Whether they’re ministering in Seattle or Atlanta, pastoring flocks in suburban Anaheim or rural Vermont, Catholic priests in the United States are all trying to figure out these days how to extend the Church’s presence to their parishioners who have been cut off from normal parish life.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended Catholic life everywhere, prompting bishops from coast to coast to suspend public Masses, forcing the faithful to go potentially weeks or months without the Eucharist. Wedding plans have been ruined and funeral Masses restricted while some Catholics have died alone without receiving the anointing of the sick and extreme unction.
That sad reality has not been lost on local pastors who are doing what they can to connect with the faithful, whether that’s through livestreaming Masses, opening their churches for private prayer where possible, hearing parking-lot confessions and even driving around — or flying over — their cities with the Blessed Sacrament.
Our Sunday Visitor spoke with parish priests in four “hot spots” — one from each region of the United States — where coronavirus infections and deaths from COVID-19 have been rising for weeks. The priests talked about their pastoral strategies and initiatives even as the demands of social distancing and isolation have taken tolls on their own overall health and well-being.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.
FATHER JONATHAN P. HEMELT | ARCHDIOCESE OF NEW ORLEANS
At first, celebrating a daily 9 a.m. Mass in an empty church was surreal for Father Jonathan P. Hemelt, the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood.
“Unfortunately it’s starting to be normal,” Father Hemelt, 38, told Our Sunday Visitor. “In a way, that’s even more painful.”
With “everything up in the air” and nobody knowing for sure how long Louisiana’s stay-at-home order will be in effect or when churches can start offering public Masses again, Father Hemelt is doing what he can to provide a pastoral presence for his congregation.
“Knowing that the vast majority of parishioners have not been able to receive the Eucharist regularly and be present at the Holy Sacrifice [of] the Mass, that they’re having to do all that from a distance … personally, that’s been the hardest thing for me,” Father Hemelt said.
On April 14, Louisiana — one of the country’s early hot spots for the coronavirus — became the fourth state to reach over 1,000 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19.
“I hope the gravity of this resonates with everyone out there,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in one of his daily press conferences. “Every one of these numbers is a person. It’s one of our neighbors; it’s one of our friends; it’s somebody’s parent, somebody’s child … so I don’t want that to be lost on anyone.”
Among the dead was the 100-year-old father-in-law of a parish employee whom Father Hemelt buried in mid-April. The Archdiocese of New Orleans was allowing pastors to celebrate funeral Masses in churches, but with no more than 10 people in attendance.
“We’ve also had a few parishioners who have tested positive for the virus. None of them, that I know of, have passed away from it, and I think they’ve all been recovering,” said Father Hemelt, who described the pandemic as having had a “magnification” of Lent’s penitential spirit.
“But there were benefits to it, too,” he said. “There’s been greater time for prayer in having regular Eucharistic adoration in the church and being able to spend more time with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”
“People really appreciated just knowing that the parish is there for them, in whatever need they have.”
— Father Jonathan P. Hemelt
He can’t celebrate a public Mass, but the Archdiocese of New Orleans permits Father Hemelt and other pastors to open their churches for private prayer. Our Lady of the Rosary Church is open every day for the faithful from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., during which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration. At least two parishioners volunteer each hour to be present with the Eucharistic Lord.
“I’ve gotten a great and generous response from the parishioners on that,” Father Hemelt said.
From Tuesday to Saturday, for half an hour each evening, Father Hemelt hears confessions in the parking lot. In the lockdown’s early weeks, he offered confessions in the church during the day but found that most people were not approaching the confessional.
“Even then when they came, I would feel uncomfortable,” he said. “Even behind the screen, it’s not germ-proof, and it’s in close-quarters.”
Able to practice social distancing outside has drawn more people to confession. Father Hemelt said he was also planning a drive-thru blessing in the parish parking lot where he will stand by an altar with the Blessed Sacrament and bless people in their cars as they drive past him.
“It’s just another way of outreach and keeping people close to the parish and close to the Lord in the sacraments as best we can,” Father Hemelt said.
Whenever he celebrates his daily Mass, which is livestreamed, Father Hemelt has a printed list of parishioners’ prayer intentions on the altar. He recruited a team of 20 volunteers to call each parishioner to ask them about their physical and spiritual needs.
