In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s new Arise podcast series, Father Richard Owens, O.F.M. Cap., Father Eric Banecker, and Gina Christian present the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Catholic faith to Catholics, fellow Christians, and all those who seek something more.
Father Liam Murphy, Father Stephen Thorne, and I.H.M. Sister Kathleen Schipani discuss the spiritual lessons they’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a deeper awareness of what it means to be the church when you can’t physically be in church. They also share their favorite saints, and what they’ve been watching on Netflix these days.
(Music by Johnny Markin, taken from the “Instrumental Acoustic Hymns Project,” owned by Essential Christian under the imprint Elevation, with an arrangement copyrighted by Music Services. For more information on the Arise Project, visit archphila.org/arise.)
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The Arise podcast, Episode 4 – Spiritual Lessons from a Pandemic
Father Richard Owens: Welcome to the Arise podcast. This is Capuchin Father Richard Owens.
Father Eric Banecker: This is Father Eric Banecker.
Gina Christian: I’m Gina Christian.
Father Richard Owens: We explore Catholic life in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and reflect on the word of God as it speaks to us in our own day. Today we are truly honored to have with us Sister Kathleen Schipani, Father Liam Murphy and Father Stephen Thorne. Welcome, my dear friends.
Father Liam Murphy: Thank you. Good to be here.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: Nice to be here.
Father Richard Owens: Sister and Fathers, if you wouldn’t mind go around and just introducing yourselves, so that the audience can get to know who you are and is with us.
Father Liam Murphy: My name is Father Murphy. I am the pastor of St. Martin of Tours in Philadelphia, and the director of Mother of Mercy House in Kensington.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: I am Sister Kathleen Schipani, and I’m a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters. I’m the director of the (Archdiocese of Philadelphia) Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate.
Father Stephen Thorne: I’m Father Stephen Thorne. I serve as pastor of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in what we call the Kingdom of North Philadelphia. I’m also a faculty member at Neumann University in Aston, Delaware County.
Father Richard Owens: Welcome one and all. Father Murphy, I noticed that you mentioned that you’re the director of the Mother of Mercy House. For our listeners, could you just tell us a little bit about Mother of Mercy House?
Father Liam Murphy: Sure. Mother of Mercy House is a ministry that we opened up in the Kensington area of the city five years ago. It was an area where a lot of the churches closed down for economic reasons, but we still wanted to maintain a Catholic presence in the neighborhood. With Archbishop Chaput’s approval, we opened up Mother of Mercy House, which began as a basically storefront church in the Kensington area. We celebrate mass there and the sacraments, and also just do a lot of outreach to the community with food, with counseling and different things like that, just the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you. Sister Kathleen, I understand you also have a rather unique ministry here in the archdiocese.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: Sure. For the Office for Persons with Disabilities, I support parishes so that they are inclusive of people with disabilities, and in the Deaf Apostolate, it’s a direct ministry to people who are deaf and use American Sign Language. Father Sean Loomis and Deacon William Griffin and I meet the needs of people who are deaf through daily Mass, Sunday liturgies, the sacraments, pastoral care.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you, sister. Today we find ourselves in a rather unique time in the church and in our country and in the world, in the midst of this great pandemic. Just wondering, what type of unique challenges have you experienced in your current ministries?
Father Stephen Thorne: Obviously, the pandemic has been an unprecedented time for our world. I know myself, I’ve never experienced anything like it before as a priest and just as a human being. I think for me, living in North Philadelphia, 24th and Lehigh, and one of the things about our priests is our priests live in the community. Many of the pastors that minister in parishes like mine in the Black community do not live among the people, but our Catholic priests do. That being the case, really seeing the suffering.
I think what the pandemic has done is expose what we already know, the challenges in people of color, the reality that people go through. I often say “stay at home” is a relative term. If you don’t have a home, your home is dysfunctional or you’re living with multiple people in your home, well then, it’s not a very pleasant place to be at times. It really has, for me, really exposed the challenges that the people of St. Martin de Porres in North Philadelphia experience on a daily basis.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you, Father.
Father Liam Murphy: Yeah. I would just say, going along with that, I think the challenge for our parishioners, it has been their longing to be in church to celebrate together as a community and not being able to do that, and finding ways to reach out to the people and let them know that they are still connected to their church, in fact that they are themselves the church. I think it has been a real challenge.
