Ever Present: With all the changes of the past 24 months, something's the same

Above (left to right): Fathers Peter Grace, C.P, Nick Cottrill and John Durbin 

For priests, Sunday is an important day of the week. Sure, things are busy each day and many of them celebrate Mass every day. But Sunday? It’s the day. They celebrate Mass and interact with their parishioners. Everything is so built around Sunday that they often take Mondays off for balance.

Father Nick Cottrill of Holy Family Parish in Elizabeth City is no exception.

For him, Sunday and the celebration of the Mass is about the Eucharist and its importance.

“The peace of Christ that can only come through him and enter our hearts if we are open and we desire his faithfulness and his will. It comes down to our individual responsibility. Our understanding that if we’re missing the Eucharist … we’re missing the healing presence of the Lord,” he said.

Father Nick has seen how things have changed since the pandemic began in March of 2020. He remembers putting up the markers for seating restrictions and feeling the uneasiness of some parishioners who couldn’t get to their regular seats.      

“We’re human,” he acknowledged. “And we’re comfortable with wanting things to be the way they’ve always been.”

Father Nick recently talked about the dispensation, or removal, of the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays in the Diocese of Raleigh, which began when the pandemic started. He reflects on personal choice and returning to Mass.   

NC Catholics also talked to Father Peter Grace, C.P., from St. Ann in Clayton and Father John Durbin from St. Andrew in Apex about parish life during the last two years.

Father Nick Cottrill, Holy Family, Elizabeth City

NC Catholics: Please tell us about changes and Mass engagement.

Father Nick Cottrill: We have tools at our disposal to come back, to take responsibility for our own lives. It needs to be a personal responsibility to come back to church. Unfortunately, as we are human, and since the Mass obligation has been lifted, we don’t come because it’s inconvenient.

But we don’t have a free pass. Whether you choose to come back or not, it’s up to you. In terms of the health of the community, the dispensation is always in effect for those who are vulnerable, those who are sick or have underlying health conditions. That’s never been an obligation for those people in our community.

But this is a great opportunity to remind us that the responsibility is ultimately on our shoulders. And it needs to be there. If we have a desire to follow Christ, we need to make that decision every day – Yes, Lord, I choose to follow you. What does that entail? On Sundays, it means going to Mass.

NCC: Do you think people may have a tendency to take the path of least resistance when it comes to Mass and faith lives?

FNC: We set the bar so high on other things – our career goals, our relationships, our thoughts, dreams and desires. But when it comes to our faith life, many of us set the bar so low we end up tripping over it.

We as humans, as fallen, have a tendency to turn into ourselves. The Mass obligation is there for us to give us something to hold on to. If nothing else, think of it as a tether. Because, for the majority of us, we tend to be minimalistic, particularly in our spirituality. We ask ourselves, “What is the least amount I have to do in order to get to Heaven?”

The Church has set the standards, the guidelines. We have the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the doctrine. But for most of us, we look to the bare minimum.

Sometimes … [going to Mass] becomes like checking a box instead of recognizing what the Lord is trying to do in our hearts.

The Church says you “only” have to go to confession once a year. But if you’re only going to confession once a year, before Easter, to meet that obligation, that’s a problem. What’s happening the other 364 days? Are you even acknowledging a need for penance, or understanding that the sacrament of reconciliation is a sacrament of healing?

The most courageous thing any person can do – clergy or layperson – is to cross that line into the confessional, or reconciliation room, or wherever the sacrament is being offered. You don’t have to move mountains, you just have to cross that threshold, and there you’re encountering Christ. And through that, the “obligation” melts away. It turns into an act of love.

It’s the same way in terms of Mass. If we’re coming out of “obligation” and not out of love for the Eucharist, then we’re coming for the wrong reasons, period.

The same is true for us as priests. We are fallen. We struggle daily. But if the Eucharist is not the source and summit of our lives – if that’s not what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, then that needs to be addressed. Because all of the other sacraments point to the Eucharist or flow from the graces of the Eucharist.

NCC: What, do you think, living a better faith life entails?

FNC: Each one of us has the opportunity and the grace to become saints. And it’s not by moving mountains or writing libraries of theology books, it’s by changing our lives and influencing others to change their lives, by being faithful today.

NCC: How do we respond to the challenge of an ongoing pandemic?

FNC: Do we have to worry about tomorrow? Well, let’s plan, but let’s not worry about tomorrow to the point where we get frozen in anxiety and we’re not able to do anything.

There’s always going to be a variant, a horrific event, a natural disaster. God forbid there’s going always be scandal in our midst and around the corner.

