Editors' Note: The audio recording of the interview may be heard here.
NEW ORLEANS — Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans has a very personal perspective on the hardships and fears that have been generated by the coronavirus pandemic: On March 23, he announced he had been diagnosed as infected and consequently had gone into self-quarantine.
Throughout his confinement, the archbishop — who is the first native son of New Orleans appointed as its Catholic shepherd — has been offering video messages for his flock, including one at the beginning of Holy Week in which he invites the faithful to journey with Christ in his passion, through the eyes of characters of Scripture.
On Holy Thursday, Archbishop Aymond, 70, spoke with Register Editor in Chief Jeanette De Melo — who is another New Orleans native — about his continuing recovery, how he is connecting with others despite his confinement, and the ways the local Church is seeking to provide spiritual and material support to those who have afflicted by the pandemic in a multitude of ways. He also offers guidance about how Catholics can best enter into Holy Week and the season of Easter, during this time of national and international trial.
Archbishop, that we are able to speak barely two weeks after you announced you tested positive for COVID-19, the illness associated with the novel coronavirus, is a cause for gratitude and joy for the people of New Orleans and the Church everywhere. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling fine. The recovery has gone very well. God, the Healer, has certainly been a part of my life and I was very fortunate. I only had one of the three symptoms. I did not have shortness of breath or chest pains. I did not have a dry cough. It was just a high fever. But it naturally takes a lot of energy out of you.
But God, the Healer, has worked in me and I’m very grateful, especially grateful to be able to celebrate the Triduum because it would have been a great loss and sorrow for me not to be able to celebrate the Triduum. So, I’m grateful to God and I’m also grateful to the number of people — so many, many people— [who] have reached out in prayerful support and good wishes. And that has really touched my heart deeply.
There are so many people who have been sick in New Orleans. We have a high rate per capita of this coronavirus. How did you connect with people spiritually during your sickness?
It was difficult to do, except by phone when people would call or I would call them, but I had to limit that as well. But I would say that the way that I connected spiritually is that while I was going through this I was very much aware [of], and united my sufferings not just to those of Christ, but united my sufferings to those who were much more ill than I was, realizing that there were many on respirators. There were many people literally dying and unconscious and families could not visit them. It was, and it is, a very, very difficult and challenging time. And so I was able to unite myself and my sufferings with those who were far more ill than I, and to ask God to not only to be with them but also with their families.
I keep hearing about family members, spouses, children … who can’t even get in the same room with the person who has coronavirus. And that’s necessary but it’s sad.
Is there a particular prayer, Scripture meditation or a saint that comforted you during your sickness and isolation?
Very much so. The message of Jesus, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always to the end of time.” And, “Come to me all you who are weary and find life burdensome and I will indeed refresh you,” as well as, “It does no good to worry about tomorrow. Today has enough [worries] of its own.” Those are the Scriptures that very much came to mind during that time.
And also in New Orleans, we have a great devotion to Our Lady of Prompt Succor who has saved us from many disasters and similar epidemics. And so I was also asking Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, to pray for me, not just for myself but for those others who are suffering and that we would be able to have her protective love, her protective mantle as she went before her son to ask for blessings for us.
Also in New Orleans, we have Blessed Francis Seelos, who long ago lost his life because he was ministering to those who had yellow fever. And he did that as a young priest, caught the yellow fever and died. And I think of others, especially for example, the people who put themselves on the front lines, like the first responders, like the health care professionals. I have great admiration for the health care professionals and for the leaders of our community because they are on the front lines and health care people really do walk into the disease and we know that some of them have caught the virus.
You mentioned Our Lady of Prompt Succor. I’m really glad you did. As you know, I am a member of your archdiocese. My roots are here. This is where I grew up. I know Our Lady of Prompt Succor from my own Catholic culture in my family, but also I am a parishioner at Our Lady of the Lake parish in this archdiocese. My kids go to school there. Of course, they’re at home with me now. But every Sunday, we say what’s called Our Family Prayer for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It’s called also the Prayer for the New Battle of New Orleans. The opening line says: ‘Loving and faithful God, through the years the people of our archdiocese have appreciated the prayers and love of Our Lady of Prompt Succor in times of war, disaster, epidemic and illness.’ It’s really a remarkable line and it has come to my mind so often during this time.
