The Hidden Heroes of 2020

The year was not only a year of global hardship — it was a year when hidden Catholic heroes made a difference.

Clockwise, a St. Michael’s Indian School student prepares to meet his teacher and start class virtually. The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, who are shown gathered at a prepandemic convention, responded to the pandemic with their ‘Claver COVID-19 Outreach,’ to aid those in need this past year. The ‘Divine Mercy Drive-In Holy Hour’ is underway at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Clayton, North Carolina. Catie and Michael Kopf celebrate their wedding under COVID-19 lockdown in Jerusalem.  Andrew Walther, president and COO of EWTN News, died Nov. 1 in New Haven, Connecticut. He died one day after Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was beatified by the Church. Walther did much to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Clockwise, a St. Michael’s Indian School student prepares to meet his teacher and start class virtually. The Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary, who are shown gathered at a prepandemic convention, responded to the pandemic with their ‘Claver COVID-19 Outreach,’ to aid those in need this past year. The ‘Divine Mercy Drive-In Holy Hour’ is underway at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Clayton, North Carolina. Catie and Michael Kopf celebrate their wedding under COVID-19 lockdown in Jerusalem. Andrew Walther, president and COO of EWTN News, died Nov. 1 in New Haven, Connecticut. He died one day after Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, was beatified by the Church. Walther did much to help persecuted Christians in the Middle East. (photo: Renee Tsinnie/St. Michael’s Indian School; Courtesy the Knights of Peter Claver; Caitlin Rose Photography; Courtesy Catie Kopf; Photographer Kelsey Paff)

When Pope Francis proclaimed the Year of St. Joseph late in the year, he made clear the “St. Josephs” of 2020, those living hidden lives of service, “praying, making sacrifices and interceding for the good of all,” inspired the Church’s new holy year.

“Each of us can discover in Joseph — the man who goes unnoticed, a daily, discreet and hidden presence — an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of trouble,” he said.

In a year that saw more than 75 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and more than 1.67 million deaths from the virus, seeking the intercession of St. Joseph, who has been venerated for his temporal care of the Holy Family and also called upon for the grace of a happy death, was most fitting.

Catholic laity and clergy gave hidden witness to Jesus Christ through the hardships of the year, living a love for God and neighbor sometimes briefly captured by the headlines but forever kept in the heart of God.

Many Catholic priests heroically stepped forward to take on the risks to provide the sacraments, despite the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The spotlight was on the “good guys” who made every effort to follow the Good Shepherd and care for their flocks.

With church buildings shut down for safety and out of concern for an unknown, potentially aggressive danger, many priests innovatively built drive-through “confession sheds,” livestreamed or held open-air Masses, and even offered drive-in adoration

At St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Clayton, North Carolina, around 250 vehicles arrived by 3pm, the hour of mercy, on Divine Mercy Sunday. The “Divine Mercy Drive-In Holy Hour” featured a liturgy literally proclaimed from the parish rooftops in both Spanish and English. 

“Christ can’t be locked out in this time of trial,” Father Thomas Macdonald, vice rector of the Boston Archdiocese’s St. John’s Seminary, told the Register about his own experience of acting in persona Christi, with full personal protective equipment (PPE), holy oils and cotton swabs. 

“We’re going to do it as long as we’re healthy and there is a need,” he said. “It’s just what priests do.”

Hardworking Catholic medical professionals and maintenance staff kept hospitals going, even under tremendous strain. Dr. Timothy Flanigan, a deacon, infectious disease specialist and veteran of the Ebola crisis, who is working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, credited in particular the heroism of the country’s nurses.

“I’m convinced that heaven will be full of nurses,” he said.

For other Catholics who kept the country going as “essential workers,” each day was an act of trust in God in the face of the unpredictable.

“I entrust myself to [the Lord’s] safety and care every day,” one postal carrier told the Register.

Among the heroes of 2020 were the initiatives of Catholic fraternal organizations that kept parishes going, like the Knights of Columbus’ “Leave No Neighbor Behind” program or the Knights of Peter Claver and Ladies Auxiliary’s “Claver COVID-19 Outreach.”

“We’re stepping up and leading by example,” Joseph Bamford, grand knight of the Knights of Columbus Pius XII Council 5295, told the Register about their initiative to provide meal trains, masks and gift cards for families in need of food.

The Knights of Peter Claver received a donation of 100,000 N95 masks and distributed them to African American communities, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we have a lot of ladies that want to give of themselves to others,” Beverly Thornton, grand lady of Mother Mary Lange Court 398 in Alexandria, Virginia, told the Register about their activities.

Among the Church’s front-line heroes have been Catholic educators. Catholic schools, with staffers’ flexibility, imagination and determination to stay open, found renewed appreciation from parents, and teachers worked hard to master teaching challenges and pandemic protocols for in-person and remote classes.

At St. Michael’s Indian School, educators and staff kept families supplied with food on the Navajo Nation territory throughout the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic there. They also developed flexible formats for students to resume classes. 

“We’re trying to reach all our students and parents,” Celie Henderson, the assistant principal at St. Michael’s, who is both Navajo and a St. Michael’s alumna, told the Register.

One of the things that kept the Church going in 2020 was the faithful witness of Catholics to the sacraments, like those married without having the “perfect” wedding.

Catie Kopf, who married her husband in Jerusalem with a small ceremony, instead of having a big wedding back home in Virginia, said even with the changes to their wedding, “everything is just as I wanted it.”

“I couldn’t find anything in me that made me doubt or hesitate,” her husband Michael said. “I wanted to make my promise.”

Yet not all heroes made it through COVID-19. Msgr. Richard “Mons” Soseman, the vice postulator for Venerable Fulton Sheen’s canonization cause, who was known as a tireless and beloved priest, died at age 57 from COVID-19 complications. The date was Dec. 9, the feast of St. Juan Diego and the 41st anniversary of Archbishop Sheen’s own passing.

This past year, more than 300,000 Americans succumbed to COVID-19.

And many families have suffered greatly by the losses of their loved ones, with the normal process of grief and consolation completely disrupted due to the pandemic. Many clergy and counselors have shouldered this cross with them. 

Deacon Michael Forrest of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, told the Register that he takes COVID-19 very seriously, but has to manage the risks creatively in order to provide comfort and counseling — even a simple touch on the shoulder or a hug to those deeply grieving the loss of a loved one — to prevent COVID-19 from destroying people’s mental, spiritual and emotional health and claiming more lives. 

“We cannot fail in the cause of charity because fear has completely overtaken us,” he said.

One layman whose passing was keenly felt across the world was Andrew Walther, president of EWTN News, from complications related to leukemia. 

Only with Walther’s death did it become public how much of a “hidden St. Joseph” he had been for Iraq’s Christians. As news of his efforts emerged, it became known that, without Walther behind the Knights of Columbus’ efforts for the Christians in Iraq during the genocide and its aftermath, Pope Francis may not have had a Christian community to visit in 2021.

“The persecuted Christians of the world had no greater friend than Andrew,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Erbil said. “There is nobody who worked harder and with more hope and perseverance on our behalf.”

It is the example of these hidden disciples that Pope Francis hopes to carry into 2021.

“St. Joseph reminds us that those who appear hidden or in the shadows can play an incomparable role in the history of salvation,” the Holy Father said. “A word of recognition and of gratitude is due to them all.”