Psalm 23

At St. Jude, Christiansburg, a table outside the sanctuary provides hand sanitizer for those who come to pray and numbered cards to keep occupancy at 10 or fewer. (Photo/Lauren Coulter)

How parishes serve during COVID-19


The Psalmist assures the faithful that in the valley of the shadow of death the Lord is with them. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, pastors throughout the Diocese of Richmond are offering that reassurance as they try to meet the spiritual needs of their faith communities in ways that, until a few weeks ago, were untried in the Church, but which have become commonplace.   

At Sacred Heart, Danville, Father Jon Goetz has been reading and sharing Psalm 23 often these days.

“I take a lot of comfort from it,” he said. “Maybe we’re literally in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and our good shepherd is leading us.”

The sense of grief at not being able to attend Mass in person and receive the Eucharist can bring us into solidarity with the rest of the world, he said. “There are lots of people around the world who don’t have access to the sacraments, and many of the saints didn’t either.”

He’s concerned especially about the isolation of those already isolated.

“Our homebound parishioners are lonely on a good day,” he said, adding that many — such as a heart-attack patient he recently visited in the hospital — are facing hardships unrelated to the virus.

Joy amid disappointments

Despite the challenges and disappointments, e.g., no first Communions at Easter, no graduation ceremony at Sacred Heart School and new work lives for its teachers, he said that parishioners are understanding. They are grateful that parish staff members are reaching out through email, Facebook and phone calls, and for livestreamed Mass and daily messages.

There are moments of joy and even humor in all of this as well. In his daily Facebook message of March 30, Father Goetz talked about how grateful he is for the technology that brings his parish together and the people who make it happen. He demonstrated an animated filter that showed pink butterflies flying around his head, and a cartoon image of his dog, Lexie, speaking in his place.

“We will keep bringing Mass to you, gloriously unfiltered,” he said with a laugh.

Such circumstances can help parishioners grow in their faith, he noted. For example, at Sacred Heart, a largely Hispanic parish, children in catechism classes are now learning mostly at home from their parents, who have been given teaching materials.

“This is a great opportunity,” Father Goetz said. “Many of the Hispanic parents come from a Catholic culture but may have had limited catechesis themselves, so they’re also learning more about what we believe.”

These days can be unsettling for priests as well, he noted.

“There’s a new urgency to my prayers,” Father Goetz said. “But there’s something incarnational about it. Jesus came to earth in a body, and he suffered and cried, too.”

Providing comfort, peace to students

Father David Sharland, chaplain for Virginia Tech’s Catholic Campus Ministry, has also been sharing Psalm 23 with Catholic students in Blacksburg who seek comfort.

“Our Good Shepherd is our consolation,” he said. “And I also remind them of 1 John 1:5: ‘God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.’”

After the popular annual Ring Dance was canceled, campus ministry staff created the “Ring of Protection” Dance on March 28. The dance, designed to bring some joy amid many cancellations, allowed one couple at a time to enter a large white tent, dance — apart — to a few songs of their choice while cheered by friends, and exit the tent, which was cleaned and readied for the next couple.

Grant Bailey, 21, left, and Mary Wright, 20, dance at Virginia Tech’s Catholic Campus Ministry “Ring of Protection” Dance on Saturday, March 28. The dance, organized by the ministry after the campus-wide Ring Dance was canceled, allowed one couple at a time to dance apart in a reception tent.
(Photo/Patti Connors)

And, since the center’s Sunday suppers also were canceled, Father Sharland started “Virtual Sunday Suppers” for students and staff, in town and away, to meet online via Zoom, listen to a speaker, have an online discussion and break to eat the same meal separately, at home.

“Students are hurt; they have this aching desire for the Eucharist,” Father Sharland said. “My greatest joy will be when I can gather again with the congregation here at Virginia Tech and celebrate the Eucharist together.”

‘How do I pray?’

Students watch livestreamed Masses and those who remain in town continue to spend time in adoration — sitting far apart — and come to the sacrament of reconciliation, which Father Sharland offers three days a week. But sometimes they just need to talk.

