PORTLAND---On Sunday afternoon, seven members of a multi-jurisdictional honor guard marched to the front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, carefully posting the American and State of Maine flags in their positions before solemnly standing with their backs to the sanctuary.
Facing them were mostly empty pews, a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic and another reminder of how different our annual traditions are in 2020.
“This Blue Mass (additional pictures below) was established in the beginning to honor those first responders who died on September 11,” said Bishop Robert Deeley, who celebrated the Mass on Sunday, during his homily. “We remember them in this Mass and entrust them to God in our prayer. But, as we think of their sacrifice, we also realize that we are served well by many kinds of first responders, many of whom wear blue uniforms. They provide heroic service to us day in and day out. We need to pause to give all our first responders our thanks.”
Ordinarily, the Blue Mass draws over 1,000 first responders and community members, both inside and outside the church, including recent years at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the Basilica of Saints Peter & Paul in Lewiston, and St. John Church in Bangor.
This year, of course, was different, with only 50 participants allowed inside for the Mass due to crowd restriction regulations. Among those gathered were law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and elected officials like Senator Susan Collins. The Mass was live-streamed to a large audience online and on social media.
“In the midst of the pandemic caused by COVID-19 our gatherings have to be smaller, our distances from each other must be greater, our safety precautions must be vigilant,” said the bishop. “And yet, it is still important to mark that day and remember those lives lost. And that is what we do this afternoon, with a small group here in the cathedral and many others joining us online.”
Portland Police Chief Frank Clark and Portland Fire Chief Keith Gautreau served as readers at the Mass, and the deacons for the Mass were Deacon Kevin Jacques, who has served as the chaplain for the Biddeford Fire and Police Departments and the Saco Fire Department, and Deacon Jeffrey Lewis, who has served as the chaplain for the Gardiner Fire Department and was an EMS provider for over 38 years. Deacon Lewis has also served as a firefighter.
“For all whose vocation it is to protect and serve the public, especially all military personnel, firefighters, and law enforcement officers; all immigration, customs, and border patrol officials; and all emergency medical services personnel, may they be strengthened and protected as they continue their humanitarian service within our communities,” said Deacon Lewis during the Universal Prayer.
Bishop Deeley spoke about how first responders can be observed offering help, guidance, and direction, around the clock, a heroic mission that can be forgotten in the aftermath of disaster or in daily life. A calling that has faced serious challenges this year.
“Those challenges have even included violence and attacks on police officers,” Bishop Deeley told the assembly. “All the more does that make a gathering such as this more necessary. It is a reminder of the good that is done by those who help to keep order in our society. Our prayer, then, for the frayed corners of our society must be all the more fervent. We are all called to work to make our society a more just one, one in which all people receive equal treatment. That has to be a concern for all society. So, too, must be our advocacy for the training and health of those who protect us. We should want them to have the best resources possible to help them to carry out their work in a complicated and diverse society. Together, we will work on solutions to our problems which will benefit all of us.”
Service is at the heart of the work first responders do.
When they serve those in need, the bishop told them, they are serving Christ and bringing hope and joy to the world.
“The message of Jesus is one of hope,” said Bishop Deeley. “I encourage you, in your service, to never lose sight of that hope which is grounded in the inalienable dignity of each person. Safeguarding that human dignity with generosity is the way we are called to live our Christian faith and strengthen the common good. May God give us the grace to so live.”
Before the bishop’s final blessing, the multi-jurisdictional honor guard returned to their post in front of the sanctuary to retire the colors.
The Blue Mass in 2020 will be remembered for looking different and virtual, but the respect, gratitude, and blessings bestowed were, as always, real.
“Pour out your abundant blessings upon these women and men, your servants, who generously devote themselves to helping others. Grant them courage when they are exposed to danger, wisdom in making critical decisions, strength when they are weary, and compassion in all their work,” said Bishop Deeley. “In every emergency, when they are called to aid both friend and stranger, help them to see You in the face of all those in need.”