling from the separation from the Eucharist ... It's very difficult from an emotional point of view. I had one priest tell me that he weeps every time he celebrates Mass because we are celebrating Mass alone.
"Every time we are at Mass, even if we are blessed to have people as we want it to be, we are linked with the communion of Saints. The same people beholding God in the face are the same people linked to us in the Eucharist. We are always conscious of this communion that is beyond our physical ability to connect. I would also say making spiritual communion is a very strong foundation that is supported by saints and spiritual guides throughout the course of Catholic history."
One way the Diocese has filled that void is through livestreaming of Masses; 31 parishes in the Diocese of Albany now use Facebook or YouTube to stream Masses on Sunday and during the week to the homes of the faithful. And the Diocese of Albany website (rcda.org) was cited by "America Magazine" as a go-to source for information during the coronavirus. It is no stretch to say that social media platforms have kept the faith alive for many; and will continue to be part of a new diocesan evangelization tool even when things get back to some sense of normal.
"We are all becoming experts in all these online means of communicating, and I think that we are learning," Bishop Scharfenberger said. "One of the great benefits of this is that it helps to involve the family even more because parents can actually be at home with their children learning along with them. And I see this as something that is doable and very beneficial; creating the links among students and schools and families and strengthening them through the use of this media is a positive thing that we'll continue to build on."
Bishop Scharfenberger celebrated his first Facebook Live Mass on March 30 at Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy. Masses for Holy Week and Easter at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany were livestreamed to YouTube and the diocesan website. The connections Bishop talks about that people make during public worship he experienced, surprisingly, online.
"I found that the quiet of the church and being able to connect with God and those who were viewing was a real sense, I felt, of connection. It was unexpected," he said. "And hearing from people who were on the other side of the camera livestreaming, I can't tell you how many people I have heard from, who said they really felt a sense of connection, so there was something going on there that was more than just watching."
And does he think these virtual connections can lead people back into the physical church?
"That is really possible and I have heard from some people who have been survivors of sexual abuse and different forms of pains and traumas ... that this is an ability to connect with the Church in a way that is less traumatic for them, is safer, and they have actually felt a sense of gratitude that they have been able to connect in this way. It's hard to say, but people have been connecting online. If they feel a little more connected, they may be more inclined to say. 'When we can get back together, I'll join in again.' "
As for people, longing to get out of the house and return to Mass, that time will come.
"Jesus unquestionably wanted us to build his Church on the apostles and continue the celebration of the gift of himself on Calvary through the Mass. The Holy Spirit stimulates this hunger in us to have an intimate relationship with the Lord. It begins in our Baptism. All of us have an intimate relationship with God if we remain in the state of grace. So that's a real presence. The desire to express this with one another is a big part of our humanity.
"So people may be feeling, even though they may be home with their families, there is definitely a sense that, 'I gotta get out of the house,' 'I've got to be with my friends.' People want to go to work; people want to celebrate together. I think the urge, the hunger to celebrate in community with other people of faith is very strong and when we can do this again, I think it will definitely be something that people will want to do. I don't think anybody is going to say that I am happy just to be home with my family doing everything online."
As for any final thoughts?
"I continue to pray for everybody every day," Bishop added, "and, as I celebrate Mass every day, I include the intentions of all of those good people in our dioceses, whatever they are going through, that God will give them the healing, the strength and the courage and the persistence in trusting and not losing hope. Don't get discouraged. That is the most diabolical of all temptations."