Retreat Master for Mother Teresa’s Sisters: Advice for Spiritual Growth Amid Coronavirus

Father Donald Haggerty, parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, offers recommendations for prayer during this time of pandemic.

Father Donald Haggerty participates in the livestreamed Easter Sunday Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on April 12.
Father Donald Haggerty participates in the livestreamed Easter Sunday Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on April 12. (photo: Courtesy of Father Donald Haggerty; Joan Foster photo)

Father Donald Haggerty is parochial vicar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the epicenter of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States. His latest book is Contemplative Enigmas: Insights and Aid on the Path to Deeper Prayer.

He spoke via email to Register correspondent Laura Dittus this Holy Week about how to make good use of our longing for the Eucharist and instilling a prayer routine, or “rhythm,” at this time spent in our domestic churches.

Father Haggerty, a diocesan priest of the Archdiocese of New York, brings particular insights into the spiritual life, having written multiple books on prayer and the interior life, as well as serving for a number of years as a spiritual director and retreat master for the Missionaries of Charity, the religious community founded by Mother Teresa.

With his experience in teaching and writing on the life of prayer, which should be a constant in one’s life regardless of the exterior circumstances one finds oneself in, Father Haggerty offers recommendations for discovering, maintaining and growing in the life of prayer during this particular time of pandemic. He also encourages the faithful to make good use of this time for spiritual growth, learning to “pray with true longing for a union with the Heart of Jesus and his offering throughout the Mass.”


Some Catholics are having difficulty at this time accepting the inability to receive the Eucharist; how can they better understand the situation and accept it as extended preparation for their next Holy Communion? Are there recommendations for participating in the Mass at home?

It is a very difficult moment, certainly, unprecedented in the history of the Church. Yet nothing occurs without purpose in the plan of God. We might ask what God is speaking to us through this time, not just through the pandemic, but in its spiritual repercussions. Everyone who is not a priest is carrying the serious pain of a separation from the Mass and from reception of the Holy Eucharist, although not all experience the deprivation to the same degree. It is like a long Holy Saturday that in this case goes on for weeks. The Holy Saturday sense of absence, Our Lord disappearing for a brief time between his crucifixion and resurrection, with no Mass during the day and the tabernacles empty, is being experienced in a unique way this year over a period of weeks. Just as we have to accept Holy Saturday's absence of Our Lord, which is ordinarily one day, we may have to accept this longer Holy Saturday for the duration that God permits. Yet there can be also in the Church the solidarity of spiritual suffering in this absence of the Eucharist. Perhaps we might realize that spiritually, in all the pain and tragedy of this time, we are more than ever united as a Church that suffers in the Heart of Christ. Let us not waste this suffering, but offer it especially for souls dying and in need of grace at this time. A great sacrifice is being asked, in many lives terribly so, and yet all sacrifice can be fruitful when offered for others.

It is a time to realize with serious awareness how sacred the Mass must be in our lives, never more to treat it casually, or as a mere social gathering. Watching the Mass on television cannot substitute for our actual presence before the altar. Spiritual communion, while a good practice, cannot replace the immeasurable gift of possessing Our Lord in our heart and soul at a Mass. If we are confined to home and can only watch the Mass on a screen, let us watch with great attention, taking notice of the ritual action and the sacred gestures that accompany the Mass in its invisible mystery. It is a time to re-educate ourselves in the importance of reverence and adoration of the sacred realities. Let us recall the great Catholic teaching that the Mass brings us back to the hour of Calvary and Our Lord’s crucifixion on a cross out of love for us. This is what is happening even as we look from a distance at a Mass broadcast for us. And let us pray with true longing for a union with the Heart of Jesus and his offering throughout the Mass.


In your books, you write about the importance of contemplation and the interior life. How can we learn to be more contemplative in the midst of this pandemic? What does it mean to have an interior life?

This unique time has become an invitation to quiet down and detach ourselves from an unhealthy driven quality that lacks real prayer in a daily manner. We likely do not recognize that in the current time prayer has become superficial in many lives, a quick practice at best, while running amid the day’s demands. The frenetic pace of modern life for most people is treated as normality. But the unhealthy consequences of a need for perpetual distraction, and of inattention to God, are serious. “Indifference is the great evil of our time” — a pertinent comment by St. Teresa of Calcutta. We have a chance to correct this tendency to indifference and carelessness right now. The opportunity to sit quietly in prayer, to read, to spend time with children and spouses, without rushing about with an eye on the clock, these are the chances for transformation in this time of some anxiety. Living with greater calm simply by turning to Our Lord in prayer more often is a gift that we can receive now. This can become a hungering need for the presence of Our Lord that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.


Do you have any recommendations for praying with the Scriptures or spiritual reading at this time? Are there other personal prayer recommendations that might be helpful?

The first recommendation is to make a serious, willed choice for times of prayer. Nothing or very little happens in life without a committed choice. Carve out some daily blocks of time for prayer, not necessarily so long, and soon the fruits make themselves evident. The need for the rhythm of returning to prayer is like an athlete’s need to do his daily running and practice. The particular way of praying is really a question of personal attraction. But if, in all honesty, we have not had much daily commitment to prayer, there are suggestions that work. Reading very slowly a chapter of the Gospel each day, while looking for sentences or phrases of Jesus that strike home and speak directly to our heart, is a good form of prayer. We want always to deepen our sense of Jesus as our Lord and God who is speaking his words directly to us. Praying the Psalms slowly is a wonderful practice, and, indeed, looking to discover the most striking verses we can find. This might also be a time to read sections of the Old Testament that we have never read before, such as the whole of Genesis, Exodus and the two books of Samuel. For some people the repetition of an ejaculatory prayer proves very effective to quiet the soul and remain in Our Lord’s presence. For some people used to a racing mind, this will be difficult at first. But repeating slowly, for instance, the words of the Jesus Prayer — “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (us)” — has a way of opening our interior life over time to a calm certainty of Our Lord’s presence. The Rosary of Our Lady is, of course, a prayer of great beauty and spiritual power. But we should treat it with a newfound reverence. Even if meditations on the mysteries do not come easily to our imagination, which may be true for most people, nonetheless we are in her presence and under her loving gaze as we turn to her in prayer. The time is indeed a good one to deepen our love and dependency on our Mother’s care and protection.