“People really appreciated just knowing that the parish is there for them, in whatever need they have,” Father Hemelt said.
Though they can’t attend the liturgy in person or receive the Eucharist, the livestreamed Masses have at least been a lifeline for the parishioners who watch from their tablets, smartphones and desktop computers. Father Hemelt said he often receives positive comments and thank you notes for streaming the Mass, especially during Holy Week. Still, he empathizes with the people in RCIA who were not able to be received into the Church at the Easter Vigil.
“Once this is lifted and people are able to come back to public Mass, we’ll do a really big high Mass to give the sacraments to the people who were supposed to have received them already,” Father Hemelt said.
Weekly collections are down by almost 50%, but Father Hemelt said the parish is still in solid financial shape, for now. The parish recently obtained a loan through a new federal coronavirus relief program that will help the church meet payroll and avoid any layoffs or furloughs.
“As for myself, I’m doing pretty well,” Father Hemelt said. “It’s just about adjusting to the new normal for now, which is hopefully not for too long.”
FATHER BRAD HAGELIN | ARCHDIOCESE OF SEATTLE
The first couple of weeks of Lent this year were exhausting for Father Brad Hagelin and the staff at St. Luke Church in Shoreline, Washington.
“The first time you do anything, it requires a lot of mental energy, and we had to do a lot of firsts in a really short period of time,” Father Hagelin, 36, told Our Sunday Visitor of the adjustments he and the parish staff had to make on the fly in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.
When Archbishop Paul D. Etienne of Seattle suspended all public Masses on March 11, the same day that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed an order to prohibit gatherings of 250 or more people, the staff at St. Luke’s immediately began transferring virtually every facet of parish life to the internet.
“We were all scrambling to get everything online,” said Father Hagelin, who added that the principal of his parish school did such “an awesome job” in transitioning the school to online learning that the students did not lose a single day of instruction.
The first weekend after the shutdown order, Father Hagelin was already celebrating a livestreamed Mass. The production quality has improved in the weeks since as he and parishioners have become more sophisticated with the audio and video equipment.
The parish also early on began using Zoom for online staff meetings, Bible studies and faith formation programs. Father Hagelin uses Flocknote, an app that sends emails and text messages, to update more than 800 parishioners of various things going on around the parish.
“But we have to be mindful of the older folks and those who are less connected online to the parish to let them know that we love them and care about them,” said Father Hagelin, who last month asked the parish prayer ministry team to take turns on a rotating schedule to receive telephone calls from parishioners who are feeling isolated and lonely and need someone to pray with them.
“It was all about creating resources for people to get in touch with us,” said Father Hagelin, who also led a “fireside chat” on Facebook where he spoke about and answered questions about angels. He did not speak on the coronavirus since that is already a frequent topic in his Sunday homilies.
“I’ve been addressing things like what Jesus is inviting us to do in this time of life interrupted,” said Father Hagelin, who explained that he has urged his flock to use this time to reexamine their priorities, reconnect with their loved ones at home and to develop prayer disciplines that they would normally say they were too busy to do.
“That’s not a great excuse to begin with, since the Lord has to come first, but it’s a reality,” Father Hagelin said. “So with all (the distractions) gone, are we going to take the time to dig deeper into prayer?”
“With all (the distractions) gone, are we going to take the time to dig deeper into prayer?”
— Father Brad Hagelin
Father Hagelin has been praying an extra hour a day in addition to a daily Holy Hour, and said his “heart and spirit are actually really good,” though he added that he has experienced some grief in not being able to connect with more people on a one-to-one basis.
“I’m still hearing confessions at a six-foot distance in a (well-ventilated) place, and I’m still meeting with people one-on-one for pastoral reasons if need be, again being six feet apart,” Father Hagelin said. “If the weather is nice enough, we meet outside to really minimize the risk.”
Washington State was the country’s first coronavirus hot spot, with the first confirmed case reported in late January and the first death a month later.
Father Hagelin said a couple of his parishioners have tested positive for the virus; at least one has died. Several others have had symptoms, but without enough tests in the state, they were told by their doctors to just assume they had the virus and stay home until they felt better.
Public Masses may be suspended, but the archdiocese allows pastors to keep their churches open for private prayer and devotions. Father Hagelin has done that, keeping St. Luke’s open for a couple of hours a day where people can come and pray before the Blessed Sacrament. The parish custodian uses a camera to chart where people sit and disinfects the pews when they leave.
