Reality check: A beloved parish priest tests positive

Georgia’s largest public universities have proposed layoffs, not filling many positions and cutting back some programs to meet budget cuts ordered by state leaders to fill a revenue decline created by the coronavirus pandemic.

My younger daughter and I were talking over the weekend. “I don’t know anyone who has tested positive,” she said.

My response: “I don’t, either.”

(Now, do I know who Jackson Browne is? Yes. I had all his records. I saw him five times at five different venues. But do I KNOW him? No.)

That was Saturday. At 3 p.m. Tuesday, I returned from a semi-successful run to Publix. (We’re having trouble finding Spanish rice.) My wife greeted me by saying, “We now know someone who has tested positive.”

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I froze. “Father Brian,” she said.

Father Brian Sheridan is our pastor. He presided at my older daughter's wedding. He's my wife's boss. She works in the religious ed department at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Smyrna. She has been laboring from home for two months, but she makes periodic visits to the office — sometimes as a lector at the live-streamed daily Mass, sometimes to pick up more work.

Father Brian Sheridan of St. Thomas the Apostle in Smyrna, shown offering drive-by blessings in April.

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I started doing the math. “You went in last week — on Tuesday, right? Did you see Father Brian?” Answer: no. I know it sounds callous, but I guess that’s the response — I say “I guess” because this was new to me, and us — when someone you know tests positive. You run the numbers.

“Sue (Senecal, director of religious ed) thinks we should all get tested,” my wife said. Already she was busy on her cellphone, registering for the drive-through site on Austell Road.

I called Chris Vivlamore, our sports editor, to apprise him of developments. He said, “Shouldn’t you get tested, too?” And dumb ol’ me said: “I dunno — maybe?”

By 4:30, the Bradleys were headed out. We arrived shortly before 5. We were the third-from-last car allowed onto the lot. The site closes at 7. It took us that long to make our way to the test tent.

We had much time to talk. “Do you think you have it?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Do you?”

I said no. I check my temperature daily. I haven’t coughed in weeks, if you don’t count me nearly choking on a piece of hamburger at our Memorial Day grill-out. We both qualified as asymptomatic. So, we’d learned, had Father Brian.

We got tested — one swipe in each nostril, not fun but not awful. We pulled ahead to wait for results. I went through scenarios. The best: two negatives. The worst: her testing positive. (Why not me? Because I meet no definition of indispensable.)

The results: two negatives.

We called the daughters to let them know. We got takeout from Chick-fil-A. We were relieved, duh, but I can’t say we were giddy. By the time I went to bed Tuesday, I’d started to get scared in a way I hadn’t over those 2 ½ hours in the car. What if we HAD tested positive? And what of Father Brian and our church?

By nightfall, St. Thomas had posted news of Father Brian on Facebook. Almost everything at the church would shut down. This came just as daily Masses had re-opened to the public. (Weekend Masses were still in the planning stages. More about this in a bit.) From the Facebook bulletin: "Until further notice, we have to cease daily broadcasts of the Mass in English and Spanish, allowing time for staff to be tested and for even more thorough cleaning of church facilities."

About Father Brian. There’s not much on which the strong-willed Bradleys agree, except this: We love the man. He’s smart and funny, compassionate and invariably upbeat. He gets teased for saying, “Alleluia!” so often. (It’s his favorite word.) When he’d tell us during every live-streaming, “I miss you,” the “you” was meant as a string of singulars, not a plural. He loves people. To preach into an iPhone was surely anathema to him, but he did it with his usual brio. For entertainment purposes, he added Life Teen hand motions on the closing hymns.

But now: Father Brian is in quarantine, and St. Thomas, in the process of reopening, has re-closed. Readers of this space will note that I’ve wondered what a positive test might do to our sports if/when they get going, but I don’t feel like doing the sports thing today. Real life has interceded.

Ours is a huge parish. We have nearly 6,000 families. In normal times, we hold nine weekend Masses — five in English, four in Spanish. When I attend Mass on the road, I smile when I hear a priest announce, “We were delighted to have 15 parishioners receive first Communion this week.” Our number approaches 400.

So many people belong to St. Thomas that it’s hard to imagine a socially distanced weekend Mass. As we know, church services can act as super-spreaders: You’re in a confined space for an extended period, and you’re singing, which means you’re opening your mouth, which is how the virus travels. In a video released early Tuesday, Father Brian conceded he was still working on a plan for weekend Masses. Those plans are again on hold.

We just had a holiday weekend. People — some people, anyway — congregated at beaches and pools. It will be instructive to see what happens, medically speaking, over the next weeks.

There’d been moments when I’d think/hope the worst is behind us, but that was before I knew someone who tested positive. Prayers for Father Brian. Prayers for our parish, our nation, our world. Hail Mary, full of grace.