Absence Can Make the Heart Grow

John 4:5-42


This morning I had an(other) experience of privilege.  Our Capuchin community celebrated the Eucharist (Mass) in our small friary chapel on a Sunday when Masses here in Chicago and in many other parts of the country have been suspended out of an abundance of caution to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Many people, especially those in highly devotional communities like ours here on the Southwest Side, are really suffering emotionally and spiritually because of the suspension.  My heart tells me that we should go ahead and celebrate Masses as usual.  But my head (aided by the order of Cardinal Cupich and the recommendations of public health officials) tells me, “No.  Not now.”

Every crisis is also an opportunity.  In the current one, there are many.  When we go shopping and are tempted to hoard stuff, we can choose to be ruled by compassion and care rather than fear.  We can dedicate ourselves to rebuilding a public health system that is being revealed as horribly inadequate to meet this challenge and others that will come in the future.  We can find in this involuntary fast from the Eucharist an invitation to perspective and a call to renewal.

There’s an old saying that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  Perhaps we won’t take the Eucharist and the Mass for granted. We can remember the many, many communities throughout the world (including the Pan Amazonian region recently highlighted by the synod in Rome) that are able to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments once or twice a year.

That situation, that injustice, needs to be addressed.  Various solutions—a redistribution of available priests, ordaining married men to serve as priests, expanding the roles of women in the Church—have been proposed. But to use an analogy from today’s gospel reading, those are all just ways of giving more people access to Jacob’s well.  What happens when they can’t get to it?

It seems that a crucial task for the Church today—one of the many unfinished tasks of Vatican II—is to enable people to tap more and more into the inner spring that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman and which was created in each of us at baptism: “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” that will enable each of us, wherever we are, to worship God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:14b, 24b).  Following the martyrdom of 26 Catholics in Nagasaki in 1597, the Church in Japan survived for over 250 years with no priests and no sacraments except for Baptism, as well as family catechesis and the word of God.

My prayer is that this temporary absence will make the hearts of many not only grow fonder for the Eucharist but also stronger and better able to tap into the life in the Spirit that God has already placed within them, which is nourished by the sacraments and God’s word, and which we are called to share with others in word and deed.  The one hour a week that some Catholics spend at church on Sunday is a blessing, but we need to find ways to extend that blessing to the other 167 hours of the week. –jc