A Time to Gather: The Pastors
On the spiritual front lines of the pandemic, the pastors of the Archdiocese of New York have been working since March 2020 to keep parishioners connected to the faith and the community, first during the weeks-long shutdown of in-person worship and then through the ongoing time of social distancing and other precautions. Eight pastors, from parishes in six different counties, share their reflections below.
Fr. Edward Bader | St. Peter’s, Liberty We learned that the pandemic is real and can bring society to its knees. What surprised me was that, as many people took this seriously, so many didn’t and still call it a hoax.
Fr. Donald C. Baker | St. Monica – St. Elizabeth of Hungary – St. Stephen of Hungary, Manhattan What I learned from Covid-19 is how fragile the bonds of trust are that make living together in the city possible. Almost overnight we went from sitting cheek by jowl in buses and subways to seeing each other as biohazards and threats. … It surprised me how quickly it all came unraveled.
Fr. George Hafemann | St. John, Goshen Ordinarily, in addition to all the sacramental activity in the parish, we have two schools, five nursing facilities and the county jail, so there’s rarely a dull day. It was a pretty jarring experience to go, in the course of two or three days, from having a very full calendar to nothing.
Msgr. Donald Dwyer | Resurrection, Rye A lot of us thought it was going to be over in a few weeks, and it’s been months. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would last this long and be so devastating.
Fr. Baker | Manhattan The sad thing was that, right at the moment people’s fear was deepest, we had to shut our doors, stop celebrating the Eucharist and isolate ourselves. All necessary! But even as government inaction compromised the supply chain when it came to masks and other needed supplies, our “spiritual supply chain” was also deeply compromised.
Fr. Hafemann | Goshen The most profound lesson was that, despite what the prognosticators said, there was – and still is – a very real hunger among the faithful for the Eucharist. … When we reopened, I’ll admit that it was slow going for a few weeks, but then things really started picking up. Even now, I get emails and calls from parishioners who haven’t yet been back, but desperately want to come.
Fr. Vladimir Chripko | St. Paul, Congers It was inspiring how much our parishioners longed for a return to Mass and how many, in the interim, watched our streaming Masses. It is surprising how long this has gone on and how adaptable we have become.
Msgr. Joseph Giandurco | St. Patrick’s, Yorktown Heights I learned how quickly things can change, and that pastors, priests, parishes and the whole Church have to be ready to adapt to new situations. What pleasantly surprised me was how quickly most people got used to the new normal, even if reluctantly.
Fr. Ambiorix Rodriguez | St. Elizabeth, Washington Heights We took action immediately! The same day the Arch announced the cancellation of Masses, we released a video to let the community know about the decision and how to remain in touch online. We began livestreaming the Mass and some short daily reflections and prayer – and we are still offering these today. During the hardest months of the pandemic here in New York, the livestreaming services were – and are still – vital in order to offer support, prayer and connection to the many people suffering, who asked for prayers and reassurance every day.
Fr. Hafemann | Goshen Given the restrictions, we went with the tried-and-true. We kept the church open 12 hours a day for private prayer, and it was most gratifying to see a regular stream of visitors. We set up an expanded schedule of confessions, which until late fall we were doing outdoors. I also took the “mercy mobile” (my car) on the road for curbside confessions. At the high-water mark, we had about 30 parishioners who were Covid-positive – some asymptomatic, others deathly ill – so a lot of time was spent on the phone with them and their families. We also ramped up our use of Facebook and Flocknote.
Fr. Baker | Manhattan My deepest point of pride is our people. Within two days after the lockdown the parish staff met and began plans to put Masses up online. We did not have livestreaming capabilities, so we posted videos of daily and Sunday Masses via YouTube. Our pastoral associates and the director of music worked together for months planning and executing Masses for empty churches so that our parishioners, scattered all over the country, would have some point of contact with their parish and their faith. We still post a Sunday Mass for those who have not returned. After Covid-19, an online presence will be essential. We need to redouble our efforts there.
