A series of directives from the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, on the coronavirus pandemic came in rapid succession and changed Theresa Simeo’s parish youth ministry forever: First, they could no longer have large gatherings. Then, they could no longer meet in parish offices.
And then Mass and all activities were canceled at St. Michael’s parish in Wheaton. Across the diocese and the country, pastoral life had drastically changed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But the challenge posed by the shutdown of churches due to COVID-19 has energized Simeo and other leaders of Catholic parishes and apostolates to boldly go proclaim the Gospel in the digital realm and develop new strategies to invite men and women into fellowship with Jesus Christ as his disciples. And the new approaches they are pioneering may forever shape Catholic evangelization and ministry long after the coronavirus.
“It definitely threw me for a loop,” Simeo said, pointing out that youth ministry is “relational.” What was going to happen to the youth in her Sunday large group and Tuesday Bible study if they could not connect for several months?
She had an emergency prayer and brainstorming session with her youth and young adult leaders via Zoom. Now, over the past two weeks, Simeo said, her youth ministry’s reach and connectivity has exploded beyond anything she could have imagined before the coronavirus pandemic struck.
She relaunched her small-group Bible study on Tuesdays knowing it could well crash and burn. She had 20 students join online — roughly the same number that came on the Tuesday in-person Bible study. Fittingly and to everyone’s amusement, the subject of their study was the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of St. John.
“It actually prompted a great discussion about calamity and how God uses it as a way to bring us back to him,” she said. “And, honestly, it was probably an important time to discuss that.”
But Simeo’s ministry has now expanded to an open forum over Zoom every night from 8 to 10pm, called the “Corona Chats,” for youth and young adults to pop in and experience real Christian connection and conversation in a family atmosphere. More youth are now dropping in beyond the people she originally could have reached.
“It provides an important time to discuss many of the most important questions in life,” she said, providing an opportunity to discuss the death of family members, risks to immune-compromised people, the things they gave up like spring break trips, prom, graduation, and wider-ranging questions about the Catholic faith.
Now energized more than ever, Simeo spends the day preparing for the Zoom programming and makes opportunities during the day for small-group discipleship with college students and working with them one-on-one in their journey of following Jesus.
“I think this will revolutionize the way we do ministry from here on out,” she said.
Virtual Parish Unleashes Young Adults
In Vancouver, the shutdown of Catholic life has spurred Father Paul Goo, the vocation director for the Archdiocese of Vancouver, and some Catholic young adults involved with Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO), a ministry to university students in Canada, to brainstorm how to create new opportunities for Catholic prayer, worship and fellowship. They spoke with the Register over Zoom about how they worked together to develop the Vancouver-based “Virtual Parish.”
“We all kind of realized how we took the sacraments for granted. We all miss participating in them, especially the Eucharist,” said Siegfied Yano, one of the members of the group. He said the situation is not ideal: Even praying together over Zoom reminds them how they miss each other’s physical presence and the celebration of the Mass and sacraments. Overall, he explained, “This pandemic has made us realize how crucial it is for us to be one together as the Church.”
A half-dozen of them started praying the Rosary online — first trying out different social-media tools like Google Hangouts and Discord, before finally settling on Zoom as the tool to connect visually. Then it continued to grow in numbers, and the young adults kept asking for more.
“As the group kept growing, we just wanted to do more,” Valeria Nandayapa Barrera, another young-adult Catholic involved in CCO and setting up the Virtual Parish, told the Register. Barrera said the group has helped them all “stay strong” in the Catholic faith amid the isolation.
They added worship nights. They asked to do Eucharistic adoration and Benediction; and then finally Mass over Zoom, where they could join in together with the responses and make a spiritual communion. They’ve added a sung Chaplet of Divine Mercy and movie nights.
“Before coronavirus I got to spend three to four hours with them a month,” Father Goo said about his opportunity to interact and provide pastoral care for Vancouver’s young-adult Catholics. “Now I’m spending two to three hours a day. It’s a real game changer.”
The priest is thinking of having a pancake breakfast for fellowship over Zoom: Everyone can make their own pancakes, and he will put up a Knights of Columbus banner in the background.
And this “virtual parish” has since attained an international flavor. They have an April 1 night of adoration, Benediction and Rosary from 6-8pm Pacific time that now includes students in Florida, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and in Honduras. Barrera said CCO had a connection to students in Honduras, and she invited them to join their adoration and Rosary night so they could feel solidarity as one Catholic community facing the pandemic.
They’ve also developed how to do small-group discussions following Mass or Rosary by using Zoom’s breakout rooms.