“We’re making sure that we’re really protecting people,” said Father Hagelin, who frequently consults the archdiocesan vicar for clergy if he has questions about safety protocols.
“I don’t want to do something that models badly what’s safe,” he said. “It’s not worth putting people’s lives at risk.”
The livestreamed Masses help, but Father Hagelin said he knows his parishioners miss being able to receive holy Communion. He encourages them to pray before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration while the parish is open during the day. He has also introduced to many the practice of making a spiritual communion.
Said Father Hagelin, “An act of fervent spiritual communion will get you more grace than a casual sacramental communion.”
FATHER STEPHEN FICHTER | ARCHDIOCESE OF NEWARK, N.J.
The scariest moment in Father Stephen Fichter’s more than 20 years as a priest may have been the day he recently had to put on a mask, gloves, a protective gown and headpiece to enter a nursing home and give the anointing of the sick to an elderly person dying of COVID-19.
“As a priest, I felt I needed to be there for that dying person, but at the same time, on a very human level, it was scary,” said Father Fichter, 52, the pastor of St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey.
Father Fichter told Our Sunday Visitor that he did not want to get sick himself, but he was more concerned about infecting the elderly nursing home residents who are especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
“It was one of those moments where you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope things don’t go really awry with this,'” said Father Fichter, whose parish is in Bergen County, one of the harder-hit areas of New Jersey.
As of mid-April, New Jersey was the second hardest-hit state in the country after New York. On March 12, Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Newark not only ordered that public Masses be suspended, but he later mandated that all churches and adoration chapels be closed and that private prayer in churches be discontinued until further notice.
“Like the experience of so many people, it’s just strange. This is a period of life that none of us have ever gone through, so it’s kind of unchartered territory for all of us,” said Father Fichter, who leads a large parish that has a school and 3,400 registered households that total about 11,000 parishioners.
As “strange and disconcerting” as the present time has been, Father Fichter said he has also seen “a positive experience of community” as his parish has pulled together to stay united. The parish staff has called every single registered household to check in on them.
“It’s just saying, ‘Hey, this is so and so from the parish. I’m calling for Father Stephen, checking on you if you’re OK. Do you need anything?'” said Father Fichter, adding that those phone calls sometimes end up being 45-minute conversations with people quarantined in their homes.
“For every one parishioner that we discovered was in need of something, we had 10 others who said they would volunteer to help and do whatever was needed to be done,” said Father Fichter, noting that those volunteers have done grocery shopping for the elderly shut-ins.
“It’s been really beautiful to see the community come together in that way, and be of service to one another,” Father Fichter said.
One of the most difficult aspects of Father Fichter’s ministry deals with the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead. He recently buried a beloved family matriarch whose life ended in sad circumstances.
“Like the experience of so many people, it’s just strange. This is a period of life that none of us have ever gone through, so it’s kind of unchartered territory for all of us.”
— Father Stephen Fichter
“Basically, she died alone in a nursing home, and no family member was able to be there as she was dying. That was really hard for the family to take,” said Father Fichter, who could only preside over a simple graveside service where just one family member was permitted. That relative livestreamed the service on a smartphone so other family members could follow along in real time. The funeral director recorded the short ceremony so those who couldn’t watch it live could still see it later.
Grieving relatives “want to hug you, and you want to be able to hug them back because you know they’re hurting, and yet you have to stand 6 feet away from each other,” said Father Fichter, who expects “a lot of delayed grieving” when the social-distancing directives are relaxed and churches begin to reopen.
“We’re going to have a lot of memorial Masses that will be filling up the calendar,” he said.
Those challenges notwithstanding, Father Fichter has tried to cultivate a hopeful atmosphere around the parish as it has gone entirely over into the virtual realm. He asked parishioners to send him selfies that he taped to the pews in the church. The parish staff is working on a video featuring two talking cats — Benedicta and Francesca — that will be used to reassure children that “everything’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna get through this.”
That same technology that enables livestreamed staff meetings and daily Mass is also used for daily live broadcasts of the Angelus followed by a short reflection, as well as a Holy Hour and interactive family Rosary in the evenings.
