By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT –—Morning prayer began in a temporary chapel set up in the Chancery for seminarians uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Windows, opened slightly, let in the sound of chirping birds. In a corner of the apartment, before prayer began, seminarian Dane Dickinson adjusted a laptop computer so three other seminarians, each living at home, could participate “virtually” in prayer and the Mass on March 26.
Dickinson participated in person with fellow seminarians Cameron Costello and Dominic Nguyen and Bishop Thomas Zinkula and Father Joseph Sia, the diocesan vocations director. All six seminarians — the three living at home are Deacon James Flattery, Isaac Doucette and Osmin Melendez — had to leave their seminaries because of precautions taken to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Melendez is a student at Conception Seminary in Conception, Missouri; the others attend Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. Several other seminarians remain in place in their seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The voices of the seminarians living at home sounded like the birds chirping outside as they participated in the antiphonal style of morning prayer. Afterwards, Dickinson ended the “Zoom” conference because the time limit expired. He started a new Zoom conference so that the seminarians could participate in the Mass.
“There’s a lot of prayer going on now with the coronavirus,” Bishop Zinkula said during his homily. He emphasized the things necessary for fruitful prayer. Openness to God’s love requires the exercise of conscience, intelligence and freewill, the bishop said. “God won’t force his love on us. We just have to open the door. God does answer prayers. The question is whether we, in turn, answer God.”
Bishop Zinkula used a Mass travel kit to celebrate Mass. The slender paten fit in his palm. He poured wine into the chalice from a small plastic bottle in preparation for the consecration. He does not celebrate Mass in the Chancery’s chapel, located in another wing, to protect the retired priests who live in that wing from contracting the coronavirus.
After Mass, the bishop approached the end table holding the laptop to banter with the seminarians living at home. Then he left for one of many meetings regarding the coronavirus pandemic. The seminarians walked down the hall to a kitchen where they ate breakfast before returning to their chancery apartments to begin online classes conducted by video conferencing.
“Since everything is shut down, I appreciate the opportunity to celebrate Mass with a few folks rather than to celebrate alone, which I have always found to be much less than ideal,” Bishop Zinkula said. “It also provides me with an opportunity to get to know these seminarians better. It is basically a closed community, so there is minimal risk of contracting or sharing the coronavirus.”
“For me, personally, I’m glad to have people to celebrate Mass with,” Father Sia said. The present situation also builds fraternity among the seminarians who have been uprooted, and allows Father Sia to get to know them better. The three living at the Chancery assisted him with recording a Spanish-language Mass and help out as needed.
“I enjoy coming together with my brother seminarians to pray morning prayer and attend Mass virtually but I yearn for the day when we can pray morning prayer and attend Mass together with the faithful of the diocese,” Deacon Flattery said.
“Praying together at the seminary is the primary way to build fraternity in the seminary and the presbyterate. Having an opportunity, in a unique way, allows us to continue to build fraternity and adapt to the present circumstances,” Doucette said.
Costello appreciates praying and cooking with Dickinson and Nguyen. There’s something “spiritual about cooking and eating together,” Costello said. “It’s like the Mass, that sense of community.” In the Mass, “there’s the twofold community — the earthly community and the heavenly community.”
Nguyen thanks God for the opportunity to participate in the Mass. He views his current situation “as an opportunity that has empowered me and affirmed my vocation and the goodness of my vocation and to be intentional in my participation in the Mass and to lift up other people’s (prayer) intentions.”
“We really do live very grace-filled lives, and while our current situation includes disruption to our normal schedules, there are many people out there who have been, or will be impacted so much more,” Dickinson said. “There are people who are living with financial uncertainty because they are unsure whether or not they will be laid off, or already have been. There are people who are losing family members to this virus. The poorest in our communities continue to suffer because of food scarcity. There are those who are going without housing or medical attention.”
Dickinson continued, “We are absolutely blessed to be able to continue our studies from here — online — and the opportunities that we are afforded are unique. We have been given the chance to develop stronger relationships with our brother seminarians, who someday will become our brother priests, and our bishop, who will continue to be our boss.”
“We are also blessed to celebrate Mass daily, receiving the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our sacramental life here on earth, while so many don’t get to celebrate Mass at all. So many times in my own life I have told God what I wanted, and then he has denied my wishes in order to give me something better,” Dickinson said. “If we allow ourselves to let go of our own expectations regarding what we think our lives should look like, it may be yet another opportunity for God to show us the even better gift that he has in store.”