Yano said the whole experience is helping them become more accountable to each other in their walk with Jesus Christ and drawing them closer to God.
“It’s definitely been an integral part of people’s spiritual development at this time,” he said.
And they are asking the Holy Spirit to help them be even more mission-oriented in their attitudes and facilitate more small-group discipleship during the pandemic.
“This whole experience exploded out of nowhere,” Ralph Aguila, another member of the group, told the Register. “And I think that’s such a testament to how powerfully the Spirit moves and how unexpectedly the Spirit moves. Because I don’t think anybody could have predicted this would come out of six people praying the Rosary.”
Communication Is Key
The key for dioceses, parishes, schools and ministries is to have clear lines of communication and collaboration in pastoral ministry and Christian discipleship during the pandemic.
Father Ian Van Heusen, a campus minister at East Carolina University’s Newman Center and parochial vicar at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Greenville, North Carolina, said pastors, particularly the bishops, have to “lead from the front.”
“The biggest challenge for any leader is communication, and people need to know ‘I’m here for you 24/7,’” he said.
The priest said he has a daily Mass livestream and teaches Catholic study groups online now. But Father Van Heusen also sees the importance of more direct personal communication between serving a rural parish and university students. He is hustling to stay connected with his flock and check in with phone calls, Twitter, Facebook messenger and even Tik Tok, where the conversation can be back and forth.
And in coordination with local authorities and their determination of the public-health situation, Father Van Heusen is trying to offer the sacraments in ways that are possible.
“We’re making an appointment one at a time and meeting people where they are at,” he said. The priest is also trying to make a space for people to pray.
While it is challenging, the priest said he wished more bishops would carefully discuss and plan with their priests, and in conjunction with the authorities, how to provide the sacraments during the pandemic in a sanitary and effective manner. He pointed out that if McDonald’s and Starbucks can stay open as a drive-thru service, certainly the Church could think of ways to do something similar with its sacraments.
“We’ve got to become comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he said. “You’ve got to operate now within the unknown.”
The shutdown of Catholic life is forcing some dioceses to fully reevaluate what they are doing in terms of evangelization and discipleship.
“It is making us reevaluate what we’ve already been doing,” Sam Wright, director of missionary discipleship at the Diocese of Pueblo, Colorado, told the Register. The crisis is throwing into profound relief that evangelization, which must be relationship-based, “can’t be done wholesale.”
Before the coronavirus struck, Wright was normally on the road visiting each of the parishes in his diocese. But the shutdown has created new opportunities for the diocese’s pastoral center staff to meet more regularly, discuss new strengths and focus on how they can give parishes the support they need to reach out to their people.
For Wright, the road trips are now replaced by video conferences with the parish leaders of each deanery. The diocese is providing support with three-minute videos and bite-size ideas on how to do evangelization for parish communications. They are getting together a virtual parish mission for the whole diocese that they plan to livestream in English and Spanish.
“I’ve been trying to get people to focus on personal outreach,” he said. With the Gospel, he explained, Jesus calls to each man and woman individually to follow him, and there is an opportunity now in this postmodern world for the parishes “to speak to folks in a way they understand.”
Wright hopes there is no going back to the old habits and that, in all the parishes, they will become “better disciples” focused on sharing the kerygma, the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Good News to the world.
Flipping on the Switch
Despite the sudden shock to Catholic parishes, good news can be seen in the life of Catholic churches that made digital engagement part of its culture years ago. These parishes are seeing a much smoother transition from public Mass, school classes and in-person gatherings because they integrated digital tools that have kept them closely connected as a flock.
Even with the loss of public Mass, April Garcez, a parishioner at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, California, told the Register she feels part of the “the best parish in Southern California.” While the loss of physically attending Mass is far from ideal, the transition to virtual parish life has been akin to flipping a backup switch for emergency power: She stays connected to the Mass via livestream, and her daughter’s school has just moved from the classroom to Zoom. The parish ministries, social outreaches, religious education and adult discussion groups have just switched online.
“It really keeps everyone in the community together,” she said. And through the parish email, she gets daily spiritual reflections, the Sunday bulletin and parish updates.
“I feel like they’ve been in constant communication with us, in terms of what we’re going to do,” she said.
The parish’s financial lifelines were also prepared for the shutdown of a physical Sunday offertory. Garcez said the parish also generated a strong culture of online giving, which makes people be intentional about sacrificial giving in the family budget and allows the church to accurately project what it can budget its operations on.
And in the midst of the storm, Garcez said the flock feels strong.
“It’s a beautiful community with the motivation to stay together.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.