If there’s anything positive, one of the things that has come of it is the challenge has helped us to hopefully help people to see that they are the church, and that even in these times when we can’t necessarily be in the building, we’ve been challenged to help people find ways to stay connected to God, to find their own inner resources, to work on spirituality in different kinds of ways, and then to stay connected with each other through other means, whether it’s Zoom, which has become very popular, WhatsApp and different forms of communication.
The challenge has been really helping people to stay connected and to find their own inner resources, their own inner spiritual resources, and to see themselves perhaps more fully as church even when not in the building, as important of course, as it is to come together as family in the temple.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: For the Catholic deaf community, for people who are deaf and use American Sign Language that stay at home with their families, they can communicate, but not necessarily with their neighbors. Gathering the deaf community together in person is the means of communication for the deaf. It’s an in-person kind of communication, so that’s been a big challenge.
Also, in these times of uncertainty, for the deaf community to always know if they’ve received all the information, if the information has been accessible to them in their language. Thank goodness our city and the state are pretty good with that, in regards to providing broadcasts that are interpreted in their language. There are things that happen instantaneously, that sometimes it’s not communicated in American Sign Language, and it can lead individuals to feel even doubly uncertain about these times.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you, Sister. I understand that here in the archdiocese, many people have responded to this pandemic differently. I’m just interested to know ways in which you three have responded creatively onto the challenges in which we find ourselves.
Father Liam Murphy: Well, I guess the one thing that I think we’ve done and a lot of parishes have done is live streaming Masses, so that people have some connection. Zoom conferences, we’ve had Zoom conferences with our youth group, Zoom chats or conferences with our pastoral council. That’s been one creative way that we’ve tried to stay connected and reach out and help people maintain a connection with their church, and stay together as a Catholic Christian family.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: For the deaf community, it’s been really beautiful to see the deep desire to deepen personal prayer and times of reflection. One of the ways that we responded as pastoral workers is we decided to have a daily vlog, which is a video of a reflection on the daily readings of the Mass. It began with Father Sean Loomis and myself and Deacon Bill Griffin. Then we expanded that to about three other lay leaders, who just signed a brief reflection on the daily reading. The response to that was really beautiful. Then we meet up with people as a check-in on Mondays, and it was lovely to see people responding to that daily connection to God’s word each day.
Nationally, deaf lay leaders just began, spontaneously, live Facebook streaming of a daily rosary or Divine Mercy. It was beautiful to see people, laypeople themselves, deciding that they wanted to connect in the community and share at times of prayer. That was inspiring to me, to see how creative and the desire to connect with people through prayer and through their faith.
Father Stephen Thorne: We’ve seen other early church literally live out their faith. I think that’s been what I’ve witnessed, along with what Sister and Father have said already. I’ve seen the church alive, without the building so much, but people’s faith, clinging to Christ, clinging to each other and caring for each other. It’s been very edifying to see that without some of the structural things that sometimes get in the way of church. Church is alive in people’s hearts.
I know in our parish, St. Martin de Porres Parish, we have a small community, and small can be good in the sense we have prayer partners. People are praying the rosary on the phone with each other, they’re checking in with the elders, we’re giving out food, and all this has come by the people, their own spirit alive. You don’t need my permission as pastor to do justice, to do kindness, to do prayer with each other. I’ve seen a deepening of the lay apostolate in the church coming alive and really showing the faith that is alive.
Father Richard Owens: Father Thorne, I saw on your Facebook page that you sponsored a food pantry pop-up. Could you tell the audience a little bit about this little creative pop-up in the Kingdom of North Philadelphia?
Father Stephen Thorne: Yeah. I’ve noticed myself being obviously more in social media, and I saw this. Another church did it. Basically this was just a random act of kindness. Oftentimes we see these flash mobs of mess and flash mobs of craziness, so a flash mob of goodness. We had some food that someone had donated at our food cupboard, and some of our lay volunteers and members of our parish council just, after churches opened on Sunday, just put out food.
Also we put out a bulletin, our voter registration information. We had Mass. We tried to also connect with people, to know their names and their needs. It was really an example of church. More importantly, I said to people, “I want to see you come to Mass with us when we come back and worship in a few weeks.”
