Outdoor confession priest reflects on realities of pandemic ministry

Outdoor confession priest reflects on realities of pandemic ministry

Father Daniel O'Mullane. (Credit: Photo courtesy O'Mullane.)

A parishioner and army veteran wrote to me and said, "When we were getting ready to deploy… we broke all kinds of rules under the aegis of 'we’re going to war.' I think you’re afforded the same degree of protection for making expedient decisions.”

[Editor’s Note: Father Daniel O’Mullane is pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and School in Boonton, New Jersey, and founder of the “2 Minutes to God” video podcast. He previously served the Diocese of Paterson in a number of diverse roles, including adjunct professor at Seton Hall University, diocesan Censor Liborum, parochial vicar, and high school chaplain and theology teacher. Crux recently spoke to O’Mullane about the realities of pastoral life during the Covid-19 pandemic, and also its implications for Catholic education.]

Crux: If folks recognize your name, it may be that they recall the headline-grabbing story of the Boonton, New Jersey priest who persisted in offering outdoor confessions during the scariest times of the pandemic, especially for our state which was hit so hard in the early stages. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like being a pastor during that time and why you made the choices you made?

O’Mullane: Thank you for that question. I haven’t had much of a chance to reflect on the early stages of the pandemic, and I appreciate the opportunity to do so.

My experience of the first few days of the “two weeks to flatten the curve” was one of tremendous pressure. I felt the need to get things “right,” and struggled to figure out what that meant. That pressure not only created confusion, it also set the stage for commitment and creativity.

Two insights really set the course of my pastoral response to the pandemic. The first happened on either the first or second day of the lockdown. Having gotten ready for the day, the only thing on my mind was, “The Gospel has to be preached and lived today.” I didn’t know what it meant in practical detail, but the commitment was clear: don’t take even one day for granted.

The second insight came shortly thereafter. A parishioner and army veteran wrote to me and said, “When we were getting ready to deploy… we broke all kinds of rules under the aegis of ‘we’re going to war.’ I think you’re afforded the same degree of protection for making expedient decisions.” From then on, I felt empowered to do everything we could think of to keep the Church’s mission strong at a time it was so desperately needed.

What do you make of how the broader Church has responded during the pandemic? It is always easy to play Monday-morning quarterback, but my sense is that overall–despite significant exceptions–we didn’t exactly shine as we should have. Especially given our history of ministering during previous pandemics.

It’s really hard to say how anyone responded without the details of specific situations, but I think it’s right that we lacked a coordinated approach to the unfolding issues. Part of the problem is that we’ve become habituated to imagining the Church as a bureaucratic enterprise, which leaves parishes lacking the initiative necessary to respond creatively to the challenges of a new and evolving context.

That said, I drew strength and encouragement from priests and their people around the country who rose to the challenges in front of them. And, of course, Saint Charles Borromeo’s example – especially when it came to outdoor Masses – was in front of me with some regularity.

So many things have been disrupted by the pandemic, but one of the most significant disruptions has occurred in education. I’ve argued that this disruption provides an incredible opportunity for Catholic education. What do you think? 

If we think of the pandemic as a period of darkness, then it’s also a time when bright lights can shine unobstructed. So yes, I think you’re right that our situation has presented an opportunity for Catholic schools to distinguish themselves. Whether or not we have really taken advantage of that opportunity will be seen in the next few years.

One of the things I am thinking of when I offer that answer is that, precisely as Catholic educators, we are committed to face-to-face instruction, but there is only temporary overlap there with people who want their children to be physically in school. The question becomes whether or not our methods of instruction and curricula are built on the Church’s anthropological commitments — and whether or not we have effectively communicated our vision of education as based on the same.

You obviously play a major leadership role at your parish school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is one of the great examples of our time about how the Church can minister to children (and parents!) at this moment in time. Can you say more about what you are doing at OLMC School?

This is a really challenging question! I have to offer up front that Our Lady of Mount Carmel School is God’s work, it’s a kingdom project. What I mean by that is that God is on the move here.

Five years ago we set foot on a path to renewal in the school that would give flesh to the Church’s vision of human and Christian flourishing. We believe that every human being is made for a life of eternal purpose, but we don’t know exactly what a person’s particular vocation will be. For those reasons, we are committed to the classical liberal arts and a curriculum that promotes children’s encounter with the very best that has been thought and recorded in the history of Western civilization. Our students’ day-in, day-out experience of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful has been transformative in every imaginable way (and in many ways I didn’t imagine five short years ago).

There’s so much more to say about what’s going on at OLMC School, but as teachers we prefer to show rather than tell. Please visit us, and not just online!

It can be difficult to ground everything in a Gospel-centered love, especially when the temptation is so strong to start with antagonism against or withdrawal from “the world.”  Any advice for raising children who can engage the truth in love in a culture that, let’s face it, is often hostile to a faithful Catholic approach?

The OLMC School project is really an extended answer to this question. If there’s such a thing as an ideal in our current context, I’d have to say that we need to find trustworthy partners as it relates to the formation of our children and build communities with strong Christian culture based on our worship of the true and living God (there is a real connection between cultus and culture, no matter what we want to believe about that).

Outside of that scope, though, I think it’s critical to hold two things together: Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world, but it is decisively for this world. We can say this, also, of the individual believer, of any collection of Jesus followers, and the Church more generally. We are not of this world — we don’t find our power or strength in what is worldly: money, pleasure, power, or popularity, for example, and we aren’t compelled by those vain pursuits. But we are for this world — God’s good world has gone awry, but in Christ Jesus he has launched a world-rescuing operation to which we have been summoned, and this mission runs on Love.

God’s renew-the-face-of-the-earth mission was inaugurated in Jesus’ victory of self-giving love, and is now implemented by the power of God’s own life of love at work in and working through Jesus’ faithful followers.

These days, it seems as though we’re all agreed that something is wrong with the world, but we disagree widely on what should be done about it. This is the place, I think, where agendas are born, grow, and intensify. As a people summoned by Christ for his purposes, we have to check ourselves, asking with sincerity whether or not we are totally committed to God and his way of life as the way his kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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