The Virtual Parish

April 15, 2020

As churches began to close in the Diocese of El Paso to contain the spread of COVID-19, pastors launched virtual liturgies and online giving, discovering new ways of reaching their parishioners. Many were thrust into this new role, some have associates to help, some are going it alone, and others have the assistance of parishioners who have experience with video and social media. As restrictions continue, so will the need for the virtual parish. And, perhaps, the Technology Ministry.

In mid-March, Bishop Mark Seitz gathered the Presbyteral Council to discuss the difficult but necessary decision to suspend all celebrations of Mass, effectively pausing weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmations indefinitely. Mayor Dee Margo implemented an executive "Stay Home, Work Safe" order for the City of El Paso on March 25. In West Texas, Shelter-in-Place orders were issued just days later. At that point, pastors immediately began working on innovative and new ways to reach their flock for the next month, perhaps longer.

Pastors had to open their parishes virtually and provide liturgies using digital platforms. Some began to livestream Sunday Masses, others included daily Mass. There were those who set up a smartphone and others a camera on a tripod and graphics on the screen to help the public follow along. We even saw one taking to the streets in a pick-up truck. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach, what we're seeing is pastors putting themselves out there and doing courageous things to continue to accompany the faithful. Clergy seem to be getting the hang of this and are offering much more than perhaps thought possible. It's not the same as the communal rituals we're accustomed to, but it is something and it's opening our hearts and minds to a future of utilizing the digital and relishing the face to face.

As time goes on, pastors realize they aren't just reaching their own community but people from across the country who have either "come back" to their home parish or just like what they see. In the case of Fr. Fabian Marquez, Pastor of El Buen Pastor Mission in Sparks, viewers are coming from as far away as San Antonio, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Fr. Fabian, who uses WhatsApp most often to communicate with his parishioners says, "We’re going back to a better normal. We can’t be the same people that entered into this very difficult situation."

Fr. Mariano H. López, Pastor of San Antonio de Padua in the Lower Valley, says what has been the hardest for him is the empty church. He created a parish Facebook page two weeks before the closure, offers daily reflections, inspirational messages, and put together a guide for attending Mass virtually in both English and Spanish that has been shared by many. He's added a reflection time to the Mass to provide guided moments of silence.  "We have opportunities for prayer and meditation and need to be intentional about making time for that. In the church we try to fill the spaces, we have to be doing something all the time. Sometimes it’s important to let everything sink in; as ministers we need to model that."

César García, a 2nd year Theology student at Assumption Seminary and on a pastoral year at St. Paul the Apostle, volunteers as a chaplain at the University Medical Center whenever he is called. He says he thinks of Jesus with the lepers. "Jesus was always with the sick. The sick need prayer more than ever." César helps many of the elderly parishioners with step by step instructions on how to attend virtual Mass, how to give, connect to their Smart TV, Facebook and YouTube, and picks up collection envelopes from a safe distance. 

Decrees about what can and cannot be done have come from Rome, including the special celebration of liturgies during Holy Week and special indulgences to people afflicted with COVID-19, to those in quarantine, to medical personnel caring for coronavirus patients and to all those who are praying for them. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) provides general guidelines for the country's dioceses but acknowledges that no two dioceses are alike and counts on the wisdom of their leaders to make the right decisions for their areas. Fr. Marcus McFadin, D.Min., Pastor of St. Luke Parish on the west side, has offered guidance to the Bishop and his brother priests during this challenging time as the Director of the Office of Worship and a member of a national liturgists chat group. He collects information and advises. For example, the Easter Vigil omitted the sprinkling of water because holy water has been taken out of churches as a precaution and communion is allowed with the few that gather to celebrate. He said, "The Chrism Mass has been delayed and may happen in late Summer. Some dioceses have postponed until the Fall."

There is an incredible amount of gratitude and connection and what we miss most are not the material things but rather a good conversation, getting together with friends and family, a hug, attending Mass in person and receiving the sacraments. Life has been simplified. At the same time, the matter of money does exist. For the parishes and particularly for the pastors, this is top of mind because without the people in the pews, without the collections, the parish simply can't survive. Fr. Tony Celino, JCL, Pastor of St. Raphael Parish in the Eastwood High School area, has a team of creative people working remotely to provide the parish and school community with Mass, talks each week during their "Happy Meetings", religious formation, youth videos, community Stations of the Cross, and this week will initiate a clergy phone bank to call elderly parishioners and see how they're doing. But even a big parish like St. Raphael with a strong base and online giving in place worries about how they will continue paying the bills should this continue much longer. Fr. Tony said that collections go up each week and he is very hopeful that his parishioners will get used to online giving.

The Catholic Foundation set up online giving for parish Sunday collections called My Sunday Parish Offertory beginning on March 19, 2020 to provide support to churches in the Diocese of El Paso. Parishioners make their donation online and the full amount of the gift goes to the parish. Every week, the amount received for parish collections has gone up. If you're able to give during this difficult time, find out what your local parish has set up for online giving. Envelopes can still be mailed or dropped off at the parish office. Your unwavering generosity, especially during this difficult time, is an inspiration. Thank you for your continued support.

Photo Credit: San Antonio de Padua Parish; El Paso Times, St Luke Parish

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