Father Richard Owens: Thank you, Father Thorne. What do you three look forward to most, upon returning to the ability to move about freely and minister and be great pastoral agents in your particular ministries?
Father Liam Murphy: Obviously, I think the big thing will be being able to celebrate liturgy together again, and not just liturgy. Yes, obviously the Mass, but all the different parish activities. Being able to have those things to start up again, even if they have … obviously there’ll still be restrictions in the green stage with masks and whatnot, but just to have people be able to gather, our prayer groups to come back again, our youth group to come back again. Even social activities that we do as a parish, it would be exciting to see them come back again.
At Mother of Mercy House, we have a program that’s been amazingly successful called Second Saturday, where volunteers can come and cook a meal for the homeless and the neighbors, and that we have not been able to do. Our volunteers are really anxious to get back to doing that, because they love coming down and helping and the people love getting a meal. Just being able to do those things again, it’ll be exciting to get back to that.
Father Richard Owens: Sure. Father Murphy, if someone’s interested in volunteering or getting more involved in Mother of Mercy, how would they track you down or track down the information about Mother of Mercy?
Father Liam Murphy: Man, that sounds threatening. No, I would just say just go to motherofmercyhouse.org, and they can get all the information and our email is there. People do get in touch with us through that, let us know that they’d like to volunteer, whether it’s on a Second Saturday or dropping off food.
I did just want to mention, as Sister and Father Thorne were mentioning, we have had so many amazingly generous people. We put out a call for food when the pandemic came, because we had an increased number of people asking for food, and the response was just incredible. Financial contributions. One day, 10 carloads from St. Andrews in Newtown came down, and dropped off 10 carloads of food to fill our cupboards and then help us put everything away. That generosity has been amazing.
To answer your question again, to be able to get back to that, should we say full-time or with less restrictions, will be good for our community, and it will be good for the so many people out there who love helping and reaching out.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: For me, I just can’t wait to see people again and to be in community, but also I think there’s a silver lining, because my hope is that all of us in the deaf community will have a deeper appreciation of what it means to be in community with one another at the liturgy, and to be in the real presence of God in the Eucharist, and that the silver lining will be that some of the things we’ve learned during this time that we were unable to be together, the kindness, the respect, the realization of our own vulnerabilities, will lead us to just be kinder, more respectful, deeply appreciative of who we are as the body of Christ when we come together again.
Father Stephen Thorne: I was saying to someone that we thank God for our social media and all the different platforms that we’ve been able to use with technology. It’s been a blessing because it’s allowed us to stay connected, but God did not tweet us his Son. God did not send us a text message. The Lord is real, is incarnational, the Word became flesh among us. God showed his love to us in sending us Jesus Christ, and Jesus never practiced social distancing. He was always very close to people. Our sacraments are flesh realities. They’re things we touch and smell and taste.
I think for St. Martin de Porres and for me personally, I’m from a large family, so people are important to me. Being able to have that contact is something I’m looking forward to. It’s wonderful to see people’s faces and to hear their voices, but it is those moments of real encounter. You know, when you anoint someone, when you shake someone’s hand, when you lay hands on a child in a holy, healthy way, that’s an example of what Christ did. I’m looking forward to that when we get to that stage.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you. When the Archbishop arrived, he preached a wonderful homily on hope. I’ll just ask you, the three of you, what message of hope would you give to your community, to your particular communities at this point?
Father Liam Murphy: Well, I guess what message of hope would I give to my community, well, one, I would say the one hopeful sign. Interestingly enough, this was at the second reading a few weeks ago. Peter mentions hope. I think I actually shared with you, Father Richard, that for us as Christians, hope isn’t crossing your fingers and wishing for the best possible outcome that may or may not happen, right? Hope for us is waiting in confidence for what we know will happen and has already begun to happen, right? Christ’s love has conquered everything.
I think the message I would give to my parishioners and to the people at Mother of Mercy House is that we have already seen so much of that conquering love, even in these difficult days. I mean, just the example again of so many people who reached out to drop off food, so many people that called to ask, “How are you guys doing? How are things going at Mother of Mercy House? What do you need?” Many parishioners at St. Martin’s who would call and say, “Hey, Father, I know we have a food cupboard. I’m coming over. I just want to drop off a box of food in case people need it.”
