The Catholic laity must not be orphaned during this pandemic
The three Maryland priests seem to be working out the jitters before next week’s pilgrimage to two Mothers; Mary and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. In fact, Los Tres Padres — as the priests are called in these parts of leafy Montgomery County, Maryland — seem like little boys wearing collars.
Fr. Mario Majano, points to his physique and asks: “You mean we’re walking 54 stinkin’ miles!?”
From the unbridled mouth of Fr. Dan Leary: “Yeah Softy, you too chicken?”
And from the easy-mannered, athletic third priest, Fr. Foggo: “Hey man, I’m up for this. Let’s roll.”
The abiding presence of the Virgin has seemed forever tucked into the cashmere-like Catoctin Mountains of Western, Maryland — and it is for that reason that the priests are journeying to her. If an accompanying thought bubble could be made visible throughout their three-day pilgrimage, it might reveal objects rather than any words. Inside would be empty stone jars.
On May 1, each will humbly hand over his jar to Mary and ask that she plead with her Son to fill it. Then they will spend time in prayer on the mountain, and depart back to their parishes where they intend to pour out choice wine.
The idea for the pilgrimage came when the priests began to discuss what their parishioners were contending with during the coronavirus pandemic. Each had consistently offered outdoor confessions and opportunities for Adoration while leading Marian processions, on-line Masses and mini retreats — but each began to realize that greater and immediate spiritual work was needed.
As parishioners’ isolation pushed further into the spring, the priests began to absorb more brokenhearted stories of lost jobs and battles to feed families. Parishioners have liberally shared their anxieties, feelings of depression setting in their bones, and subtle pulls back into bad habits and addictions.
More broadly, many parents have spoken of the mental strain of maintaining a spirit of Christian charity in cooped-up homes. Rambunctious kids, who beg for a return to more normal days, are becoming more difficult to parent. Without the spiritual nourishment of the Mass, access to the sacraments and face-to-face pastoral help, prayer has come harder.
A few have admitted to feeling orphaned.
“We’re mediators for our flock. Our spiritual work is not a burden,” Fr. Shaun Foggo said. “Many of our parishioners are suffering now; they should see us fighting for them.”
Fr. Majano, Fr. Leary and Fr. Foggo will leave from St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church in Silver Spring and travel to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, also the site of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary.
Each a Marian priest, they’ve trained their eyes on the Blessed Mother, and significantly during the pandemic, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton — the first native-born American to be canonized a saint. Mother Seton, as she was known by her religious community she founded in Emmitsburg in 1809, was also forced to contend with a raging disease of the lungs. Tuberculosis took the life of two of her daughters and eventually led to her own death. Her remains, which the priests will venerate, are kept on the mountain.
Tuberculosis raged throughout America at the time of Mother Seton’s conversion to the Catholic faith. Undeterred, she established a religious community to care for orphans, the infirmed, and the poverty-stricken. Meantime, she instructed her fledgling Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph’s order to teach and form uncatechized children. All the while, the Sisters spent 2-3 hours a day in devoted prayer to beg God for the strength to overcome cold winters, sicknesses and a lack of finances to help build the Kingdom of God.
The symmetry between Mother Seton’s confrontation with a fatal disease and her care for orphans isn’t lost on the priests.
“Catholic parents are suffering now; day-in and day-out out, they struggle to protect their kids from the monsters in their house – porn, rotten television, addicting forms of social media, and what seems a never-ending attachment to cell phones,” Fr. Leary said. “It’s grown harder now with the isolation. But even before the virus, I know it’s often a struggle to keep kids engaged in the faith, to get them to Mass each Sunday.
“Now, the public Mass is taken away. In a sense, you could say young Catholics might feel somewhat orphaned.”
Fr. Majano, who shepherds the St. Andrew the Apostle mission church, knows it’s a critical time to engage young Catholics. He knows he must present himself as an active and joy-filled priest to combat boredom, lethargy and exiling. And he said there are deeper pastoral challenges he must work to uproot.
“The great lion and great bear during this time are fear and despair,” he said. “Christ rose from the dead and immediately went out into the world. And during what might seem a dead time in the Church, we priests must go out with the spirit of Resurrection.
“I’m called to be a shepherd, and right now I think the deepest need for my young parishioners – all of my parish family really – is that they see that I’m fighting to kill those lions and bears. It’s what a shepherd does.”
Fathers Leary and Foggo, former seminarians at Mount Saint Mary’s, think Mother Seton’s motto — “Hazard yet forward” — is ideal both for today’s isolated Catholic and their pilgrimage.
“I remember when I used to run these hills early in the morning with three or four other seminarians,” Fr. Foggo said. “For four and a half miles, we prayed the rosary, bounced ideas off one another and then we’d get back and begin a Holy Hour before morning Mass.
“I look back now and think, ‘Wow, the Holy Spirit was working within us then.’ Our hearts were burning back then — and now some of those very things that were fueling me have been temporarily removed. It’s painful for so many.
“So in a way, we’ve decided to take a pilgrimage into a time crunch — we’re traveling 200 years into the past— to unite ourselves to what Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton did. We want to engage in this same kind of care for those orphans that she raced to.”
Toward the end of Mother Seton’s agonizing conversion to the Catholic faith, a time when she met the scorn of many of her Protestant family and friends, she began to ponder the spiritual weight of the sacraments in the Catholic Church.
“How happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls [Catholics] believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick,” she wrote in a letter to an Anglican friend. “How happy would I be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do . . . how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life.”
A local priest said Los Tres Padres witness speaks to a great need in the Church.
“Back in the time of Christ, all the rabbis taught in the temples; they never seemed to leave,” he said. “But Christ always met people outside the temple. He was on mountainsides, he met folks on their boats, entered homes, walked into the places where kids were gathered.
“If you want to really know what a priest is about, watch how he goes outside of the model, outside of the expected administration of the priest; this pilgrimage goes outside the model. The laity are distanced from the Mass, the sacraments, and even their priests now. This type of witness brings hope.
“Maybe one of the reasons we’ve had so many problems is because too many priests have stuck Jesus into their parishes without bringing Him out into the world. Anyone can teach from back behind the lectern; but what about when he steps from behind it in a manner like this?”