Why was this prayer written? Why have you requested that all of our archdiocesan parishes pray this prayer?
It was on the feast of Our Lady of Prompt Succor about five years ago, that I was leaving the shrine and continuing to reflect and meditate upon the Battle of New Orleans and how it was really a miracle that we won. We had a very small and ineffective army, and yet we were able to win against the British. And even the general himself said this is a miracle. And I kept thinking about that and then that led me to ask, “What is the new Battle of New Orleans?” That’s the one that we fought against another nation [back in 1815], but what’s the new battle of New Orleans? And in pondering that question, what came to mind — and I believe God was speaking in the heart — is it is violence, murder and racism, and that really tears this community apart.
And unfortunately, we have had a large number of people who have died because of violence, obviously murder, and racism. And so it seemed to me that that was the new battle of New Orleans and that we needed to ask God and to ask Mary, under the title of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, to bring our prayers to her son, to help us to be a more peaceful people, to be a more healthy and loving and forgiving family. And so in that prayer, we not only pray for those who have been affected by violence and murder and racism, but we also pray for their families. We pray for our young people that they will be peacemakers of our own time. We pray for parents that they can be good models for their children.
And I do believe that that prayer has become — it’s amazing to me the number of people who have it memorized by now — really is part of our culture no that we realize that we are called to be a holy family, to be a more peaceful family.
I have heard anecdotally during this time of sickness with all of us at home participating in the Mass by the computer or the television (it has been wonderful to have so many parishes actually broadcasting the Mass live) that there has been an increase or a renewal of faith among some families here but also across the country. Have you heard the same?
I have. And first I want to acknowledge with much gratitude the priests — and most importantly the pastors — but also all of our priests, who have really reached out with technology. It has been amazing to me the number of parishes that are doing livestream or they tape messages. It’s quite impressive and I’m really grateful for that.
Yes, I do think that in many ways there is a spiritual renewal. I think when it comes to facing the coronavirus or anything like it, we realized that we have no power, that we’re not the god of our lives. That there is a God. And I think a lot of people, especially with the stay-at-home mandate, have been doing a lot of soul searching and asking some really important faith-filled, spiritual questions. And I think that this has, has brought about, it will bring about in time some spiritual renewal.
I’ve heard about those from many people, but I’ve also gotten some emails or phone calls where people are really expressing a hunger for God, a desire to get back to the Lord. Also, for those who are very much a part of the Church, part of the family, the great hunger for Eucharist. And I think another one of the effects of this will be a different understanding, a different appreciation for receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist that we hunger for that right now because we’re unable, so many people are unable to receive.
So, we believe that these kinds of tragedies happen. … I’ve heard people say, “Well, it’s because God is mad at the world and we are a sinful world” — that’s not the God of the Scriptures. He’s not a God of revenge. He’s a God who calls us in times of sin to new life, to mercy, to show us his forgiveness.
But out of these kinds of tragedies, God has promised that out of the darkness will come light and that he has promised that in these circumstances, he will show himself to us in a new way. We will become more dependent upon him in a new way, and we’ll have the eyes of faith to see him if we want to in a new way. So that’s the hope.
Now, it’s hard to grasp all of that hope when people are in the present time dying and very sick and so many people are taking care of them. And it’s not just the sick. It’s also those who parents wondering about their kids in school, unemployment, “will my job be secure? Will I be furloughed? What will happen to my family? What does the future look like?” So it’s a lot of very complex questions. And so in the midst of those questions, which are very real, we have to ask God to help us to have the wisdom, the insight to see God saying through Jesus, “Do not be afraid.”
And then to ask Jesus the question, “How will you bring light into this darkness? How will you bring good out of this challenge and tragedy?”
Archbishop, you mentioned things like unemployment and all of these problems that are happening because of the shutdown, which is necessary. I know this is maybe a difficult time to do anything practical to help those who are in need, especially the underprivileged who are at high risk at this moment and that I know that the virus knows no discrimination on who gets sick, but the underprivileged may have the hardest road to recovery. How has the archdiocese been reaching out?
We’re very blessed in the archdiocese that we have a very active and very effective Catholic Charities. And so they are doing a lot of work. We’re also very blessed that many of our parishes have a ministry to the poor, or St. Vincent de Paul [Societies]. And so in the midst of these times of trouble, people are in trouble, we do have many things in place as an opportunity for people to find help, to find support and to find the prayers of others.