“Times like this require a lot of prayer to the Holy Spirit and a lot of human creativity,” Father Fichter said. “We keep looking for ways that we can connect with our people, to keep them safe and keep them spiritually connected. That’s what we’re all trying to do.”
FATHER ERIC FEDEWA | ARCHDIOCESE OF DETROIT
Pastors in the Archdiocese of Detroit have the option to keep their churches closed or to open the doors for private prayer. Father Eric Fedewa told Our Sunday Visitor that the choice was practically made for him.
“I always felt pretty strongly that I needed to have my church open. For here, at least, I feel that’s what the Lord wants,” said Father Fedewa, 38, the pastor of St. Basil Church in Eastpointe, Michigan, located in the Detroit metro region.
In addition to livestreaming daily Mass, Father Fedewa offers confessions almost everyday in a room that enables him to be 6 feet apart from people. He also leads exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at least twice a week. He frequently updates the parish website and Facebook page himself.
“With people not being able to receive the Eucharist, there’s no way I can do enough,” Father Fedewa said.
On March 13, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit announced that he was immediately suspending public Masses, faith formation courses, communal penance services and all parish events in the archdiocese until April 6, the Monday of Holy Week. But the coronavirus spread rapidly in Michigan, prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 23 to issue a “stay home” executive order that has effectively closed all nonessential businesses and entities until at least the end of April.
The governor subsequently amended her order to exclude houses of worship, but Archbishop Vigneron said Catholics in southeast Michigan would continue to do their part to limit the virus’ spread as he announced that Holy Week celebrations would not be publicly celebrated this year. Public Masses in Detroit remain cancelled until further notice.
“Although we can’t have public masses, Archbishop Vigneron has asked us to celebrate Mass privately every day,” Father Fedewa said. “We still have to fulfill the Mass intentions that were already planned, so that way spiritual benefits of the Mass aren’t lost.”
As of mid-April, more than 27,000 people in Michigan had tested positive for the coronavirus, and at least 1,768 had died. Father Fedewa said he was not aware of anyone in his parish who had contracted the virus, though he added that everyone seems to know someone who has gotten sick or died from COVID-19.
Father Fedewa, who was ordained in 2011, said he cautions parishioners about consuming too much news about the pandemic.
“Sometimes, (the news media) are so quick to want to get a story out that it just ends up causing people to panic unnecessarily,” said Father Fedewa, who added that he advises people to get their news updates directly from the state of Michigan, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
“Thankfully, I have a group of parishioners who pray for me and for the parish regularly.”
— Father Eric Fedewa
As to the crisis’ effect on him, Father Fedewa said it has turned his normal day-to-day routine upside down, making him often feel “jumbled” and distracted in prayer.
“I’ll realize it’s almost noon and that I haven’t yet said morning prayer,” said Father Fedewa, who described having a “disjointed” sense at times, especially with the daily updates to the Facebook page and website, the Zoom staff meetings and parishioners often texting him to schedule their confessions.
“Thankfully, I have a group of parishioners who pray for me and for the parish regularly,” Father Fedewa said, adding that those same volunteers call everyone in the parish every two weeks to ask for their prayer intentions and if they need someone to bring groceries to them. On his days off, Father Fedewa brings groceries to his parents so that they don’t need to go to the market.
Besides livestreaming Masses, Father Fedewa has used that technology for staff meetings and online Bible studies. The livestreaming keeps the parish community in touch with one another, but it’s no substitute for an interpersonal connection.
“It’s not the same, and it can’t be the same,” Father Fedewa said. “Spiritual communion is a powerful thing, but it’s not the same as receiving the Eucharist physically.”
Father Fedewa said he feels particularly bad for his parish’s catechumens who couldn’t be baptized this year at the Easter Vigil, as well as the parishioners who have had weddings postponed or were not able to have a full funeral Mass for their loved ones.
“It’s deeply disappointing for them, though they of course understand,” said Father Fedewa, who has still sought to make the Eucharistic Lord’s presence felt in a tangible manner. On a Friday in early April, he drove around the city limits with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance. He stopped at each of the city’s four corners to bless its inhabitants and to pray for deliverance from sickness and fear.
In mid-April, Father Fedewa was planning with another priest in the archdiocese to take a flight above metro Detroit, where they would bless the city from above with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance.
“The Lord’s been inspiring a lot of things,” Father Fedewa said. “I’m just as busy now, if not more.”