As COVID-19 has changed so much about the way we live in 2020, the Church has remained an essential source of hope, inspiration and support. Heroic priests across the country have answered the chaos of the pandemic with extraordinary creativity and resolve to continue serving as a bridge between Christ and His people. Mundelein Seminary collectively honored these priests with our 2020 In Service to One Another Catholic Humanitarian Award, and asked people to submit stories of the priests who have impacted their lives during the pandemic. Father Sergio Rivas was one of three alumni priests who accepted the award on behalf of his brother priests, along with Father Mark Augustine (Class of 2013) and Father Marty O’Donovan (Class of 1978). Rivas made the following remarks at the 2020 Mundelein Seminary Annual Rector’s Classic on Sept. 17.
By Father Sergio Rivas (Archdiocese of Chicago)
I am not trying to be humble or playing things down, but I assure you, I am no hero. As I read the stories of other nominated priests, it was clear to me that my personal story is completely unremarkable. I did what I was supposed to do; I did what Mundelein taught me to do; I did what I wanted to do. I looked my people straight in their eyes and I told them something true; I told them that I love them and that they were not alone. I think that is the only reason I am here.
It was at Mundelein that I learned to say a prayer that has become the mantra of my priesthood: “Lord, let me look at people the way you did.” This simple prayer came to me one day in which Father Lodge (one of my Scripture professors) and Bishop Hicks (at that time my cam priest), made very similar comments about the gaze of Christ. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but both of them in their own way, reflected on the way Jesus looked at people.
How special that gaze of Jesus must have been that made fishermen into itinerant preachers and rich men into philanthropists. I have been praying for the power of that gaze since that very same day. But I know that gaze does not come from the eyes — rather it is born in the heart. There is nothing remarkable about picking up a phone, open an application and streaming; but I did it the way the Church taught me to do it. I did it with love, and that made a difference.
I was afraid my people would lose heart and waste the opportunity to grow spiritually during this difficult time. I was worried that they would miss God in the moment he was the closest to them.
I realized my parishioners needed me to offer a more theologically based perspective on what was going on. Many prophets of doom were trying to scare the regular church-goers. In response, I wrote a letter — poorly written, by the way — trying to address two things: first, that this time was a time of special graces. I quoted Paul in the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “We beg you not to receive the grace of God in vain … Behold, now is the very acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:1-2) I was afraid my people would lose heart and waste the opportunity to grow spiritually during this difficult time. I was worried that they would miss God in the moment he was the closest to them.
The second thing I needed to do was to remind them that the Church is a community built by the sacraments and those sacraments were still being lived in the midst of our parish. Mass was still being celebrated twice a day by my associate Father Andres Beltran (who, by the way, did an incredible job as well) and by me. People were still being faithful to their baptismal promises; they were still led by the spirit that came upon them during Confirmation; our married couples were still living their sacramental life; and Father Andres, our three permanent deacons and I were also being faithful to our vocation as ordained ministers.
While some people on social media were telling my people that the Church was being unfaithful for not offering the sacraments in public and not keeping the churches open, I was telling them that the Church has prepared them for this very moment and that this was the time to make fruitful every sacrament they had received, including every communion and every confession. The graces of those sacraments were still with them and they needed to turn them into a source of strength, as all of us were trying to protect the most vulnerable among us.
During those months, we were able to build a level of spiritual intimacy that made our faith stronger. The initial feelings of isolation and confusion were replaced by a deeper understanding of the role of the sacraments in our lives. We discovered that even though we were not able to go to Mass or confession, we were still a community united by the sacraments.
Through the isolation of the quarantine, the sacraments were still keeping us together. There are many stories I can tell you about the way our community took care of each other during that time, but I want you to understand that all those actions were motivated by the gaze of Jesus that called me to look at them with love. At the same time, they were able to reciprocate my love with more love.
Now, let me prove that I am not humble by pulling an Ed Oakes, SJ (those who remember Father Oakes, SJ, may he rest in peace, know that he loved to quote himself) so, let me quote myself:
“The prophets of doom always try to interpret the darkness, but the true Christian has his gaze fixed in the light.”
Even though the words are mine, the idea is hardly original, I took it from the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12:2).
So I am here today to remind you that when a priest does his job well, he only preaches Good News, the same Good News that has been transforming people’s lives since the moment Jesus preached it with his mouth, with his eyes and with his heart.
This article originally ran in the Fall 2020/Winter 2021 issue of the seminarian-produced BRIDGE magazine. The full magazine can be viewed here.