Over the last two months, religious leaders have worked tirelessly to convert their congregational life to online platforms. Social distancing mandates and digital services have fundamentally transformed the religious practices that many hold dear. As this new normal becomes more familiar, we also need time to reflect on how we are processing this new congregational life. It is vital that we take time to acknowledge the toll these changes have taken on leaders and mourn what we’ve lost amidst this pandemic. To that end, the Reverend Vinny Marchionni, SJ, of the Maryland Province Jesuits, joined ICJS Congregational Leaders’ call on May 14 to reflect on his own experience of ministerial loss.
Marchionni was ordained a Catholic priest in June 2019, after which he served the Jesuit parish of Santa Maria de las Parras in Parras de la Fuente, Mexico. COVID-19 brought his ministry there to an abrupt end as he was recalled to Maryland on March 20, just before the impending U.S. border closing. He is currently in limbo, residing in Baltimore until his next mission in North Carolina, which starts in just a few weeks. Even as he prepares for a new assignment, he mourns the community left behind in Mexico – the opportunities lost, relationships torn apart, and work left unfinished.
In the few weeks that he’s been back in the United States, Marchionni has drawn upon his Catholic and Jesuit traditions as he processes his mourning. A meditation-prayer- writing regimen each morning has helped him find resilience in his grief. Marchionni described his process as a funnel, starting wide and gradually narrowing in scope (specifically from general human experience to Christianity to Catholicism to the Society of Jesus/Jesuits) as he finds consolation and solace in God.
First, Marchionni writes about his loss, sadness, and frustrations. He journals in a stream-of-consciousness style, which provides a dual sense of control and release of his emotions. Next, he reads and reflects on New Testament and mass daily readings, trying to recognize how God is speaking to him through these sacred texts. Marchionni then uses these reflections to consider how his pain and loss can be transformed into something new, finding a mantra out of this sense of transformation. Marchionni draws special solace from the Catholic funeral mass liturgy, where the priest notes that, despite our human experience of death, for God, “life has changed, not ended.” Marchionni asks himself, “In this moment, how is that transformation happening? How can I go from the suffering or the pain, the loss, into something new?”
In the final, and most narrow, of his morning steps, Marchionni considers the teachings of Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola, specifically the concepts of consolation (feelings that increase hope and faith in, and love of, God) and desolation (opposite feelings, spiritual distance). This takes the form of a specific five-minute prayer that helps Marchionni come to terms with his mourning process.
“This isn’t the end, this isn’t despair,” Rev. Marchionni reflected. “This is the transformation that we’re all called to and we have to have faith that each of us will experience a transformation [and] can keep going forward.”
This four-step practice, this “spiritual journey,” is helping Marchionni cope with loss and process his mourning. He finds consolation in God’s solidarity as he prepares to be fully present on his next assignment in North Carolina.
Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg (and former ICJS Jewish Scholar) shared a similar perspective when it came to simultaneously mourning and leading. He stressed that congregants are not so much grieving the loss of their religious traditions, but the human connections and gatherings that are so intimately connected to the traditions. Looking forward to the holiday season that is starting in September for Jews, he wondered how much of this mourning and processing can be done in advance, and how much is just what you experience in real time.
For Arian, “the liturgy of the high holidays is not the most important factor. It’s seeing people that they haven’t seen in a year. And as much as seeing people on Zoom is meaningful, it’s not the same. It’s gathering with your family for the meal; the first night of Rosh Hashanah; it’s gathering with the whole community to break the fast after Yom Kippur.”
ICJS Protestant Scholar Matt Taylor further highlighted the comfort that comes with attachments to religious traditions and communities, stating, “We aren’t comforted by religion in general, some lowest common denominator spirituality. We’re comforted in the specificity of our tradition and the specificity of our own kind of religious belonging. [These] are the things that attach us to our religious community and our religious traditions.”
The next ICJS-hosted congregational leaders’ call will be held Thursday, May 21, at 1:00 p.m. with the Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, reflecting on how the crisis is accelerating existing disparities and how religious leaders can be advocates for those hurting most amidst the pandemic. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an invitation to join the conversation.