By Matthew Ockinga (Diocese of Yakima)
“Is this what you’d thought your internship would be like?” That inquiry on Holy Saturday morning made me smile. Christine, the secretary of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in the small farming town of Ephrata, Washington, posed this question to me as I considered the proper placement of a small white plastic lamb in an Easter display. During a normal Holy Week, a large and seasoned parish decorating committee spends hours ensuring the quaint old church is properly adorned for the Easter season. But this was not a normal Holy Week. It was not a normal week in any sense.
That morning, along with Christine, Father Mauricio Muñoz and the deacon’s wife, I helped decorate the church for the Easter Masses in which the pews would be as empty as Jesus’ tomb that Sunday morning centuries ago.
Becoming a temporary parish decorator was a microcosm for the necessary adjustments required during my pastoral internship. After five busy but joyful weeks of catechesis, nursing home visits, Q&A with the school kids and the happy spontaneity of parish life, everything changed. A global event so shocking, so sudden and so infamous I need not, and prefer not, to mention it by name instantly altered everyday parish life.
To sugarcoat my shock and frustration would be disingenuous. But whatever your view of this situation, no one escaped its effects. The Church is in the people business and suddenly the people were gone. With several months of pastoral internship ahead of me, I faced a shared question: Now what?
St. Rose is a small but vibrant operation and Christine, Father and I formed a small brain trust trying to find new ways to serve the flock. We started with a verb which has now become a household term: livestream. In a comedy of errors, it took our trio four attempts to livestream our first live Mass without the image being perpendicular on people’s screens at home.
Turning to social media, not really my cup of tea, I started a video podcast series called “Shelter in Place” based on Matthew 7:24, which talks about the wise man who built his house on the rock. These weren’t overly profound or theological gems, but simple reflections from the heart for those hungry for food for thought, often aided by my liberal use of The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes cartoons.
The St. Rose parishioners reciprocated the care. Between calls to say hello, kind notes and readymade meals brought to the rectory doorstep, we sensed their love. One day, Father Mauricio brought me a loaf of zucchini bread that someone left anonymously on the altar. I called it the bread sent down from heaven.
The weekend that our parish opened again was something I will never forget. Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, those three days were defined by the return of God’s people to their parish.
The weekend that our parish opened again was something I will never forget. Simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming, those three days were defined by the return of God’s people to their parish. Deacon Johnny Reyes summed up the emotions of the moment in his homily’s first two words: “Welcome home.”
Someone recently asked if I felt like I had missed out on things or got ripped off during my internship. Did I miss out on things? Sure. We all did. We have all missed out on many things. We have all made sacrifices.
But do I feel like I got ripped off? Absolutely not. While this is not at all what I thought internship be like, I learned that God calls us to serve in whatever situation we find ourselves, not just the ideal scenarios. We can always choose to serve. We can always choose to persevere. People do not shut down. Jesus is never distanced. God’s love cannot be masked.
This article originally ran in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.
God calls us to serve in whatever situation we find ourselves, not just the ideal scenarios. We can always choose to serve. We can always choose to persevere. People do not shut down. Jesus is never distanced. God’s love cannot be masked.