Msgr. Giandurco | Yorktown Heights Our priests began to livestream Mass on Facebook after a few days. Many people were extremely grateful. We also began to offer outdoor confessions after a week or so. Significantly, we began to expose the Blessed Sacrament from a window in a building facing the parking lot so that people could attend Adoration while staying in their cars. Many parishioners commented that these steps helped the people know that our parish is still here for them. Even after we were able to reopen in June, we have continued these efforts.
Msgr. Dwyer | Rye We took it very seriously from day one. … We purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of hand sanitizer and temperature scanners for school children. We hired extra cleaners to clean the church and clean the school. And we had to allay the fear of a lot of parishioners who were anxious about coming back to church and coming back to school. Mass attendance now is about 40% of normal.
Fr. Bader | Liberty We immediately went to livestreaming Sunday Mass, and right after Easter, we added a livestream of morning prayer and evening prayer Monday through Friday. I know it has been a source of comfort for many in the parish and beyond. In the spring, May through June, Deacon Prendergast livestreamed what we called Campfire Prayers on Wednesday evenings. That became our forum to inform parishioners about the guidelines we were going to put in place to reopen safely. When we did, there were no surprises, no annoyances and, more importantly, people felt safe. We also called on a few people, not in the vulnerable demographic, to staff our food pantry so that we could remain open and continue to serve the hungry in our community.
Fr. Michael McLoughlin | St. Columba, Hopewell Junction When public Mass resumed, we erected a tent over the front entrance of the church and had most Masses outdoors throughout the summer and fall. We reorganized our ushers and greeters to help and they did a fantastic job. We moved Adoration out of the small chapel and had it in the big church for safety. We overhauled our baptism prep, making it all virtual, including videos and Zoom meetings with families.
Fr. Chripko | Congers We take pride in the fact that we all did what we were supposed to do and as a result our staff remains healthy. We have signs in the office and the church reminding everyone to wear a mask and socially distance and use the hand-sanitizing stations, and we test our staff frequently.
Fr. Rodriguez | Washington Heights Because of the closure of businesses and people being out of work, we began to offer prepared hot meals six days a week with the assistance of SOMOS Community Care. Our volunteers distributed meals both at the rectory and through home deliveries for the most vulnerable. Since May, again through the help of SOMOS and in conjunction with the Archdiocese of New York, our school gym became a testing site for Covid-19 and antibodies. We continue to offer this service today. Thanks to Catholic Charities and other resources, we were also able to offer modest financial assistance to a number of families who were financially strained in the early months of the pandemic.
None of this would be possible without the help of the amazing people of our community, most especially our lay volunteers, who have been in the front line of the pandemic offering their time and service. All our priests have been in the front line as well, offering the sacraments and the Mass once the churches were opened.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Msgr. Dwyer | Rye I think we have to have a renewed sense of the importance of spirituality. A lot of people have gotten out of the habit of coming to Sunday Mass. For months, people didn’t have holy Communion, and that was very tough on them. We need to redouble our efforts to provide a beautiful liturgy with a timely homily, inspiring music and a welcoming atmosphere.
One thing I am worried about is kids and young adults and the higher degree of depression that has to be addressed. Every parish has had a number of Covid-related deaths, and sometimes they went without funeral Masses. You couldn’t get together with family and friends and celebrate someone’s life. It made people very uncomfortable.
Fr. Baker | Manhattan The greatest challenge will remain what it always has been: reaching people whose lives are pulled in so many different directions. After the pandemic is over, people will still be working, going to school, caring for their families and themselves. On top of this there will be lingering anxiety about social situations, physical contact and crowds. Since we live for social interactions, physical contact, and would love Masses to be crowded, it will be an uphill battle to win back the confidence of the faithful. Some who have “gotten out of the habit” of public worship may be hard to reach.
Fr. Bader | Liberty A concern during this time is our religious education program. Not having in-person classes has been a challenge. A good number of families have not registered this year as a result. Trying to connect to the students through online instruction has been daunting. Materials are being distributed but we are not sure if they’re being utilized. Reengaging the families for next year will be a priority.
