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Virtual existence has its own rewards — in memory of Father Ed Aigner

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is illuminated blue May 5, 2020, to honor first responders, health care workers and essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

(Father Edward M. Aigner Jr., a retired priest of the Diocese of Wilmington, died Saturday, April 1. He had been in residence at St. Francis de Sales parish in Salisbury, Md. Below is an opinion piece Father Aigner wrote for The Dialog at the height of COVID pandemic shutdowns in May 2020 while The Dialog’s print edition was on hiatus and our website was our only method to reach readers. This piece was among the most popular published on the website that month. We republish it today in memory of Father Aigner).

By Father Ed Aigner

Life is certainly different these days. Even that you are reading this on a phone or other device rather than flipping through the pages of a diocesan newspaper handed out at church is different.

The covid virus has made many aspects of our lives different and we can only speculate, as many have, what might constitute the so-called “new normal.” The most popular word on the news every day is “unprecedented” and this simply adds to the mysteries of life, death and faith. What will life be like in a post-Covid world? Life certainly changed after the 9/11 attacks. It is changing now and will continue to change until this pandemic is over.

People of faith and those who practice religion are already experiencing newness of church life. With the inability to worship in churches, Catholics throughout the world have taken to livestreamed or taped Masses from various places near and far.  Not only is this greatly different from being in a church building, but, some of you will have to admit, you may have “watched” Mass in your jammies or put your pastor on hold if a phone call or text came in. The new normal? Who knows? Some parishes in Texas, and probably elsewhere, after the livestreamed Mass, provide drive-thru Communion in the parking lot. (I imagine you have to change out of your jammies for that!) Elsewhere some priests are hearing confessions of people in cars.  Skype confessions are not valid, I am told, because the priest and penitent have to be physically present to each other.  (I recently listened to a lecture that stated that the priest can still be six feet away in a good mix of ministry and social distancing.  Also mentioned was that the absolution by the priest is good for up to fifty feet away, a tidbit I must have missed in seminary classes!)  Will the post-Covid church come to see virtual presence as a form of physical presence? Again, who knows?

Father Edward M. Aigner Jr.

I have seen some positive aspects of our current virtual church. For one thing, anyone with internet capability can watch a myriad of Masses, if they wish to.  (Full, active participation in the celebration is a challenge online. Someone the other day said to me, “Mass was not meant to be watched”). Some parishes have great music, some have no music.  Some places have great technical presentations (e.g. the Vatican, our diocese). Some priests, trying to do their technical best, have had their online liturgies described as looking like terrorist hostage tapes.

One priest in our diocese had to apologize one week for having the previous Sunday Mass presented sideways!  But in a virtual church, anyone online can participate in a Mass in practically any parish in the USA and even throughout the world. This past Sunday I participated in a Mass (not in my jammies) where people could make comments and prayers at the bottom of the screen. I noticed that both of my sisters from New Jersey were “attending” the same Mass. That rarely happens for me prior to our virtual church. I felt linked with them at the Lord’s Table.

Another difference in our current church situation that I hear in many of the sermons I have heard is the emphasis that Christ is really and truly present to us when we gather in his name, even when we gather virtually. Preachers emphasize that this does not diminish the Real Presence in the Eucharist but it does show that the church is not a building.  The church is a gathering of people of faith who are committed to following the way of the Lord.  We are challenged to “be” church when we cannot “go to” church.  Our connectedness to one another is crucial in this time of physical separation.

One parish in our diocese has chosen a different type of daily connection. Father Steve Giuliano at Our Lady of Lourdes in Seaford provides a scripture and homily for about fifteen minutes every morning over a cup of coffee.  There may be other priests also trying to find the best way to relate to parishioners.  Father Steve makes you feel as if he can come to your kitchen table and sits down and talks to you one-on-one, a virtual but real pastoral visit.  I make sure I have my own cup of coffee handy for when he comes to visit me.  He ends by promising to pray for all those who are sitting with him and he asks for prayers in response, especially for first responders and those who are caring for those afflicted with the Covid virus.  And then he leaves.  This is in contrast to many of the online Masses that end with the Celebrant saying “Go in peace”, to which I dutifully respond, perhaps a little too loudly, “Go WHERE?”