Dear Friends in Christ,
In March 2020, an invisible enemy in the form of a virus brought life as we knew it to a halt all throughout the world. Health care professionals advised governments that strict lockdowns would quickly end a pandemic whose initial results portended a demographic disaster. Religious leaders responded by curtailing worship in a way never seen before. As Catholics, we believe in faith and reason, and what seemed to many at the time a prudent temporary measure to “flatten the curve” drove decisions. As Catholics, we responded with obedience to legitimate authority in this matter and prayed for a quick end to the pandemic. Of course, science this side of heaven is never really settled, and recommendations and mandatory measures have changed and changed again numerous times during this historical event. Questions were raised about the motives behind the lockdown as political agendas sought to take advantage of the panic to reset society as we know it. Questions were raised as to the very real human costs that were more than just in terms of physical health: emotional health, financial health, and spiritual health. We know more now than we did when we began this Covid-tide, but there’s still a lot we don’t know. A mixture of lockdown fatigue and attempts to figure out how we could co-exist with this pernicious enemy and still have some semblance of normal life have colored the past few months.
In May 2020, after the first Easter since 33AD was not publicly celebrated in our churches, we began public celebrations of the Mass once again. Public health officials and religious leaders tried to figure out what were prudent measures to implement to curtail the spread of the virus. Those measures have not been applied univocally everywhere; some have been more restrictive, some less, and interpretations have varied. There are as many opinions on what should and what should not be done as there are individuals to have them. For my part, I have tried to listen earnestly to all of them and to stay abreast of all of the developments that have been publicized in various places throughout the world. At Prince of Peace, we have sought to stay a middle course by which we have enacted the specific recommendations of the Diocese of Charleston without being more restrictive than that, and always respecting the sacred character of what we do in worship here at Prince of Peace. We have encouraged our people to listen to the recommendations and follow them in a spirit of docility, even when they had reservations about them, as a penance and out of concern for their neighbors who may be more cautious.
As new liturgical year of grace has dawned, we have seen a number of new faces at Prince of Peace that have made the parish their spiritual home. I hope they choose to stay with us after the pandemic is a bad memory. We have had some who have not come back to Mass at all, and others who, feeling that their expectations have not been met, have chosen to not return to Mass or to worship elsewhere. I am always concerned about the unity of the Body of Christ, and trying to keep all who call Prince of Peace their spiritual home connected and unified has been one of the greatest challenges of my priesthood.
As you are well aware, the second commandment, Keep the sabbath day holy, has always been interpreted by the Catholic Church to include going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Our Lord passed on to Peter and to the Apostles, and their successors, the power to bind and loose His children. There is always a dispensation from the obligation in times of illness, necessary work or caregiving, or physical impossibility. That obligation is there in view of the dictum: Greater love hath no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends. Sometimes we are called to worship at the altar of the Eucharist at church; at other times at the altar of the sickbed or in other ways. Those dispensations are not given lightly, and a properly formed Christian will always yearn to be one at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Unless you eat My Body and drink My Blood, you have no life in you. For Christians, Sunday Mass is not an option. The early Christians cried, Sine Dominico non possumus – we can’t live without the Lord’s Day.
In Matthew 10.28, the Lord says, Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Catholics have always known that this world is not our true home. The heroic virtue of the saints knows of the virtue of prudence in observing the dogmas of the faith and the dictates of reason, but also the virtue of courage in seeking the good beyond that of even physical health and life. Catholics throughout the ages have literally shed their blood in order to go to Mass, to receive Holy Communion, and to serve their Lord in the sick and the poor.
During the lockdown, as I celebrated private Mass in the adoration chapel, we were able through the miracle of technology to bring you into that act of worship to participate in some way. But being a passive spectator at the Mass is not the same as full, active and conscious participation in the spiritual and physical reality of the sacraments given for our salvation. One of the most edifiying things was the witness of some of you, who watched and waited outside of the chapel or the church, just to gain a glimpse of Our Lord truly present on the altars. When the churches were reopened, there were many in our parish community who, having experienced real hunger and thirst for God, returned to Mass and Holy Communion with tears in their eyes and gratitude in their hearts.
The Bishop of Charleston, in his role as spiritual leader of the Diocese, has encouraged all of us to come back to Mass except for those who are in high-risk categories. A corollary of that is those who are caregivers for them. Many bishops around the country are ending the dispensation entirely except for those categories of people. Our Bishop has confidence in the spiritual maturity of our people that, if they are truly not identified as high-risk by a medical professional, they will want to come back to Mass. He has not employed his apostolic authority to command in this matter. But neither does he envision the continuation of the dispensation as a freebie ticket out of an obligation either.
The Church’s law grants dispensations out of a concern for a greater spiritual good, not just out of some momentary laxity. That is why, when we choose to avail ourselves of the dispensation, we may not commit a mortal sin by enjoying the dispensation, but we incur the obligation to wisely use the gift in the spirit in which it is offered. To fail to bring wisdom into our choices is a sign of spiritual weakness, and our lives can become disordered and we can wander far away from God as a result. When we adopt a spirit of entitlement or frivolously use these gifts of grace, we should not presume that God will infuse us with extraordinary graces when we abuse our freedom by failing to use the ordinary means of grace He offers His Church.
