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September 20, 2000

 

'Invisible' Catholics blessed by 'Mass for Shut-Ins'

By Jeff Richmond

If not for Father Sean McGrath, and a partnership between the Catholic Hour of the Archdiocese of Denver and KBDI Channel 12 , many shut-ins would be without access to the Mass.

"If not for them, I would be without Mass and it would ruin my spiritual life," says Jessie Craig, a member of St. Francis de Sales Parish who is confined to a wheelchair due to arthritis.

Father McGrath, pastor of Guardian Angels Parish in Denver, recently taped his 100th "Mass for Shut-Ins," which is produced by The Catholic Hour and airs on Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on KBDI-Channel 12.

Marion Kelly, a Eucharistic minister from St. Francis de Sales Parish, brings the Blessed Sacrament to Craig in her home. This, combined with the opportunity to watch and participate in the "Mass for Shut-Ins," is her connection to the Church.

"We are the invisible Catholics because no one sees us and we have no way of expressing ourselves, other than being a part of Mass during that half hour," says Craig. "It would be wonderful if we had it everyday," she adds.

The "Mass for Shut-Ins" was aired on KWGN-Channel 2 as a community service for 32 years before being dropped in 1998. According to Mike Keller, manager of the Office of Television and Radio for the Archdiocese of Denver, the local Church immediately saw the need to reach out to the homebound and began seeking a way to produce the Mass through the "Catholic Hour."

Thanks to the generosity of Dick Cullen, a Catholic layman who offered to fund the production of the Mass for a year, and the vision and community spirit of KBDI Channel 12, which provided a timeslot for the production, the "Mass for Shut-Ins" returned to the air, according to Keller.

Msgr. Raymond Jones, vicar general for the archdiocese, asked Father McGrath to take on the responsibility for the Mass. The young priest readily agreed, and, according to Keller, "it's been a perfect fit ever since."

"He was a little nervous at first, talking to a camera as opposed to the congregation," recalls Keller. "But now he knows who his congregation is — his television audience. He really relates to them, relating their letters and bringing them up in his homilies."

Melissa Pierson, producer of the "Mass for Shut-Ins," said the Holy Spirit came up with the perfect priest in Father McGrath.

"Father Sean is a delight and his spirit is contagious," says Pierson.

Celebrating the "Mass for Shut-Ins" requires a great deal of commitment for the busy priest, but Father McGrath would not have it any other way.

"It has been a great rewarding experience for me, personally and spiritually," said Father McGrath. "After 100 masses, it's still ever so exciting to go down there and tape the show."

"I've been blessed working with a great group of people," he continued. "Melissa, Dave [Pierson] and Mike are just so wonderful and they're so dedicated to this ministry," he added.

Father McGrath receives many letters from those who watch the Mass. He related a typical letter that he received from a woman who began by describing her illnesses, which included cancer.

"She wrote how much she missed going to Mass, especially daily Mass at her church," he said.

Her medication and treatment leaves her weak, and at times she lacks the energy to even watch the "Mass for Shut-Ins" in one sitting, said the priest.

"She tapes the Mass, and when she feels herself falling asleep, she turns the tape off and picks up again when she is awake," he said. "Her devotion to her prayer life, her devotion to the saints, the devotion to the Church, are incredible," he added.

"I hear stories like that and know that there really are Catholics out there who depend on the [Mass for Shut-Ins] for their prayer life and their spirituality," he added.

Father McGrath said he has heard of Eucharistic ministers who record the program, then play it in nursing homes where no priest is available for Sunday Mass. The Eucharistic minister then joins with the faithful in prayer and offers them Communion.

"This allows the faithful to hear the Word of God, to hear a homily and to participate in the Eucharist as best they can," says the priest. "Ideally, they would attend Mass at their local parish, but this is not always possible," he added.

According to Keller, the viewing audience is developing a relationship with Father McGrath, who receives a stack of mail each week.

Pierson added that Father McGrath is often approached in unlikely situations by people who say, "Aren't you that priest...?"

Audience estimates done in February of 1999 listed the "Mass For Shut-Ins," as having a Nielson Overnight Ratings of 29,000 weekly viewers, while "The Catholic Hour" had a weekly audience of 50,600. Keller said he believes these estimates are low as they did not include retirement communities, group living, nursing homes and hospitals, where many gather to watch the Mass.

Father McGrath hopes the ministry will encourage people to reach out to shut-ins.

"Maybe someone knows a shut-in who doesn't have transportation to a parish," he says. "Maybe they could contact their local parishes and say, `do you know anyone who needs a ride so they can come to Mass?'"

He also encourages people to volunteer as Eucharistic ministers to bring Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament to shut-ins.

He said he hopes this invites people to get "more active in their faith, their faith journey — but also the ministry of the Church."

 


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