USA: the pandemic takes us back to essentials

For months, every day, a priest has been travelling miles by bicycle or pickup to be close to his community. This experience, lived together with a team of parishioners, is uniting and broadening horizons, while leaving also its post-pandemic effects.

If lockdown and social distancing rules oblige us to keep away as much as possible from assembly places, such as the parish church, why can’t the priest bridge the gap between us all? This is what Father Clint Ressler, a Catholic priest at the St. Mary of the Miraculous Medal Parish in Texas City, USA, is doing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has been travelling every day, far and wide all over the territory of his parish to visit his parishioners .

Father Clint, how has life changed in your parish during this pandemic?
It’s true that the pandemic dramatically changed how all of us maintain and grow our relationships. I have a greater sense of how God calls us to co-responsibility.  As a pastor, I feel lifted up and surrounded by a strong and dedicated team. Perhaps because we are more focused on the essentials of our mission there is a corresponding experience of joy and gratitude in seeing these efforts and their fruits.

Prior to the pandemic my days were filled with people. Sometimes I would be too focused on projects or getting to my next meeting or ministry to truly notice, greet and be present to each person.  Now, also because we all need and thirst for communion, authentic relationships, I am feeling more like a human ‘being’ and not a human ‘doing’.

Many parish groups and ministries are connecting to one another more personally, whether by phone, social media and brief personal visits. I have the sense that our God-given need for communion finds its own ways around the difficulties.

What have you been doing to maintain a close relationship with your parishioners?
Perhaps because there are fewer meetings and a greater focus on the essential mission of the parish I have not felt as rushed as before the pandemic.  I have also heard God inviting me to ‘slow down’, to trust Him and to be patient.

Early in the pandemic I was visiting many parishioners on a bicycle or a pick-up. During those early months I would see sometimes as many as a dozen homes in a day.  Now, I am going at a slower pace, so to speak, fewer visits but staying longer.

Can  you share  something with us about the most beautiful moment and the most difficult one you have lived during these visits?
It is difficult to choose just one moment. One family had lost their home to a fire just a few days before I happened to visit them.  The little children had lost their home but also all their toys.  Their neighbor next door welcomed the family into their home.  It was both the saddest but also the most uplifting visit. It continually strikes how this experience has suddenly changed Pope Francis’ call to be ‘missionary disciples’ from beautiful words to something that could and needed desperately to be live.

Would  this experience  leave a positive impact on the life of your parish community, even when the pandemic is over?
The pandemic brought many people to become more familiar with ‘faith online’. Parishioners have become more ‘tech savvy’ in general but also as regards to nourishing their faith.

I have been personally edified by witnessing how our parishioners have cared for one another. I believe that after the pandemic we will see the fruits of this greater connectedness and concrete expressions of mutual concern.

The pandemic has brought about a greater sense of solidarity, not only with the neighbors who live close but also a greater awareness and concern for the whole world.  There is a universal sense that ‘we are all in this together’ and I hope that endures in the hearts and actions of everyone after the pandemic subsides.

You  met the Focolare spirituality and you live it. How does it influence  your life as a priest and a pastor, especially now during this pandemic?
Leading a parish can seem overwhelming and complex, requiring discernment and tough decisions.  However, if I just try to refocus on concrete love it doesn’t seem so overwhelming.  Of course, it all starts with union with God

As a priest, especially as a pastor, I have been entrusted with a position of great influence and authority.  At times, being the leader of others, I can fall into a ‘business approach’ that values efficiency, avoiding risks and valuing measurable ‘achievements’.  The spirituality of the Focolare, and of the witness of Jesus, calls me back to service, humility and faithful patience.

I have understood that the fundamental starting point for discovering God’s will is for us to live with Jesus in our midst.  In other words, we have to be ‘Church’, the mystical body of Christ.  As we live and grow in these mutual relationships with God’s grace, we can hear the little voice of the Holy Spirit.  I think my life in the Focolare, ingrained in me over the years, a desire to bring this kind of discernment into the parish, with the parish staff, with the pastoral council, with every group and committee.

Anna Lisa Innocenti

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