There are those who are truly in a high risk category and legitimately avail themselves of the dispensation from Sunday Mass at this time. There are others who are simply unsure or paralyzed by fear. My hope is that their psychological state is such that their judgment in this matter is impaired to such a degree as to not to be able to incur sin as a result of the decisions made from that place. But I am continually heartbroken when I see people go on vacation, entertain people at home, go shopping, go out to eat at restaurants, send their kids to school, and go to work, and then turn around and act like going to Mass, even observing the protocols put into place, is going to kill them and others.
I’m also concerned about those who are coming back to Mass, but adamantly refuse to wear masks, social distance and sanitize when they do so in any other public place. Their recalcitrance in this manner has led people who were coming back to Mass to opt not to do so. As more people come back to Mass and social distancing becomes more of a problem, it is even more imperative that those who do not have a legitimate medically diagnosed condition that makes masks impossible to wear, conform to the same requirements that are necessary in every other public place in the area. I’m disheartened by the uncharitable behavior of those who just refuse obedience in this matter. The only reason I don’t mask in church except for Communion is because of my relative distance from people at the altar and the issues it causes for public leadership of prayer. I observe all of the required norms everywhere else, out of obedience and charity, even given my own reservations about their effectiveness.
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. Throughout the pandemic, priests, deacons and laypeople, including those who are actually in high-risk categories, have responded to the Lord’s call to sacrificial love. They have continued to administer and receive the sacraments, visit the sick (including COVID positive patients), and feed the hungry. There was a risk, all the time, and they decided to continue to do the Lord’s work, not rashly and imprudently, but because they knew that whenever and however they would appear before the judgment seat of Christ, their eternal salvation would depend on how they loved on this earth.
I have lived through this pandemic as an immuno-compromised person myself. I went to Istanbul to study, and lived through a near terrorist attack and an earthquake. I have continued to minister to the sick and the dying, and to try to live the life of grace with courage and prudence, from a spirit of penance and obedience. I decided that I was going to live life to the fullest, even in this most tenuous of times. I am doing this, not because I have a death wish (I don’t), or just because I’m a priest. I have chosen not to be paralyzed by fear and to live the life of grace because Jesus is Lord, and it will be His decision, not mine, when I am to cross the threshold into the wedding feast of the Lamb. I only pray that I may be worthy to sit that that table forever, even if I am turning the lights out in purgatory. But I won’t be if I squander this beautiful life God has given me by hiding my light under a bushel.
It’s time for some of you to come home for Christmas. We’ll be here, and the sanctuary lamp that indicates the presence of the Lord in our churches has been lit, for you, this whole time. For some of you “home” is still literally at home. But for others of you, “home” means learning to live with a virus that isn’t going away anytime soon, and live an abundant life filled with the fruits of a Spirit who is calling us to life beyond what any mere coronavirus can ever destroy. I’m looking forward to seeing you, hearing you, and praying with you.
Father Christopher Smith, PhD/STD
Every Catholic in the world must belong to a parish. Parishes are either territorial, meaning that they encompass the souls living in a defined geographical area: or personal, meaning that certain persons register in a parish that has a certain charism to which they are led. Prince of Peace is a territorial parish, but people both within the territory (Taylors) and outside of the territory indicate that they want to be members of our spiritual family by registering with an appropriate form. Because a pastor has certain rights vis-a-vis his flock, he cannot provide certain elements of pastoral care to some souls without prejudicing the rights of other pastors. Registration in a place where many people are not Catholics gives some kind of formal recognition that one finds a spiritual home in a certain parish and can expect spiritual care from that parish’s clergy.
In addition to registering in a parish, Catholics have a grave obligation under pain of mortal sin to provide for the needs of the parish to the extent that they are able. Regular Mass attendance and giving are ordinarily objectively verified using the envelope system, dropping your offering in a special envelope provided by the parish. It is not a perfect system, and some sad souls like to try to game the system, but it has become local custom in the United States. Individual parishes each have different criteria for distinguishing between an active and an inactive parishioner. Ordinarily, at Prince of Peace, a household is marked inactive if there is no discernible activity trackable by the parish office. Some parishioners who find themselves in homebound situations or temporary financial crises ask to remain listed as active parishioners. Those who do not are marked as inactive parishioners.
Parishioner status does not affect who can come to Mass, confession or anointing of the sick, who can be buried from the parish, participate in parish activities and programs, and a whole host of activities. Only registered, active and contributing parishioners, however, may have their child baptized or confirmed in the parish, may receive the parishioner rate or financial aid at the parish school, or be married in the parish.
During this global health pandemic, however, ascertaining who is an active parishioner according to the usual criteria is not as clear cut as it once was. The Bishop has dispensed us from Mass, and many people would be there if they could, but are in the danger zone for contracting the virus. Also, there are many people who have all of a sudden found themselves in very different financial situations than before, and cannot contribute at the level they were before. Remember that the normal expectations for regular, active and contributing parishioner status are a reasonable minimum for a practicing Catholic to be coherently called so. But these are not normal times, and the Church does not seek to burden her children unduly at such a stressful time.
