SUN PRAIRIE, Wisconsin — The sign on the sidewalk out front of church was every bit as jarring as the raw March wind. “NO MASSES OR GATHERINGS. DIRECTIVE OF THE BISHOP.” As I walked past the sandwich-board sign, I wondered if such a message had ever before been posted during the parish’s nearly 160-year history.
For the second consecutive Sunday, my destination was not Holy Mass. Technically, it was not a gathering, either, since there would be only eight of us. Under a diktat from Wisconsin’s governor, gatherings of 10 or more people are now against the law; a restriction deemed a necessary protection against spread of the Wuhan coronavirus dubbed “Covid-19.” In fact, the populace is supposed to stay at home altogether, but this was my very important exception.
When I reached the side entrance to Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church, I noticed a clipboard with a sign-in / sign-out sheet. I was blessed to obtain one of the spots in groups of eight who were allowed into church for private prayer on this the Lord’s Day. As I walked inside, I was greeted with the powerful smell of hand sanitizer — a stark reminder of why no public Mass was said here again today.
Once inside, though, I became quickly swept up in the beauty of this century-old edifice. How many times over more than 50 years had I looked upon the towering stained-glass windows? They never looked more beautiful than on this overcast March Sunday. John the Baptist on one side, holding a lamb in one arm and a banner in the other that reads, Ecce Agnus Dei. Behold the Lamb of God. On the altar sat a stunning gold monstrance flanked by six lighted candles. This was a double blessing: prayer time and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Deo gratias.
Having public Masses suspended across this entire diocese earlier in March really brought into focus the importance of this sacred space. As I selected a pew and knelt down, I considered that this type of day might never have happened at this church before this year. That made the moment all the more poignant. I settled in to spend my allotted 20 minutes in prayer. But at first, the prayers would not come. Amidst all of the societal chaos and turmoil, I can’t concentrate enough to recite a prayer? So I gazed upon the monstrance and simply appreciated being in God’s presence.
As I watched the candlelight reflected by the monstrance, the words from the stained-glass window stayed in my thoughts: Ecce Agnus Dei. Behold. So that is precisely what I did. Jesus, right there on the altar: body, blood, soul and divinity. Right here, really and truly present, as He always is. Under-appreciated by me so often — but not on this day. As I always found during adoration, a great peace filled my soul. He has not left or abandoned us. He beckons us from uncounted places around the world.
I looked at the illuminated crucifix above the altar and thought about how many Masses Jesus has looked down upon over the decades. My children were all baptized here, under the watchful gaze of Our Blessed Lady. We prayed for the souls of my parents at Masses of Christian burial. I was kneeling near the very spot where my mother for decades quietly prayed the Rosary before Mass. In the stillness I can still hear echoes of my father’s stentorian voice lifting up the congregation in sacred song. Yes, this is more than an important place. It is, quite literally, the heart of life.
My allotted time was quickly slipping away. I finally found a spiritual-communion prayer and silently recited it:
Come to me, Jesus my Lord, my Master. Come and refresh my soul. Strengthen me, that in union with Thee I may do perfectly the Heavenly Father’s will. Let me never be separated from Thee by sin.
As I genuflected before the altar and prepared to leave, I looked across the church at another stained-glass window. This one depicted Christ holding a lamb: the Good Shepherd. The Lamb. His presence, I know, will sustain us all through this pandemic and any other trials that come after. As I left church this afternoon, I thought of Jesus’ words at the end of the Great Commission: “…and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.”
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