Needless to say, this will have to continue because we don’t know how long this is going to last and now they’re already talking another wave of this in the fall. And all those kinds of questions don’t help a person’s level of security. But at the same time, we have to face those and to say that we as Church must be there for those who are in need. We must care. We must reach out. And we do that in the name of Christ, who is the person of charity and the servant of others.
I was in my yard the other the other evening and I heard church bells. It was about six o’clock. You have asked your pastors to ring their church bells at 6pm each day. Why?
First of all, I think the ringing of bells can be a prayer in themselves. And secondly, the ringing of bells can remind us to stop what we’re doing and to pray. And during this time we’re praying in a particular way for protection of our city and our world. We’re praying for those who are ill God’s healing will be upon them. We’re praying for those who have died that they will have eternal rest. And like I said before, in a very particular way for those in the health care profession, for those first responders, for those who are leaders; they’re on the front lines. They’re having to make decisions. They’re putting their lives at risk. And so the bells are to help us to pray, to remind us, to pray and to remember those who are serving us at a very critical time in the history of our world and our country.
And I know that many people have communicated that they’re very grateful to hear the bells, but not just to hear the bells, but to be reminded that we really are a people of prayer. People who believe in God’s fidelity in the darkest of times.
I have a nephew who was expected to receive first Holy Communion in these weeks. There are many other second graders, and also RCIA participants who were scheduled to come into the Church at the Easter Vigil. This won’t happen right now. They must wait longer for the Eucharist and the fullness of the sacraments. And all of us, except for priests right now, who are waiting for the Most Holy Eucharist — how can we make the most of this time? How can we make this time holy, even without the reception of the sacraments?
Yes, and also, Jeanette, you could add to that list, those who are not able to celebrate confirmation. We’ve had to cancel probably 30 or 40 confirmations. Also graduations, a lot of kids who were looking forward to that. So the list goes on and I really appreciate your sensitivity on naming some of those [delayed events].
Our tradition, our Catholic tradition, tells us that when we are not able to receive the Eucharist, and this is a case where not able to because of the stay-at-home mandate and because of not wanting to spread the virus. … So what do we do? The best thing we can do is to participate in the liturgy online on television, however a parish or the diocese makes it available to participate. And of course, the Eucharist cannot be offered through online.
But what we can do is what we call a spiritual communion. And there’s one written, a beautiful one written by St. Alphonsus Liguori, which basically says, “Lord Jesus, I really want to receive your body and blood in the Eucharist and yet it is impossible for me to do so. Please know that I hunger for you. I yearn for you. Please come to me at least in a spiritual way, even though I cannot receive your body and blood.” And that is what we call the spiritual communion. That we open our hearts and in a very particular way and ask the Lord Jesus to be present with us in an intimate way. Even though we cannot receive Communion.
Archbishop, the people of New Orleans have a proven time and again their resiliency. We’ve endured many storms. This is a different type of storm, but nevertheless, it’s difficult sometimes in the midst of the storm to be hopeful and joyful. Yet we are entering into Christ’s resurrection soon and the Easter season. How might we enter into Easter during this time?
The image that I have is the tomb of Jesus. The stone is rolled back and the risen Christ is standing at the entrance of the tomb and he’s looking at each one of us personally and he says to us, “Do not be afraid. I am with you. I come to bring a light into your darkness.” As he has been raised from the darkness of the tomb to the new life of the Father’s kingdom, he comes to bring that light, that new light, that bright light into us where there is darkness.
And not only these things, but many family situations are very tense and difficult. The various reasons that people are struggling with things inside or with addiction. There is a lot of darkness. And so we go to the tomb and allow and ask the Risen Christ to reassure us that we’re not alone, be not afraid, but also his offer at Easter is to bring light into my heart and into our world, into our hearts and world where there is darkness. And to believe that and to use that as a, as a meditation on Sunday morning.
Archbishop, Is there anything more that you would like to add?
I certainly wish a very blessed Holy Week to all those who are a part of this conversation and also a blessed Easter that in light of … all the challenges that we’re going through with the virus and so forth. … We know that we have a faithful God who helps us to carry our cross, who shows us that the cross leads to death and resurrection. And I wish that blessing upon all those who are a part of this conversation.