“They may not be praying well these days, and they feel distant from God,” he said. “This is a very devout community, and they’re asking, ‘How do I pray?’”

He understands their frustration and finds that he too needs to spend more time alone in the chapel in prayer.

“The Lord wants to speak to us, and sometimes he’s calling out to us in a whisper,” he said. “He says, ‘I want to give you consolation and peace.’”

Creative outreach

“We must rely on Christ,” said Father Charles Ssebalamu, pastor of St. Jude, Christiansburg, referring to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:35-39. “‘Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.’ Jesus, the resurrected one, is with us.”

In his homily during online Mass on March 27, he said, “Your life may be the only Gospel that some people will experience. Can people find in your life consolation? Let our lives radiate the beauty of Christian life, of the road less traveled, of following Christ.”

His parish has been wonderful during this remarkable and difficult time, the priest said. While he had never considered celebrating Mass on Facebook or Zoom, he is grateful that these options exist and that his parish has been so receptive.

However, most striking, he said, is celebrating an online Mass and looking out at all the empty pews. “When the church is empty during Mass, it’s an experience I will not forget. In 24 years of being a priest I have never seen that.”

Father Ssebalamu offers confessions by appointment, and the church remains open for private prayer and rosaries, adoration and Stations of the Cross, although only 10 people at a time are allowed into certain areas, they must sit far apart and pews are cleaned afterward.

“We try to take care of them,” he said, adding that daily words of encouragement and updates online are helping to make the parish community stronger. “Tough times force people to think and bring out the best in them, and creativity in finding ways of reaching out to our people is what is helping now at St. Jude.”

Called to ‘come alive again’

Father Chris Hess, pastor of St. Anne, Bristol, takes comfort in Psalm 144: “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war; My safeguard and my fortress, my stronghold, my deliverer.”

Having worked as a firefighter, EMT and paramedic for 17 years before entering the priesthood, he said that emergency training is now serving him during these unprecedented days.

“I’m relying on my past experience to help people through this,” Father Hess explained. “What people most want, in crises and normal times, is presence.”

In addition to livestreaming Masses, he’s started a YouTube channel.

“Whether I’m doing something in person or online on YouTube, it’s a way for me to reach out and stay in contact with people. They can see that the Church is still here,” Father Hess said.

In one video he is seated on his couch with his dog, Skillet, asleep beside him. He opens by playing guitar and singing “Country Roads.”

Then, before singing “Alive Again” by Matt Maher, he speaks about St. Augustine, on whom the song was based.

“Even when he was living in darkness, Christ was still present to him and working in his life,” the priest said. “Finally, he had that encounter and came out of the darkness and came alive again. Because that is what Christ is calling all of us to do: to come alive again.”

‘Something everyone can do’

Besides seeing the empty church, Father Stephen McNally, pastor of Church of the Transfiguration, Fincastle, was struck one day recently by another sight: rows of unlit votive candles.

“Nobody is there, and that sight really made it clear to me,” he said. “We have grown so accustomed to showing up at church and sometimes we take it for granted.”

These are frightening and stressful days, the priest noted, but “this too shall pass.” He tells his parishioners that there is always something everyone can do — even in isolation — and there are always many helpers.

“God does provide, through others,” Father McNally said. “And in times like these we discover how we are very much connected.”

The key, he added, is to not give up and not give in to panic, because if people close the door to God then they may not get the help they need.

“We survived 9/11,” Father McNally said. “It was something horrible, but we got through that.”

People turned to God and their faith to get through those days, he said, and they spoke to other people of faith — sometimes for the first time.

“Not everyone is a person of faith, but everyone needs words that heal and give hope,” Father McNally said. “We are Catholics reaching out to others. We can pray and send good messages for everyone.”

Learning to adapt

In the chapel of Prince of Peace, Chesapeake, two green upholstered chairs face one another, set about 9 feet apart, one on either side of the room.

