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BOSTON -- On March 17, the pews inside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross were empty, but the annual St. Patrick's Day Mass went on -- and was televised by CatholicTV so the faithful could participate from their homes.
The celebration of the feast of St. Patrick, the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Boston, has traditionally included a Mass at the cathedral followed by a reception with Irish food and music. But on March 13, after Gov. Charlie Baker prohibited most gatherings of 250 or more people to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the archdiocese announced that all public Masses would be suspended until further notice.
To allow Catholics throughout the archdiocese to participate in the celebration of patronal feast, the closed-door Mass was broadcast through CatholicTV, which is available through local cable providers as well as several streaming platforms.
Archdiocesan music director Richard Clark led members of the Archdiocesan Festival Choir in providing music for the Mass. They sang hymns relating to St. Patrick and Our Lady of Knock, a Marian apparition that took place in County Mayo, Ireland, in 1879.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley was the principal celebrant of the Mass and was assisted by Msgr. Kevin O'Leary, the rector of the cathedral.
Addressing the audience at the beginning of the Mass, Cardinal O'Malley urged the faithful to turn to the rosary during this time of suspension of public Masses and services.
"Many of us remember growing up praying the rosary every evening as a family. In the history of our people, during the wars, famines, plagues, and persecution, the rosary has been the powerful prayer of the Catholic people," the cardinal said.
"Even if we cannot go to Mass, the rosary is always accessible to us. It is a prayer that puts us in touch with God as we reflect on the mysteries of the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin. It is a prayer that can be prayed by the simplest peasant and the most brilliant scientist," he added.
The homilist was Msgr. Liam Bergin, a native of County Laois, Ireland, and professor of theology at Boston College. He is priest-in-residence at Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parishes in South Boston.
"This year, our celebration of St. Patrick is muted," he said, noting the absence of parades in both Boston and Dublin.
Msgr. Bergin spoke at length about the life of St. Patrick and the challenges he faced, all the while drawing connections to the current situation in Ireland, the United States, and other countries dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think the proper question is, what exactly is God saying to us?" he said.
Looking at the life of St. Patrick, he suggested three possible points.
The first, he said, is that "We are not in control."
"There are forces out there that are bigger and stronger than we are. Things happen in our lives that no amount of preparation or insurance or underwriting can prepare us for," he said.
He pointed out that St. Patrick was taken away from the security of his home when he was kidnapped and enslaved, but he never despaired of God's protection.
"All of this reminds us that life is a gift, given to us by God who is Father. It is entrusted to us, and we seek to use it as best we can. But remember, we are not in control," Msgr. Bergin said.
The second point, he said, may be that "We are all in this together."
He said he was struck by people's offers to pick up groceries and medications for vulnerable people, even those they barely know.
"Crisis creates community. It reminds us that we are not just random individuals," he said.
Thirdly, Msgr. Bergin said, "We are all responsible."
He said that although many will test positive for the virus, and some will die, it will pass, while "there are people on our planet for whom this kind of thing is a daily reality, unending, unceasing, always."
"Perhaps this moment will awaken us to the many blessings that are still ours and our responsibility to those on the edge," he said.
He summarized these three points again as he concluded: "We are not in control, but we are daughters and sons of God the Father. We are all in this together, sisters and brothers who are deeply loved. And we are responsible for each other in many ways. On this feast day, may our identity be clear, our togetherness strong, and our accountability sincere."
After the prayers of the faithful, Cardinal O'Malley blessed containers of shamrocks that had been placed at the foot of a statue of St. Patrick at the front of the cathedral. Many of the shamrocks were later delivered to the residents of Regina Cleri, the archdiocese's retirement residence for priests.