The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) surveyed U.S. bishops and reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has had major adverse effects on U.S. dioceses. Indeed, most indicated that the celebration of the sacraments was “very affected” and that it had significantly affected the morale of clergy as well as lay church staff.
Steps taken by bishops to meet financial shortfalls due to the elimination of Sunday collections include applying for government aid, encouraging parishioners to donate electronically, ending diocesan programs, and even closing schools and parishes and laying off staff. (Read more about the study here.)
The Register spoke to a few dioceses across the country to see how they are coping with the situation.
The Diocese of Cleveland serves 700,000 Catholics, with more than 400 priests. It has been without a diocesan bishop, as its previous bishop, Nelson Perez, was named the new archbishop of Philadelphia earlier this year; Bishop Edward Malesic of the Diocese of Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, will be installed as Cleveland’s new bishop Sept. 14. Father Daniel Schlegel led a diocesan committee exploring how the pandemic had affected the diocese and ways it should respond.
“The pandemic has been a shock to our people and revealed that the divisiveness you observe in society in general today also can be found in the Church,” said Father Schlegel, vicar for clergy and religious for the Diocese of Cleveland. “We had people arguing about wearing a mask vs. no mask, insisting that they had a right to the sacraments and that it was wrong to end public worship and otherwise having great angst about the decision to temporarily close our churches.”
Although Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine did not order the state’s churches closed, Ohio’s Catholic bishops first dispensed the obligation to attend Mass the weekend of March 14-15 and the following weekend suspended public worship through the end of May. Public Masses have resumed, with churches being allowed to welcome parishioners up to a 50% capacity, although most churches are only seeing about 10% to 30% occupancy presently, the monsignor said.
The Sunday offertory collection took a major hit in late March and April, but once pastors reached out to parishioners to mail in donations or contribute online, contributions have returned to 80% to 90% of pre-pandemic times. Additionally, he said, diocesan leadership has been amazed to see that donations to Catholic Charities this year have actually exceeded those of the previous year.
The diocese’s “rainy day” fund has prevented the furlough of diocesan staff, although the prospect of losing one’s job continues to be a concern among lay staff. The diocese’s 202 chancery office staff have been slowing returning to on-site work and by the end of July should be fully returned.
Parishes have remained financially solvent, he continued, and no schools are threatened with closure. Weddings, funerals, first Communions and confirmations remain “complicated,” he admitted.
He said, “I’ve done two weddings during the pandemic. For one, everyone wore masks, including the bride and the groom (except during vows). For the other one, no one wore masks at all.”
An upcoming wedding, he continued, should see about half of the invited guests come, as the other half will stay home due to concerns of getting sick.
He pointed to parish initiatives to connect and share the Gospel. One parish, for example, sent out parishioners to write Scripture quotes on sidewalks as a simple message of evangelization; another had families connect online weekly for a novena.
The Diocese of Colorado Springs serves 176,000 Catholics with 85 priests. On March 13, Bishop Michael Sheridan, in conjunction with Colorado’s other two diocesan bishops, ordered the discontinuing of public Masses, although confessions (in an open area, such as a parish hall) and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in parish churches was allowed to continued. Masses resumed the weekend of May 16-17. Parishes are allowed to operate at 25% capacity and are often filled or sometimes have to turn away parishioners.
Parishes took a significant financial hit beginning in March, although, like many dioceses, funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program prevented widespread layoffs, said spokeswoman Veronica Ambuul. The few positions that were furloughed, such as youth ministers, were those that would not be able to effectively operate without in-person events. No parish schools closed, and administrators and teachers just received permission to open for in-person instruction in August.
First Communions and confirmations were rescheduled. Due to the broad geographic area of the diocese, Bishop Sheridan has given pastors permission to confirm children on their own. Scheduled weddings were celebrated in small groups, but the scheduling of future weddings has been put on hold. Anointing of the sick was not allowed at some non-Catholic hospitals for a time; the bishop advised the faithful to receive the sacrament before being hospitalized.
The Archdiocese of New Orleans serves 372,000 Catholics in the southeast region of Louisiana. On May 1, Archbishop Gregory Aymond announced that the archdiocese was going into bankruptcy due in large part to the cost of litigation related to clergy sexual-abuse cases, but cited the pandemic as an aggravating factor. He noted, “Additionally, the unforeseen circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have added more financial hardships to an already difficult situation.”
New Orleans was one of the harder-hit cities during the first months of the pandemic, but public Masses were allowed to resume the May 9-10 weekend, said archdiocesan spokeswoman Sarah McDonald, and parishes are currently allowed to operate at 50% capacity (250 maximum per Mass). One school has closed, although not related to the pandemic. First Communion and confirmations were delayed, but the archbishop has held multiple confirmation Masses in recent weeks in an effort to catch up.
The Archdiocese of Denver serves 500,000 Colorado Catholics. Public Masses have resumed, too, and in-person classroom instruction in the archdiocese’s schools will resume Aug. 24. Easter vigil sacraments were delayed until Pentecost Sunday (May 31), and baptisms and marriages were allowed to continue with limited attendance.
Archdiocesan spokesman Mark Haas said, “My sister was married two weeks ago, and only the immediate family was allowed to attend. It was a very different wedding than I had.”
In Cleveland as well as other dioceses, Father Schlegel believes, the great challenge continues to be how parish staff can use technology to stay in touch with parishioners. He said, “Our priests have been pushed beyond their comfort zone in using technology to share the message of the Gospel.”
Online tools will continue to be part of the Church’s evangelization efforts even after the pandemic, he continued, such as the livestreaming of Masses and prayer gatherings. He said, “When it comes to in-person and online events, I think it will not be an either-or, but a both-and. And I think that will be a positive thing for the Church.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.
This story was updated after posting to
correct the title of Father Schlegel;
his diocesan role has also been added.
The Register regrets the error.