Father Matthew Fish is the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in Hillcrest Heights. His church, like all others in the area, is closed to the public to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. But Fish still wanted to make the church accessible to his parishioners. So he set up a drive-through confessional in the church parking lot. We chatted with him about how he and the church are handling this difficult time.
So, a drive-through confessional. How does this work?
Because we have a large campus and a parking lot that goes around the church, I was able to pick a spot where I could do the drive-through. The important thing is to not just keep that six-foot distance but to give people the option of anonymity and to preserve confidentiality. We got a couple of cones, my assistant got some broomsticks, and I found a hanger rod. I got some clamps, found an old curtain, and duct taped and clamped it together. When the wind started blowing it over, I anchored it with some ten-pound lifting weights. We advertise it at our usual confession time. I think it’s a great way to offer something that’s a central part of our Catholic faith, the experience of reconciliation with God, especially in this time when a lot of people are scared or anxious or don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. They want to have that opportunity to talk to a priest and ultimately to God about what’s going on in their life to ask for his mercy, his forgiveness, his healing.
It’s in uncertain times like these when people often turn to the church. How else are you making it accessible?
I’ve really tried to beef up my online presence. I’ve been live-streaming Mass every morning, I email my parishioners, and I put it out there on Facebook, which I hadn’t been using at all. You can see how many people log on to watch the Mass, and today we had over 300 people. We never have that many at our church; we’ll maybe get a little over 200 over three Masses. I’m considering doing an outdoor Holy Hour, where we expose the host, and having people drive up and stay in their cars.
It feels doubly cruel that all these closures are happening right before Holy Week and Easter.
That’s definitely hanging over my head, because it’s the most important thing in the life of the Catholic Church. The Easter Vigil Mass is this great, big, long Mass with all these parts. If I’m by myself, how am I going to do that? So I’m trying to be creative and come up with things. Easter is three weeks from now, and at that point people are really going to need Easter, more than they ever have before. So even if they can’t be there in person, hopefully whatever we’re able to give, the meaning and significance of that is going to be magnified in people’s lives.
I’ve seen a lot of talk on social media about this being the end of days. What’s your take on that?
I believe what Jesus said, which is that no one knows the day or the hour [of the end of days]. St. Paul says if people start saying this is the end, and they’re certain of it, don’t listen to them, because only God knows. If you know history, you’ll know there have been so many times when people thought it was the end. We believe as Catholics that we’re already in the end times, that we never know when our last day is going to be. It could be today for me, could be tomorrow. We believe to never take a day for granted, and to always be ready for that final day.
So if it’s not the end of days, how do you explain this horrible thing from a religious perspective?
There’s nothing new about that question. Suffering, tragedy, even calamity has been a part of human history. One of the greatest books in the bible is the Book of Job. It looks at this question of suffering, where Job is tested by God when everything is taken away from him. What’s great about that book is that God doesn’t give Job an answer. At a certain point God ironically asks Job, “Were you there when the heavens were separated from the earth? And when the oceans were made and all the continents and the land and the trees and the animals? Have you have you guided history? Maybe you should trust the one who did that.” Suffering is a mystery, and it’s connected to evil and original sin. And that’s why we have a savior. God is not cruel. He doesn’t inflict horrible punishment, he comes to save us from evil. Even his own son was not saved from horrible suffering in the Passion. And yet he still trusted in his Father. God has a plan, and the plan is to conquer and defeat evil. And when Christ comes again, everything is going to be made new, and all suffering will be redeemed, and everything that’s broken is going to be healed.
How are you dealing with all this personally?
If you would have told me months ago that something were to happen which would lead to public Masses being suspended, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s really unprecedented. The normal rhythm that I have during the week of how I reach out to my people and how we come together as a community has completely changed. I was thinking what this would have been like 30 years ago, when there was no texting or social media. All of the changes in technology since then have made it easier because I don’t feel as disconnected. My family is actually in Washington state, so I’ve been talking with them because they’re right next to Seattle. It’s difficult to be alone and worried about these things, and to be cut off from my people who I love. But I’m trying to receive it as a gift and taking it to prayer. I think there are things that I was taking for granted before this, and I think the silence and the solitude can be a real gift to appreciate what’s most important.