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During Hawaii missile alert, Honolulu Catholic bishop led a penance rite

Hawaii residents received emergency alerts warning of a “ballistic missile threat” in the early morning of Jan. 13. It was a false alarm. (Video: Victoria Walker, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)
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On Saturday, as Hawaii residents were jolted by an alert of an incoming ballistic missilea priest was distributing Holy Communion to a group of Catholics celebrating Mass in a chapel owned by the Diocese of Honolulu.

Suddenly, a deacon interrupted him and held up a cellphone showing the incoming missile alert that went out shortly after 8 a.m. It urged people to seek immediate shelter.

In the era of Kim Jong Un, residents of the Aloha State know all too well that it can take less than 30 minutes for an incoming missile to travel from North Korea to Hawaii.

Despite the possibility of impending doom, the Rev. Mark Gantley, who was leading the Mass, didn’t mention the alert to worshipers or stop the service. But he did forgo the closing song.

“The first thought that came to me was that I am going to finish Mass,” he told the Hawaii Catholic Herald, the diocese’s newspaper. “I am not going to interrupt it.”

But worshipers instinctively knew something was wrong, the newspaper’s editor, Patrick Downes, told The Washington Post.

“They were wondering what was so important that you would interrupt a priest” during worship, he said.

Some feared the worst. Perhaps the bishop had died, some thought. But then the bishop walked into the room.

Bishop Larry Silva, who has led the diocese since 2005, was in his nearby residence when the alert went out from the Hawaii Emergency Management Center. He opted to head over to the chapel, where he knew about 45 people were attending a gathering for deacon candidates and their wives.

The bishop, still wearing a T-shirt, waited for the Mass to end and then told the group about the alert. He offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation through general absolution — a penitential rite given to a group of people, Downes said.

It was the first time he had ever led the rite, which the Code of Canon Law says can be used in cases of “grave necessity,” as determined by a “diocesan bishop.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “grave necessity” can occur “when there is imminent danger of death” and not enough time for a priest to hear individual confessions of sins.

“It would be impractical to hear individual confessions with an impending nuclear bomb threat or in cases of soldiers going to battle or an airplane crashing,” Downes explained.

In other words, they examined their consciences and prayed, putting the state of their souls before physical safety.

“I just thought, ‘let’s get this thing done,’ said the bishop, according to the Hawaii Catholic Herald, which reported that he decided to forgo the religious garment and “skip the liturgy that accompanies the rite.”

The newspaper reported that the bishop told the group what he was going to do, then said “the words of absolution” over them.

The priest was quoted as saying some people were “visibly upset” and at least one person cried. A deacon told the newspaper the absolution was “incredibly calming for everyone.”

“In that moment when you really don’t know [if you are going to die], your heart reaches out for that forgiveness,” Eva Andrade told the newspaper. “In that moment everything changed and was made right. You could feel the presence of God in that room.”

Afterward, the bishop ushered them to breakfast. Downes explained that it was the safest building nearby and would provide the best shelter for them because “the walls are like three feet thick.”

“They were faced with the question: what do we do now? Breakfast was already being prepared. It just happened to be the safest building.”

By the time they got there, at least 38 minutes later, the emergency management had sent out an all-clear message.

The initial alert had been a false alarm.

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