Therefore, I would like to enact the following policy for the July 2020-July 2021 Fiscal Year:
In order to be considered an active parishioner for the purpose of: having children baptized or confirmed in the parish, receiving the parishioner rate or financial aid at the school, or to be married in the parish, these are the requirements:
1. be registered in the parish with the proper forms and not be registered in any other parish
2. attend Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation in the parish when and if you find it reasonable to do so and you would not be embarrassed to stand up in front of Jesus and explain why you’re not at Mass
3. use the envelope system or some form of Tithely, WeShare or EFT to continue to support the church as sacrificially as you are able
4. communicate in writing to the pastor if there is a reason why you want to be continue to be considered active if number 3 is impossible (you don’t even have to state the reason, just let him know there is a reason)
For this fiscal year, the envelope system will not be used to track attendance, since for much of this time, the obligation is not in effect and there are many who will be unable to come to Mass, but who consider Prince of Peace their spiritual home and are still united with us in prayer and other means of support. No one will be automatically inactivated during FY 2020-1 unless they die, move out of the county, register in another parish or request to be inactivated.
I want this policy to be clear, so that there are no surprises. We intend in July 2021 to revert to our previous policies for determining active parishioner status, unless our review of it at that time makes an extension of the present policy necessary. We don’t want anyone to be marked inactive from parish life during this year merely because they made a prayerful and prudent discernment not to come to Mass or because their financial situation was such that regular and trackable support of the parish was impossible.
Likewise, many of the normal expectations that we have for religious education, sacramental preparation and participation in the rites and ceremonies of the Church, will need to be re-envisioned for the greater good of souls during this time. Any temporary adjustments in those policies will be communicated as necessary, and are always done with a view to a reasonable engagement with the life of the Church during a very stressful time for everyone.
If you have any questions, feel free to contact the parish office at 864.268.4352.
Thanking you for your continued support of this amazing spiritual home I remain
Yours in Christ,
Revd Fr Christopher Smith, PhD/STD, KHS
Pastor, Prince of Peace Roman Catholic Church
1209 Brushy Creek Rd
Taylors, SC 29687
Mater mea, fiducia mea!
16 March AD 2020
My dear people,
On Ash Wednesday I challenged us as a spiritual home to simplify and unify for Lent. Three weeks into Lent, and a significant part of the world is watching and waiting for COVID-19 to pass us by. I know many of you are seized by anxiety about what this means, and what the future will be like on the other end of this crisis. But St John reminds us, Perfect love casts out all fear. Maybe the Lord has permitted this scourge so we can all simplify and unify. Staying at home and avoiding the world is forcing us all into the interior of our domestic churches. We are all being detached from much in this world that is not Love. At the same though, compassion and kindness haven’t been cancelled, and we can be powerful forces to unify others by perfecting our love and dispelling fear.
I can’t tell you how saddened I am by the closure of our churches from public worship. I know that the Mass is still the perfect form of worship no matter how many are there for you. At least for the foreseeable future, your guardian angels are going to be taking your places in the pews as I ascend Calvary each day to offer the Sacrifice of Redemption. You will be worshiping at the altar of your domestic church, but you will still be united with me at the altar of your parish church. Last Sunday, I preached, “Jesus is not going to bring you to it, if he’s not going to bring you through it.” He is inviting us to a Eucharistic Fast in the midst of a Lenten desert. We haven’t chosen this, but if Providence is guiding us to this extraordinary moment, He knows what it is about. Trust Him!
The Church has been living through a particularly dark period. Confusion over faith and morals, persecution of Christians, the abuse crisis. There is much darkness in our world and our Church. But this is a time for us to be heroic in our abandonment to the task at hand, which is to watch, wait and pray. Let us not lose this opportunity by frittering it away, but seize every moment of this unique Lent to expand our hearts in love and offer this time as a sacrifice in reparation for the sins of the world.
I don’t know whether we will be celebrating Easter together as a parish family or not, that remains yet to be determined. But I do know one thing. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4.7). We may not be having public Mass or confessions in the church, but our loving Father God is not bound to those hallowed walls. He is with you and me, and is particularly close now that our hope must be in Him!
If there is a medical emergency and danger of death for you or a loved one, please call the Emergency Line at 866.456.2956. If you, or someone you love, just need to talk and have a word of encouragement, please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a phone number to call and I will reach out. Keep up with our social media because I will hopefully be able to stream Mass and other opportunities for prayer, and we can unite simply together in a different way. I can’t wait to join all of you together around the altar again. Until then, let us keep calm and carry on. Pray for those who are sick and for those who care for them, and for those who maintain all those essential services that are so important. We are all links in a chain of glorious humanity, redeemed in Christ. May this retreat into a Eucharistic Fast this very different Lent till the soil of our hearts for the showers of blessing the Risen Son will bestow upon us soon, and very soon!
Love and prayers,
Father Christopher Smith, STD