I think one of the ways that we’ll give them hope is to let them know there have already been so many loving signs, which is the proof of God’s loving presence, and that there will come a day when we can share that love, as everyone here has been saying, more physically, being in each other’s presence again. In the meantime, what gives us hope is we know that we are not alone, that even now, God is with us. God dwells within us. His love is there.
We say it all the time, but now’s the time we’ll maybe experience at a deeper level that that love does conquer all. It conquers our fear. It conquers the ups and downs we go through, and it can keep us calm and keep us stable in the midst of all that we’re going through in the pandemic.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: St. Paul mentioned, “Never be ashamed to be able to proclaim the reason for your hope.” It was amazing to me during the pandemic, so many of the people in the Catholic deaf community would say the reason for their hope was their faith and the promise that it gives, and the promise that is a reality. That deepening of faith during this time, that can be shared when we come together again in community, is the reason for my hope.
Father Stephen Thorne: I was assigned to St. Martin de Porres nine years ago now. Being from North Philadelphia, I started the phrase, St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in the Kingdom of North Philadelphia. Oftentimes people would wonder how is that a kingdom, because we know 24th and Lehigh is one of the more challenging parts of our city. It’s true, the data shows that, but I say that intentionally because the Kingdom of God is among you.
The Kingdom of God is right here, right now. I’m reminding people that God has not abandoned you, God is with you. I preach it often, because many times folks think that God has somehow left us, but God is with us. I think that’s important. That’s evidenced by the way people have moved about in this very challenging time.
My hope is people continue to come to worship, to do justice, to help people, because many people have really struggled in this time. It bothers me. We see people who’ve lost their jobs, when people have so much and some folks have so little. It should bother all of us that the children in our public schools have not had the same education other children have had. That has been so dysfunctional in many ways. It should bother us that people continue to have to go to work and have their health compromised because they’re essential workers, but God has not abandoned us.
God is with us. We have to continue to offer that message, especially in challenging times. A lady said, one of our saints said, the bells that ring at St. Martins … she called us and said, “Father, I love when the bells go off,” she said, “because it reminds us that God is not dead.”
Father Richard Owens: Thank you. For our next line of questions, I’m just curious. During this time of pandemic, a lot of people are turning to Netflix and reading novels and books. Are the three of you watching anything interesting or reading anything interesting that you want to share with our audience?
Father Liam Murphy: Okay, I’m going to confess one thing. Netflix, you know what I did watch? I can’t believe I’m going to say this. I watched “Tiger King,” the whole thing, because it was all … everyone was talking about it. “What is this ‘Tiger King’ thing?” I watched it, and it was … I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s just kind of goofy, to tell you the truth.
There has been a lot of time for reading. It’s been nice to be able to sit down and have a longer span of time to do some reading and underlining, instead of necessarily running to the next thing. Yeah, I’d say I’ve been doing more reading. I just finished a book by Elizabeth Johnson, “Creation and the Cross,” which was excellent, and then perfect for its connection with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si and how Christ’s Death and Resurrection redeems not just humanity but all of creation, and what that means and how all of us are interconnected. Yeah, I’ve been doing more reading than usual.
Father Stephen Thorne: Father Murphy often says that he reads the books, and I buy the books. I put them on my shelf. No, seriously, it has been a moment to really be more reflective. I find myself, just with the Office of Readings and the Liturgy of the Hours, just being more intentional about that, reflecting on that as a priest. I find myself, with the daily readings of Mass, even not being able to preach as I normally would, in Lenten time especially, but still being able to really be flexible in God’s word. I just find myself doing a lot of maintenance. I always try to be active, so I’m moving in church, moving things, cleaning things, planning things. It’s been a great way to spend my time in a constructive way.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: For me, the Netflix series that I saw was “The English Game,” about the beginning of soccer. It’s really good, if anyone is into soccer or football. I enjoyed that. Another personal care thing that I made a decision to do is to take very, very long walks in South Philadelphia. I saw the beautiful streets, up and down every way from both rivers, the Schuylkill to the Delaware. That was enjoyable.
