By PJ Williams
After months of what seemed like an unending pandemic, signs of normalcy have started to return to the world. As more people continue to get vaccinated and COVID-19 cases decline, businesses and other gathering places are steadily reopening.
Among them are parishes, which despite everything, have continued to minister to their parishioners, in some ways, even more effectively than before the pandemic. Our Lady of Hope Parish in Portland, Maine, St. Aedan’s in Jersey City, N.J., and St. Thomas More in Decatur, Ga., are just three of our Jesuit parishes that have been able to improve upon how they serve their communities as a result of the pandemic.
One of the primary innovations that parishes in the province have adopted has been the live-streaming of Masses. “When we realized that the pandemic restrictions were going to continue for some time, we saw that it was worth investing in a higher quality video system,” said Fr. Mark Horak, SJ, then pastor of St. Thomas More. They installed an advanced three-camera system early in the summer of 2020 to help quarantined parishioners view the Mass.
St. Aedan’s in Jersey City also needed to install a camera system, but cost was a concern due to the size of the church. Fortunately, they were able to rely on the ingenuity of one of their parishioners. “Dennis offered to figure it out and to donate the equipment that would allow us to livestream from St. Aedan’s,” said Fr. Rocco Danzi, SJ, administrator of St. Aedan’s.
Unlike St. Thomas More and St. Aedan’s, Our Lady of Hope Parish, already had the technology in place to stream Masses. “We upgraded our video system several years ago, before COVID,” said Our Lady of Hope’s Fr. Paul Sullivan, SJ. “We did it mostly because not everyone can get to church even in the best of times. Some people are elderly or shut in or just not able to be here because of bad weather or something.”
But allowing parishioners to view Masses was still not the same as ministering to them. As the world shut down due to the virus, there was a lot to worry about. The three parishes all developed plans of outreach to make sure that parishioners knew their churches were there for them. “We’re not going to see them in Church, we’re not going to see them in the parish office, but how can we stay connected?” said Fr. Danzi who fortunately had a team of parishioners and staff members ready to help. “We did a telephone brigade, we gathered volunteers, especially those fluent in Spanish,” explained Joy Villanueva, the parish secretary. “We tried to help them and let them know that they were not alone.” St. Thomas More and Our Lady of Hope developed similar strategies for outreach.
As restrictions eased back, some parishes found new innovations to bring back a sense of community. St. Thomas More started an outdoor Mass in the parish parking lot for parishioners to gather at a safe distance. “It’s amazing how different that outdoor Mass feels from the indoor Mass—it’s more informal,” explained Fr. Horak. St. Thomas More added the outdoor Mass as a fifth weekend Mass option. The single outdoor Mass now attracts more than 300 people—more than the other four indoor Masses combined. “It’s just a very different, welcoming and even fun atmosphere that people have said they want to continue,” said Fr. Horak. There are plans at St. Thomas More to continue the outdoor Mass even after the COVID restrictions ease.
Another innovation over the past year has been the use of virtual meetings and classes in lieu of in-person events. This has been especially true for baptismal preparation. “Trying to herd young families to come to the church and there’s crying and screaming—everyone is distracted. With Zoom, at least they’re home in their own space,” said Fr. Danzi. Wedding preparations are another area where virtual meetings have been beneficial. Preliminary interviews and paperwork can be conducted via Zoom. “It kinda breaks the ice, and although we can do that in person, Zoom is a friendly platform in my mind. They’re in a space that they’re comfortable in and we gently have this conversation,” continued Fr. Danzi.
Now that parishes have been forced to adopt virtual meeting spaces, there is the question of how or if they will continue to use them. “I would say that livestreaming and hybrid events are here to stay,” said Fr. Sullivan. Our Lady of Hope was part of an ecumenical group that recently completed a cycle of the 19th Annotation Retreat via Zoom. “We’re going to stay virtual because it allowed us to have people from all over the state participate in the retreat which would not have been possible before,” said Fr. Sullivan.
“I think if the pandemic taught me anything, it was not to be afraid of virtual platforms,” said Fr. Danzi, who noticed a trend during marriage preparations. When he asked how couples met, more and more would tell him that they met online. “There is something to these virtual platform. They’re not the ultimate answer, but they lead us to answers and possibilities.”