One of my fondest memories was the celebration of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Married since 1946, they weathered years of hard work, raising five children. When my dad met my mom on that rainy Sunday night in the USO in Oklahoma City, his first thought was, he told us, “this is a woman that no harm must ever come to.” Dad’s heart always put mom first.

That celebration day — May 4th fell on a Saturday that year — was sunny. Gen, my mother’s dietician-school colleague from Glenview, Illinois, and a life-long friend, had flown in earlier and been staying at the home of one of my brother’s — unknown to my mom — where we were just sitting down for the mid-day meal. Someone cued her to come down. My mom instantly recognized her agile dancer’s steps on the stairs. Gen hadn’t lost her mojo after 75 years! But the biggest takeaway from that wonderful day was dad toasting mom right after we prayed grace. In unrehearsed words, again right from his heart, he said, “I love this woman more today than I have ever loved her before.”

Reflecting on my priesthood, also nearing its 50-year mark, I concur without hesitation or equivocation that I love my people and my ministry more today than I ever have at any time before and only look forward to wherever God’s love may lead us to together.

Coming out of a long winter, all the bleaker for the year-long pandemic, our hearts grieve for the lonely and isolated whom fear and illness still grip throughout our Diocese. Not without heroics, churches have stayed open and congregations are gradually returning, yet many worry about who may not “come back.” Pastors’ hearts ache for their people, like any parent for their family’s well-being. Foreboding forecasts warn of “the new normal,” with little consensus about what that means.

Frankly, I and many brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry are less concerned about getting people back “in the pews” as the pandemic ebbs, than our own ability to go out and to connect with our people. We want to extend our arms to hold hands and engage in conversation face-to-face with our beloved people, some of whom we have not seen in months. Any way we can do this — phone, social media, but especially in person — is what we long for.

For the foreseeable future, we may be somewhat like missionaries who cover large areas, traveling from village to village, praying with and encouraging local leaders to extend God’s love and ours, listening to the hearts of our people. I myself am happy to be free of my Buffalo commission — rich and rewarding though it was — so that I can “ride the circuit,” so to speak, getting around the parish families throughout our Diocese and being in the trenches.

It may also be that the mission of those regularly present at the Eucharist, which remains the source and summit of the life of our Church, will be to discover their own new roles as disciples in mission — commissioned to go forth (“ite missa est”) and lead their families and perhaps neighbors in a more deliberate and disciplined practice of prayer, catechesis and good works. The old adage of Father Patrick Peyton, “the family that prays together, stays together,” has never been more relevant. And our families of faith may well be called to expand and embrace more in our mission.

Our Catholic schools deserve special commendation for their ingenuity and solicitude toward our families, finding ways of combining on-site and online learning. Increasingly, our homeschooling families should find support in collaborating with one another and with our school professionals in making the best use of shared resources. So many sacrifices are involved in the gifts of time, patience and making innovations that, while entailing inevitable levels of risk, bring rich rewards for our children, whose education continues uninterrupted.

The Church is always truest to its mission when it goes out to people. This applies not only for priests and other pastors of souls, but every disciple of Christ. We exist to evangelize, to take the gospel that changes our lives to others. Did I say change? So many times when we think of change in the Church, our minds go first to the architecture: closing churches or merging parishes. Or we think of pastoral planning only as a matter of moving clergy and lay ministers around like pieces on a chessboard. This is not how our mission sells or, to put it in more biblical terms, how hearts are moved and converted by the love of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Finally, it is a matter of love. What changes the lives of those who encounter Christ is his personal presence. Yes, God is everywhere, Jesus is always with us, but I don’t think that many Catholics realize or experience this. Jesus is not just some “nice guy” historical figure that we conjure up whenever we think of him. God is not the “man upstairs” looking down on us, from time to time beaming a care package down when we need it. Jesus calls us friends and by “friend” he does not mean something on paper or something virtual.

Today, sad to say, many people boast hundreds of Facebook friends with hardly a one they really can call on who will never let them down. Jesus wants to be that BFF (best friend forever) we all need. He waits for us, comes to us and meets us exactly where we are. In some way, the disciple — the true friend of Jesus — wants to let his or her heart be the door through which the heart of Jesus reaches the heart of the neighbor. Right now, our mission in the world has never been clearer: to bring that love in the heart of Jesus for each and every one of us — that loved poured into our own hearts — to every person we encounter. To fear less and to love more!