“The reconciliation room was too small,” Father Romeo Jazmin, pastor at Prince of Peace, explained. “So, we are holding confession in here.”

In order to create the new space for the sacrament of reconciliation, the Blessed Sacrament has been moved into the sanctuary, giving parishioners who want to pray plenty of room to keep their distance — as long as their number is less than 10.

Food pantry volunteers John Williams and Father Alcantara, parochial vicar at Prince of Peace, Chesapeake, load groceries into a client’s trunk. (Photo/Wendy Klesch)

There is only one caveat, Father Jazmin said. Those waiting for reconciliation are asked to wait outside the sanctuary.

“To protect the sanctity of the sacrament. People have to speak a little more loudly, since they are sitting so far away,” he explained with a laugh.

Adjusting to social distancing rules initiated by COVID-19 has been a challenge for Church members.

“It goes against human nature,” Father Jazmin said. “People are social creatures. They like to talk.”

It’s also human nature to adapt, he said, a skill that’s been necessary for parishes across Hampton Roads.

‘It hurts not to be able to do more’

Brenda Orie, the retired director of social ministries at St. Vincent de Paul, Newport News who still comes into the office a few times a week, said that her office was once a bustling center of activity.

Located just inside the door of the large old house on 33rd Street in downtown Newport News — the home of Backdoor Ministry, the parish’s social outreach center — Orie’s office had been a welcoming place where volunteers would pop in with a question and where clients stopped to ask for bus fare or toothpaste or simply to talk.

Now, Orie said, her office has grown far quieter.

“I hate that we can’t do all that we used to do,” she said. “People used to come right on in. When you have worked somewhere for 20 years, you grow close to the people that you work with.”

The gates leading to the ministry’s courtyard, where people once gathered outside the kitchen door waiting for lunch to be served, have been closed, she said, in order to discourage large gatherings. Volunteers now hand bagged lunches over the fence.

Orie pointed out that one difficulty the ministry has faced over the past few weeks is that many of its volunteers are elderly, and some have needed to stop working at the center. Also, with Masses canceled, parishioners who once might have brought donations with them on Sundays are staying home, resulting in fewer donations to the ministry.

“It hurts to not be able to do more,” she said. “Because the need will go on. But for now, we will do all that we can.”

New way of serving 

The food pantry at Prince of Peace, Chesapeake, has faced similar challenges, said pantry coordinator Nick Vacca. Volunteers used to set up tables along a hall in the church and then invited clients to pick up items they needed — a set-up that, under the new guidelines, is no longer possible.

“We wanted to keep the pantry running, so I asked the Lord, ‘OK, you’re the boss, what’s a good way we can do this?’”  Vacca said.

The solution? A drive-up food pantry.

Every Wednesday morning, pantry volunteers and Father Patricio Alcantara, parochial vicar at Prince of Peace, don gloves, pack paper bags full of groceries and bring them into the church’s parking lot.

“Clients come up and pop the trunk, we load the groceries and they are on their way,” he said.

Like Orie, Vacca said donations are down since there are no Masses to which to bring them.

“So, we started a drop-off service as well,” he said. “Monday between 10 and 11 and Wednesday between 10 and 12, people can drive by and donate, without ever leaving their cars.”

Connected by technology

Cindy Nettleton, secretary at Christ the King, Norfolk, said that her parish had turned toward technology to help keep everyone connected.

“We are a small parish, but we are lucky to have some tech-savvy people,” she said.

Father Matthias Lusembo has been livestreaming Sunday Mass on the church’s Facebook page with the help of a parishioner who works in the communications industry, and Deacon Michael Brown has been leading a “virtual Stations of the Cross” on Friday evenings by telephone.

Father Esteban de Leon, pastor at Star of the Sea, Virginia Beach, said he has also turned to technology to bring a bit of the familiar into his parishioners’ disrupted lives. The parish livestreamed Masses on its Facebook page and through its YouTube channel.