The book that I’m reading currently is “God’s Wild Flowers: Saints with Disabilities.” It’s by a wonderful woman from England who’s a theologian and has a daughter with a significant disability. Her name’s Pia Matthews. Another great reading, especially for people who care about the way we love and care for people with profound disabilities. “God’s Wild Flowers” relates to Little Theresa’s (St. Therese of Lisieux) quote saying that we’re not all roses and lilies, that the wild flowers, the lilies and the daisies, were important to God’s creation also, and bring beauty to our world.
Father Richard Owens: Sister, you’re a religious, and I suspect you have several sisters living with you. How is it, living in a convent with … how many sisters do you have currently?
Sister Kathleen Schipani: There’s 11 of us, and it’s a high school faculty house. I have to say that it’s been a blessing in that itself, it’s a community, and consecrated women religious and men religious are fortunate to have the Blessed Sacrament in chapel in their convent homes. That has been a blessing, and also a realization for us that, while so many people desired to be with the Blessed Sacrament and to receive the Blessed Sacrament, we felt a special responsibility to be praying for the world.
Father Stephen Thorne: It’s funny you mentioned, Father Richard, about living in community. I live alone, as many priests do it now. I was saying to my sister how it was kind of weird, being alone and being lonely in a big rectory that at one time had six priests in it. My sister said, “Which nephew do you want? The one in college, the one who’s the baby, the one who’s a toddler? Which one do you want to take care of?” I said, “I’m okay.”
Father Richard Owens: For our last round of questions, very simple. Who is your favorite saint, and why?
Sister Kathleen Schipani: Someone has to answer. I have to think for a second.
Father Liam Murphy: Yeah, I have to think. I didn’t know we were going to get that one thrown at us. It’s a good question.
Father Stephen Thorne: I’m going to call out St. Katharine Drexel, for a lot of reasons. One, I began my ministry at Blessed (now St.) Katharine Drexel Parish in Chester 23 years ago. I’ve always had a great devotion to her, and to be able to even draw close to her earthly remains here at the cathedral. Not so much because obviously her money story and her privilege is extraordinary, she gave so much of her father’s money away, but the fact that she was able to see, in Black and Brown people, God’s image.
A person like myself, she would see me as God’s child, and at a time when the world and even the church didn’t always do that. I have a big picture of her that’s traveled with me in every rectory for 22 years, that reminds me that I am God’s child. I want to give a shout-out to St. Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: I had to pause with that question, because at different times in my life there’s been different saints that I would call my favorite saint. I think right now it’s St. Francis de Sales. I just love recalling his story of how he befriended a young man who was deaf and recognized in him his holiness and also his skills, and how they were lifelong friends. I would say it’s St. Francis de Sales.
Father Liam Murphy: Yeah, I think I paused for the same reason. I would say there’ve been different saints at different times. I was going to say St. John of the Cross initially, just because his writings were very influential on me in my later years in the seminary. I think now the other reason I hesitated is because the saint I wanted to say is St. Francis of Assisi, but he can be overplayed sometimes. It almost becomes banal, because it’s just the man, the “bird bath saint,” as Richard Rohr refers to him.
The reason that I really have admired him lately is because way back then, he already had a deep insight into the interconnectedness of all things and of all creation. I think now, we see even more clearly scientifically how true that is, and we see more clearly spiritually how important that is, right? If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that we are all interconnected, and that everything we do affects everyone and all of creation. I think he’s a real good model for that. That’s why I would say St. Francis of Assisi.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you. Sister Kathleen and Father Murphy and Father Thorne, thanks for coming and joining us for the Arise podcast, and St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Sales and St. Catherine Drexel will pray for us. Amen.
Sister Kathleen Schipani: Amen.
Father Liam Murphy: You’ve got, like, a radio voice.
Father Richard Owens: Thank you, Father Murphy. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
You’ve been listening to the Arise podcast with Capuchin Father Richard Owens and Father Eric Banneker. I’m Gina Christian, and for more resources and information on the Arise project, visit archphila.org/arise. Thanks for listening.
Gina Christian: This podcast has been a production of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Our engineers are Jocelyn Martinez and Gina Christian. Music by Johnny Markin, taken from the Instrumental Acoustic Hymns Project owned by Essential Christian under the imprint Elevation, with an arrangement copyrighted by Music Services. For more information on the Arise project, visit archphila.org/arise.
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