We hope that our connections to our parishioners through livestreamed services will help bring them back when the time comes. Certainly we will do whatever we can to make that happen.
Fr. Hafemann | Goshen The biggest challenge here will continue to be what it was pre-pandemic: convincing people that their need for Christ is real, and that no amount of money, no traveling sports team, no exclusive club membership can satisfy that longing. Our two major focuses since I arrived here have been liturgy and catechesis. We’ve done well with the former, but shifting the catechetical mindset here from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus is a lengthy process. The pandemic has set my plan back by about a year, but – all in God’s time.
Fr. McLoughlin | Hopewell Junction Yes, we will need to reconnect parishioners to Mass as attendance is about one-third of our typical numbers. We will need to address our finances as we are down about $1,000 per week. I do not think that any of this can happen until everyone feels relatively safe.
Fr. Chripko | Congers We are blessed with a very generous and cohesive group of parishioners. Of course there are financial challenges as some of our parishioners have lost jobs and businesses. It has also been very difficult for those parishioners who lost loved ones during the strict lockdown. Since reopening, we have offered memorial Masses for those families and the feedback has been extremely positive.
Of course our main goal is always to have everyone return to Mass. We will also look forward to our ministries meeting again and offering our parish programs in person. We get phone calls weekly in anticipation of our parish family once again being able to worship together in our beautiful new church once this pandemic is over.
Fr. Rodriguez | Washington Heights We want to continue to offer financial and food assistance because many people will remain without jobs and will have financial strains. The fact that our priests and a great number of volunteers have been present throughout the pandemic, serving our community, should make it easier for people to get back to church. At the same time, we know that for some people it will take a long time to feel comfortable enough.
Fr. Bader | Liberty To heal our society’s divisions and address racial injustice, we must start by preaching, reinforcing the gospel and challenging all of us to make the teachings of Christ primary in our way of living – that all may be one.
Msgr. Dwyer | Rye We have to work on being civil, and standing with our neighbors, especially those who are of different political persuasions. In Rye, there are approximately 16,000 people, I would say 50% Republican and 50% Democrat. They are all children of God.
Fr. McLoughlin | Hopewell Junction We must be about building the Kingdom of God, and that is something that can unite all of us. Blessed Father Michael McGivney always stressed fraternity – that we are all connected. Providing many opportunities for parishioners to come together will be especially important.
Fr. Chripko | Congers Our homilies will be geared toward Corinthians 13. It is time to re-create a feeling of brotherhood and compassionate patience. We will resume monthly coffee gatherings after the Wednesday weekday Mass. It has created a wonderful bond among 80 people who attend daily. Parish organizations will be invited to help in this effort to create an environment of respect and compassion.
Fr. Baker | Manhattan In our parish since this past summer we have been having online forums and movie discussions dealing with the themes of racism. We will continue with this in 2021, and our annual book study will also focus on this topic. I have long been of the opinion that the Eucharist, properly celebrated, is the greatest weapon against all forms of division, bigotry and prejudice. So we will redouble our efforts to welcome as many people as possible back to sing, pray and serve.
Fr. Rodriguez | Washington Heights The best thing is to leave politics aside, for in many ways and forms they have contributed in bringing discord, division and anger. Emotions have been very high throughout these long months and we need to tap into what unites us instead of what divides us. We need to focus on healing our communities and our nation, and even our Church.
Msgr. Giandurco | Yorktown Heights We have to preach the Gospel in its fullness to overcome anger, hatred and divisions. So far it has taken 2000 years to get to where we are, and I don’t think things will change all that quickly. Human nature is still in need of God’s grace.
Fr. Hafemann | Goshen If all of us tried to live the gospel as well as we can wherever we are, the world would be an entirely different place. To the degree that a parish encourages the faithful to live the lay apostolate in a clear and unambiguous way, that will do more to transform the culture than anything a president or Congress could ever do.