“On Tuesdays, I led the students at the school in the Stations of the Cross,” he said. “So, we livestreamed that as well so the children could watch with their parents at home.”

Father de Leon said he also has also delivered a message to the parish via YouTube.

“It’s a little more personal than emails,” he said, although he allowed that speaking alone to a camera does take some getting used to.

“It’s just me in my office,” he said, laughing.

Celebrating differently

The social distancing guidelines have wrought some of their greatest changes to those rites of passage that are central to life. A wedding planned at Star of the Sea in April, Father de Leon said, will be simple.

“There won’t be any music. And with the bride and groom, and then me and the coordinator, there can be only six guests,” he said.

A funeral scheduled at St. Jerome, Newport News, will also be attended by only a small party, said Margaret Curtis, director of religious education at the parish.

“It’s a bit tricky as he comes from a large family,” she said. “Everyone is aware, of course, of what’s happening and is taking it in stride.”

Curtis said that her parish has turned to technology to keep connected, but, like Father Jazmin, she acknowledged that screen time isn’t quite the same as gathering as a community or meeting face-to-face.

“It’s definitely quieter. We’re going through a desert. But then, it is Lent. It’s meant to be a reflective season,” she said. “God is there, through all of this, always.”

Father Alcantara echoed Curtis’ sentiments.

“The Lenten season is all about toning down,” he said. “And that is what we are learning now. How to tone everything down, how to have more time to reflect. This is a time to pray — both because of the situation and because we have more time to commune with God.”

“Prayer, abstinence, alms giving,” Father Alcantara said, “those are the disciplines of Lent. It’s a time to reach out to your neighbors and see if they need help. There is no stopping being a Christian. This is a time to share.”

Deep concerns

The ways in which parishes have utilized social networking for spiritual enrichment, instruction and general communication with their members have added a new dimension to Church life.

“It has been encouraging to see the bishop and parishioners take so quickly to the internet to provide comfort and pray for so many people,” said Msgr. William Carr, pastor of St. Bridget, Richmond.

“Parishioners are afraid of what’s out there,” he continued, “There is the virus itself, but we also worry about food and other kinds of medical care. There is deep concern for older people and there is palpable disappointment about not being able to receive the holy Eucharist.”

Staffs at multiple parishes are reaching out to the elderly, ill and homebound to meet their needs. Parishioners have volunteered to bring meals to those who cannot venture out, drive pregnant women to their doctors’ appointments and deliver groceries to the elderly.

Father Jim Arsenault, pastor of St. Elizabeth, Richmond, noted that his church has established phone trees for their various ministries to keep people up to date. The parish lacks the technological capability to livestream Mass but is posting videos of daily Mass on its Facebook page.

While weddings have been postponed, Father Arsenault has presided over one graveside burial with fewer than 10 attendees, with plans for memorial Masses at a later date.

“It is difficult not to see each other and communicate on the one-on-one basis that only a face-to-face encounter can provide,” he said, but he is comforted by how his parish community has made sure the most vulnerable have not been forgotten.

It has also been difficult for Father Walter Lewis, pastor of St. John Neumann, Powhatan, to be separated from his flock. Though he occasionally daydreamed about what it would feel like to sleep in on a Sunday after four decades of priesthood, the reality proved to be less than ideal.

“I discovered that I wasn’t prepared at all for the sense of loneliness and emptiness that seemed so prevalent,” he said, “It felt very strange not to be with my parishioners last week.”

Many parishioners in this sprawling rural area don’t have internet. The church itself didn’t have a camera to record Mass until the onslaught of coronavirus. Now that they have the proper equipment, they will be livestreaming weekly Masses.

“As a pastor, you love your people, and being with them is vitally important; in fact, it is at the center of ministry,” Father Lewis said, “Not being able to gather, not being able to give Communion, not being able to ‘keep up’ with parishioners is painful.”

“My best friend during the tough weeks so far has been Psalm 23,” Msgr. Carr said. “The Lord is with us in the turmoil and the triumph.”

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