There is something that is very special about being in university ministry. Every year, in the fall, you must begin anew. Those students you relied upon the most to support the various programs are probably the ones who graduated and are no longer there. New students need to be welcomed and integrated into the community of those who have been there for just a few years. Even they are still getting to know each other. It is always just one year, with a clear beginning and an end which is never far from sight. When everybody leaves, usually not long after Easter, then we can only hope that they received something that will be of lasting value to them. We may not see them again, and this is the way it is supposed to be. University ministry is ministry to people passing through.
Such ministry is in a very dynamic environment, one in which routines must be established each year anew. This makes the things that remain constant even more important. The year is clearly structured by the seasons of the liturgical year, with Advent and Christmas marking the end of the first half, and Lent and Easter the second half. Even while the community changes every year, there is unity and permanence in the experience of each academic year.
Except for this year! When I opened my email on March 12 and read that Sunday Mass was not going to happen again for the foreseeable future, I could not believe my eyes. This had never happened before. How could we just stop like this, without having celebrated Easter together? The next day, the university cancelled classes, at first for just a day to evaluate the situation, but then for the rest of the academic year. We had one more Mass in the Newman Centre, and then we went on separate ways into the unknown. We would prepare for Easter and complete the academic year without gathering again as a community in prayer and liturgy. I can only pray that what we gave the students will be enough so that they can make sense of this challenge in their lives.
Just a few days earlier, I had submitted one of my regular reports about my ministry. We do many things, but I had emphasized the importance of our regular liturgical celebrations: Daily Mass with a handful of students in the chapel and Sunday Mass with a larger group in our main room. It creates an anchor, an experience of peace and reflection in the life of our students. It gives them an experience of community in prayer and worship. Especially today, in an age in which Catholic students at a major research university are often made to feel as if not fitting in with the secular culture, giving them this experience is very important. For half an hour on weekdays and an hour on Sundays, they find that everything is well between faith and reason. I look forward to doing so again, especially now that I know how important this has been.
Not celebrating Easter with the students who I got to know over the last 8 months is a great loss, even with the consolation of keeping in touch with at least some of them through online meetings. However, we must look at the bigger picture. This is the Easter that we are now meant to celebrate. It does fit into our time. We are being thrown back to the essential experience of our faith as individuals, as one person before God, as one person in relationship with Jesus Christ, in world that rejected him. His rising to new life was in the loneliness of the tomb, and his first encounter was with Mary Magdalene, who was weeping alone outside the empty tomb. Celebrating Easter in monastic seclusion reminds me that while we are all united in our faith as a community, it begins with my own personal and individual experience of the risen Christ.
This experience of confinement at home and absence of large public worship will end. Most likely, this is the only Easter that we experience in this way. We will meet again in our chapels, our churches, and all other spaces in which we gather to pray together. We will celebrate Easter again as we have celebrated it in years past. Therefore, let us celebrate this Easter as a special gift, the gift of being reminded that Christ loves each one of us, individually. He invites us to be with him, especially when we are alone.