At the end of the day, you have to decide who sits on the throne of your heart. Is it you? Is it something else? Or is it Jesus? That’s a decision you have to make every day. No one can make that for you.

Often times things happen because we as humans, as Christians, take our eyes off the Lord. We as clergy have even kicked Jesus off the throne and climbed up on it ourselves for a bit.

But in the midst of everything, there is always hope. If there’s no hope then we have nothing else. Hope isn’t a throw away or a pipe dream, it’s what we put our faith in – the hope of the resurrection. Otherwise, what are we doing here on Earth? What’s the point?

People say, especially now, that they want to go back to normal, even though they can’t define what normal is. But if you say that you want to go back, then you’re saying that nothing has happened. We’ve experienced the Lord, we’ve experienced new birth, we’ve seen the Lord in nature, the flowers are still blooming. We are seeing these things, these signs, that the Lord is still present. Do we have to try a little harder and find new ways to seek him? Absolutely. But that’s good because it calls us out of our comfort zones.

As a Church, we provide you with the tools and access to the sacraments. We can’t dictate your personal decisions. You have to make those decisions yourself.

The strongest people, the most ardent prayer warriors in history have taken a stand not just for their faith but as part of their identity, it’s who they are.

In my community and probably in most every other, the first people that came through the doors when the restrictions were lifted were those who were the most vulnerable, the older people in particular.

I asked an 80-plus-year-old woman, using a walker, on oxygen, why she came back to the Church. She said, “Now I can receive the Eucharist.”

That nearly broke my heart. It’s that kind of faith, that kind of love, that we should be beaten up for as priests if we’re not sharing and promoting and encouraging that. It causes all of us, in our own consciences, to ask “Am I just going through the motions or am I answering the question of how I can be faithful to the Lord, today?”

Father John Durbin, St. Andrew, Apex

Like many of his parishioners, Father John Durbin of St. Andrew in Apex thought the loss of freedom and community brought on by the pandemic was especially difficult.

“I think we all have a sense now of what we could lose – or what we did lose,” he said. “And so I think people are more appreciative of it.”

He counts himself among those with a newfound appreciation of parish life. And counts the blessings of his staff and parishioners for helping the community emerge stronger and more cohesive from the challenges of the past 24 months.

NC Catholics: What was the experience in your parish during the early part of the pandemic?

Father John Durbin: It was the most difficult year of my priesthood, personally. You know, what’s Church without the people?

Those were such dark days. I increased my prayer time. But I’m not that holy; I can’t pray all day! I went out for walks every day. I did a lot of reading. I’m not much of a TV watcher but I enjoyed watching ‘The Chosen’ tremendously.

I got COVID-19 in June of 2020. Fortunately, for me, it was mild. I did lose my sense of smell for about 10 days and that was most disturbing to me because I love to cook and I love to eat.

And then once we got vaccinated, it was a whole different story.

At the time, we didn’t have really good technical capabilities at the parish. But we had two parishioners contact us and say, ‘We can help you out with recording Mass.’ We now have people watching the Masses tell me, ‘This is professional quality.’ But it was all thanks to one parishioner. That’s been kind of an interesting new piece for me. This will be, I think, the new norm for every parish. The Mass is just going to have to be broadcast.

But we did drive-by Communion in the parking lot. Every week, people wept. I wept. It was just so emotional. Finally, when we were able to come back to Mass, every week people cried. And then I’d cry. It was just so wonderful to be back together.

NCC: How did health restrictions and the dispensation of the Mass Obligation impact Mass attendance?

FJD: I don’t think that for the people that were your faithful, Sunday worshippers, the Sunday obligation made any difference to them. They just came. That’s what they needed and that’s what they wanted. I grew up going to daily Mass, my family did. I just can’t imagine a life without it. And I think a lot of people are that way. I’d rather people come because they’re engaged and want to be there.

The way our building is designed we have four options for people, socially distanced in the church, masked in church, outside in our courtyard with speakers set up, and a simulcast in our hall. And we bring Communion to both the hall and outside.

There’s really a lot of options for people that are safe. There are some people who’ve told me, ‘We’re only going to a daily Mass during the week.’ I say, ‘You’ve gotta do whatever’s going to work.’ I’ve also said what I felt I had to say and I know it’s ticked some people off.

NCC: Was the parish able to continue outreach, like its Brown Bag Ministry, which prepares lunches each week to those experiencing homelessness?

