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Priests fly monstrance over diocese, reflect on priestly mission
Angel Flight 1961 took off from the small municipal airport in New Bedford, Massachusetts, just after 1 p.m. Sunday.
The small commuter plane — named “Lady in Blue” for the Blessed Virgin Mary — had five passengers: the pilot, a co-pilot, two Catholic priests and Jesus Christ.
“Not too many people get to go up and do this, especially with Jesus, so I think it’s wonderful,” Donald Stockwell, the co-pilot, said of what it was like to fly with the Blessed Sacrament on a chilly but clear spring afternoon in southern New England.
For about 90 minutes, Stockwell and his passengers flew over the entire Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts. From several thousand feet in the sky, Fathers Jay Mello and Christopher Peschel prayed and held a small monstrance to the window as the flight plan took them from the Massachusetts-Rhode Island state line to the tip of Cape Cod and around the destination islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
The two priests, both of the Diocese of Fall River, prayed the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. Reading from a prayerbook, they also petitioned God for deliverance from the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the nation’s Catholic bishops to eliminate public Masses for the faithful.
“I think of all the families I work with on such a regular basis that I’m used to seeing, and even this morning, celebrating Mass without them, there was such a sense of loss and a sense of sorrow in my own heart,” said Father Peschel, the pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Westport, Massachusetts.
Unable to celebrate public Masses and to interact with the lay faithful, many priests across the country are coming up with creative ways to bring Jesus to their flock. From livestreaming Masses in their private chapels to offering “drive-thru” confessions in parking lots, priests are trying almost everything they can think of to extend Christ’s reassuring presence in a time of “social distancing.”
“For us as priests, as anyone else, this crisis has been a tremendous struggle in how we function everyday,” said Father Mello, who is the pastor of St. Joseph and St. Michael churches in Fall River.
“For us as priests in particular, our primary responsibility is to bring Jesus to people, and obviously because of the restrictions placed upon us by the state, local and federal governments, we can’t do that, so we’ve all been trying to find creative ways to share our faith, to encourage our people, to bring hope, to bring Jesus to them,” Father Mello told Our Sunday Visitor.
Inspired by the example of a priest who flew over the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, with the Blessed Sacrament earlier this month, Father Peschel told Our Sunday Visitor that he reached out to Stockwell, one of his parishioners, about the idea of a similar flight in Massachusetts.
“I thought it was a great idea,” said Stockwell, a licensed pilot who told Our Sunday Visitor that he then reached out to his friend, Richard Canastra, who is also a pilot but owned a bigger plane.
“In a time of crisis, this is what we need, especially when we’re not able to go to Church,” said Canastra, who told Our Sunday Visitor that several friends he told about the flight waited for them to fly over their towns.
“This is going to give them hope,” Canastra said.
Given recent headlines, people could use some hope. According to John Hopkins University, nearly 367,500 individuals around the world have been infected, and 16,100 have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The World Health Organization has officially declared the coronavirus — which originated three months ago in China — to be a pandemic.
In the United States, more than 41,500 people have been infected and about 500 have died from coronavirus. About three weeks ago, as government officials began prohibiting large public gatherings and issuing stay-at-home directives to slow the highly-contagious virus’ exponential growth, Church leaders stopped offering public Masses to protect the faithful.
“It’s been hard because our day-to-day routine has been totally changed,” said Father Mello, who added that social distancing has however provided an opportunity for grace and perspective.
“One of the great lessons I’ve been reminded of the hard way is that the priesthood is not something we do, it’s something we are,” Father Mello said. “It’s really helped me to grow closer to our Lord, like everyone else, to be stripped of all of our attachments to worldly things. In that sense, Lent has become very real.”
A few minutes later, Fathers Mello and Peschel were on their way to Canastra’s plane, where they buckled themselves in and put on headphones to be able to communicate with one another. Father Peschel held the monstrance as the plane took off from the tarmac. Before becoming airborne, he reflected on recent events.
“This has given me a greater opportunity to draw closer to Our Lord,” Father Peschel said, “And just to remind myself in the midst of the chaos and the world going on around us, that it’s him who’s beckoning us and wants us all to draw close and stay close to him.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.