Social distancing during this ongoing pandemic "is necessary for the common good," said Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, "but we need to counter this with a dramatic increase in what Pope Francis calls 'spiritual closeness.'"
"How can we stay close to Jesus, and all our sisters and brothers, at a time when concern for them demands that we keep our distance?" he asked. "How can we remain spiritually close at the same time that we practice social distancing?"
Cardinal Tobin made the comments in a reflection on "Ministry in a Time of Social Distancing: Synodality and Closeness," in the Aug. 14 issue of his "Rejoice in the Lord" newsletter that goes out to the entire archdiocese.
Launched Sept. 6, 2019, it includes pastoral messages and reflections from the cardinal and is available in English and Spanish online.
"For nearly half a year now, it seems like we have all been living in the Twilight Zone. Things just don't appear to be the way they should be, and it's kind of eerie" because of the coronavirus, Cardinal Tobin noted.
"I certainly don't want to joke about this deadly serious pandemic. Too many people have lost family members, friends and close colleagues," he said. "Many others have lost their jobs or are experiencing severe economic hardships. And all of us have had our lives uprooted one way or another. COVID-19 is not a joke. It is a worldwide crisis that has hit all of us very close to home."
Ministry in a time of pandemic "is like walking a tightrope," he said.
"We must keep our distance -- out of respect for the health and well-being of others, especially those who are most vulnerable," he wrote. "At the same time, we must find ways of being close to our brothers and sisters, and we must search for opportunities to invite all members of the body of Christ to walk with us -- synodality -- and to become intimately involved in the church's life and ministry."
Christians, he noted, "encounter Jesus in his people -- our families and friends, our neighbors and fellow parishioners, our co-workers and school mates, even people we don't know personally -- strangers -- who we come in contact with as we go about our daily lives."
Cardinal Tobin added: "Jesus tells us that we find him in the 'least of these' brothers and sisters (cf. Mt 25: 31-46), so being close to them means being close to him."
He urged Catholics in the archdiocese to be "especially concerned" about the many people during this time "who are experiencing intense anxiety, (who) feel lonely and abandoned, and who really count on public worship for their own support."
"We also should be concerned about how the spiritual lives of our people will be impacted by the drastic changes we are all experiencing for the first time in our lives," Cardinal Tobin said. "The Eucharist and the celebration of the Mass are so central to our church that those who are unable to participate physically really suffer as a result."
Throughout the country the pandemic has essentially closed most houses of worship for the public celebration of services or certainly severely limited the size of congregations out of health and safety concerns, with state health officials requiring strict adherence to protocols such as mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing and social distancing for everyone.
Catholic churches have been livestreaming Masses since the spring, and some have had outdoor liturgies for small groups, while following health and safety protocols. In some parts of the country where confirmed coronavirus cases have diminished, local authorities have allowed churches to open with a small percentage of their usual capacity, again only if strict protocols are followed.
"No one ever said it would be easy," Cardinal Tobin said. "After all, as Pope Francis reminds us: 'Embracing your cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time,' and it means 'finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.'"
Since the pandemic's threat to the well-being of millions of people around the globe became clear, he said he has been asking "Mary, Mother of the Church and our mother, to intercede on behalf of all who are suffering and all who are ministering to the needs of others," he said.
"May her example inspire us all to find ways to be close to one another even when we are keeping a safe distance," he added.