FJD: They ran the Brown Bag Ministry through the whole thing. They had a real small group of dedicated volunteers. They’re usually here on Saturday mornings and they just got it done. They can wrap up 500 sandwiches in about an hour and a half. Every week. This ministry all precedes me. I can take no credit.

NCC: What have we learned during COVID about our faith life?

FJD: It was very necessary for us as pastors to be reaching out to our flock, even beyond our broadcast Masses. Normally, I’m not one to write a ‘weekly’ anything. I always want to make sure that whatever I write is worth someone’s time. But I did during that period (early in the pandemic.) Every single week for about eight months I sent out a message to the entire community. And the theme I kept hitting on was hope and how we’re just not going to surrender hope because it’s the only way through this.

Father Peter Grace, C.P., St. Ann, Clayton

The Passionists, a religious order founded by St. Paul of the Cross in 1720, have been in the Diocese of Raleigh for over 100 years. Though they’ve never had great numbers in Eastern North Carolina at any one time, they were instrumental in founding a number of parishes, including St. Peter and St. Gabriel in Greenville and St. Egbert in Morehead City.

As a Passionist priest serving in Clayton, Father Peter Grace found inspiration in reading the works of St. Robert Bellarmine, who in earlier times of plagues and challenges, had appealed to religious order priests to, “do their jobs” by ministering to the sick.

“He was pretty blunt in his writing,” said Father Peter. “It was a good influence on me.”

Father Peter recently reflected on leading a community of faith and keeping them physically healthy and spiritually united on a “synodal” journey through the pandemic and beyond.

NC Catholics: What was the experience in your parish during the early part of the pandemic?

Father Peter Grace: I remember when the pandemic first started and the diocese published a list of churches that were streaming Masses. It was kind of reminder that, “Gee, we gotta do this.”

But that’s been a blessing for the whole Church. We even did a wedding recently and when I met the couple, they said, ‘This is our first time here. We’ve never been here before.’ They had just moved from Raleigh to Clayton and had been watching our Mass online. So we’re definitely reaching people through the Internet that we wouldn’t reach otherwise.

This county, Johnston, was not as strict as others. The only restrictions we had were what we wanted to impose. My compass on this has been trying to find out what the people are willing to do. I’m very grateful that the bishop left it up to the pastors in the different places.

We kept our distance. We were outdoors. We did a lot of outdoor Masses. We did outdoor Adoration. And the people were really happy that they could get out and worship. It was beautiful. Even if they didn’t come, they could watch it and know that the church was still there.

NCC: How did health restrictions and the dispensation of the Mass Obligation impact Mass attendance?

FPG: The fact that the Mass obligation dispensation is still there is ok. It comforts the ones who are sick or worry about someone else getting sick. They want to come but they would crucify themselves otherwise for not coming. They were rightfully scared and the dispensation did help them. But they feel the need to be in the community and to honor God. But if people wanted an excuse, well that was a perfect one. But I don’t think their faith was that strong to begin with.

We still make an announcement at each Mass that we recommend you wear a mask. The parish still has separate seating areas available for those who want to wear masks (on the left side of the church) and those who prefer not to wear masks (on the right side of the church.)

We still have people that say, “When are you going to stop making the announcements?” And we still have people who say, “I’m not coming back until everyone’s wearing a mask.” We know we’re not pleasing everyone. But this does give people an option and it does keep people feeling safe.

NCC: Your parish experienced a loss. Can you tell us about that?

FPG: We had a priest who died of COVID in 2021. Father Hector was one of the last ones on our staff to get it. At the time, I thought, ‘Good, we’re more advanced, we know more, he should do ok.’ But he died.

Father Hector’s condition was like someone floating out in the ocean, hanging on to a plank. One day he was up, one day he was down. But he wasn’t going anywhere. To me it pointed out that people want to have definitive answers and medicine doesn’t always have it.

I was on the phone two or three times a day. Asking the night shift, ‘How was his night?’ the day shift, all of the nurses. And I heard all their frustrations about the different treatments and diagnoses. What I heard most from them was that this is something very different than anything they’ve ever dealt with.

NCC: How do we move forward?

FPG: I think the synodal path of conversation that the pope is on is a good one because people are literally not talking to one another. COVID had its effect; the election was another factor. We have people who are not talking to each other.

We’ll use the synod as an opportunity for dialogue, which is what it’s supposed to be. Let’s talk about some of these things, but not in the church during a Mass.

I think one of the blessings about what the pope is doing with the Synod is that he’s saying, ‘OK if you people, as Catholics, can’t get together and talk and dialogue, then forget it, the world doesn’t have much of a chance.’ So I’m hopeful for that.