Priests adapt, get creative, to stay connected with parishioners

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Father Mark Sappenfield celebrates Mass alone except for an iPad, broadcasting to Facebook in the chapel at St. Matthew Parish in Franklin, on Friday, March 20. Since all public celebrations of the Mass have been suspended in the Diocese of Nashville until April 24 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, priests are staying connected to parishioners through digital technology and offering other resources for parishioners to nourish their faith at home. Photo by Rick Musacchio 

Parish life, like every other aspect of life, has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the public celebration of Masses suspended and gatherings of people for classes, meetings and fellowship cancelled to stem the spread of the coronavirus, parishes and pastors across the Diocese of Nashville have been forced to find other ways to stay connected with their flock and nourish a sense of community in their parishes.

“I think the hardest part is that our role as a priest is very connected with direct relationships with parishioners,” said Father Mark Beckman, pastor of St. Henry Church in Nashville, one of the largest parishes in the diocese. “And not having that physical presence is very challenging.

“The second thing is that the very nature of the Church is to be gathered as a community in the Eucharist, and to not be able to do that is very challenging as well,” he added.

In the absence of face to face meetings and gatherings of parishioners, particularly for Mass, pastors are relying on digital connections.

“For us at St. Henry, the greatest gift is the ability to stay connected to parishioners online,” Father Beckman said. “Principally, the livestreaming of our masses has been incredibly important to people. We’ve received an incredible amount of gratitude from people that we’re staying connected that way.”

A parishioner who is a professional videographer, Mike Figlio, records the Sunday Mass each weekend that is posted on the parish’s website:

Father Andrew Bulso, the associate pastor, has been recording daily Mass using his phone and posting it on the parish website.

The parish has been using digital technology to stay connected to parishioners in other ways as well. Father Beckman has been recording short spiritual reflections, “St. Henry Connection with Father Mark Beckman,” which are posted on the parish website and emailed to parishioners.

Father Bulso has livestreamed Eucharistic adoration and recorded the Stations of the Cross and his Coffee with a Clergy sessions on Sundays.

Deacon Mike Catalano has been very active using technology to reach out to parishioners, including recording a children’s Stations of the Cross, reading books for children, leading a regular Monday Bible study group online, and he used the video conferencing platform Zoom to lead a workshop on centering prayer.

‘A spiritual wash’

For smaller parishes that don’t have the same technological resources and capabilities, staying connected with parishioners can be more of a challenge.

“Spiritually, it’s been difficult because we don’t have any contact (with parishioners) other than their addresses and phone numbers,” said Father Joseph Mundakal, CMI, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Lawrenceburg. “The only contact we have is through the telephone calls.”

“We check on the people, especially the people who are seniors,” he said. “Everybody seems all right.”

When the public celebration of Masses in the diocese was first suspended, Father Mundakal kept the church open for people to stop by and pray.

“A lot of people came,” Father Mundakal said. But that prompted worries about having large groups in the church and the possibility of spreading the virus. “We decided it might be better to lock it,” he said.

Father Mundakal found another way to reach out to parishioners. On Saturday, March 28, he offered drive-up confessions. “I heard many priests were doing it and we thought why don’t we try it,” Father Mundakal said.

He sat on the landing in front of a door to the school as parishioners drove up and confessed their sins, all while keeping a safe distance, he said.

About 20 people came, Father Mundakal said. “It looked like a car wash. People could get a spiritual wash.”

If more people ask for confessions before Easter, Father Mundakal said, he would consider doing it again.

“I thought it was helpful for many people,” he said. “I enjoyed making it available.”

‘A great Exodus experience’

Like Father Mundakal, Father John O’Neill, pastor of three of the smallest parishes in the diocese – Holy Trinity Church in Hohenwald, Christ the Redeemer Church in Centerville and St. Cecilia Church in Waynesboro – has also been helping parishioners stay connected to the church in different ways.

Although people are practicing social distancing and staying home more because of the pandemic, Father O’Neill is trying to leave his three churches open during the day for people to visit and pray. “Trickles are coming in here and there,” he said.

“We’re trying to visit the three churches with adoration so people can come visit with me,” Father O’Neill added.

Technology still has a role to play in Father O’Neill’s ability to keep in touch with parishioners. He has been celebrating Mass privately every day, and a parishioner will come to record his homily and then share the recording digitally with the other parishioners.

“They’re happy Mass is being offered at one church or the other every day,” Father O’Neill said.

The pandemic has caused a lot of anxiety among his parishioners, Father O’Neill said. “The older people are taking the instruction to stay home seriously, and they find that quite a strain. … They’re anxious about what they’re hearing about the big cities.”

Although people are staying at home, they are reaching out to family and friends. “Contact on the internet or FaceTime is quite important to people,” Father O’Neill said.

“The faith has become huge for the people here,” he said. “For most of the people it’s a great Exodus experience. They’re trying to be patient and kind and considerate.”

“It’s a time of faith decision for people,” Father O’Neill said. “They realize their faith is the most important thing, loving each other is the most important thing.”

 ‘Confessions are essential’

Even when technological resources are readily available, there can still be a learning curve for priests and parishioners alike.

“I’m used to giving homilies. I’m not used to preaching via YouTube or emails. Those take much more time,” said Father Michael Fye, pastor of St. Ann Church in Nashville.

Weddings at St. Ann’s are currently postponed, but “I am still doing a lot of marriage preparation through video chat,” said Father Fye. “It is not the same experience, but it gets the job done.”

Father Fye posted some online resources for parishioners on the St. Ann website; the parish Facebook page is regularly updated too.

“I’ve done my best to share the online resources I am aware of with my parishioners,” Father Fye said. “There are lots of free ways to be educated, inspired, led and nourished using online classes, channels, apps, and connections.” A number of resources are listed at:

Father Fye and his associate pastor Father Hung Pham are still hearing daily confessions.

“In order to protect everybody, we are not hearing confessions face-to-face,” Father Fye said. “I feel strongly that if groceries and healthcare are still essential … confessions are also essential.”

‘Encounter the living God every day’

As Holy Week approaches, Father Beckman and his staff have been preparing ways to keep parishioners involved, including livestreaming all of the Holy Week liturgies.

Father Beckman also offers suggestions for families to do at home during Holy Week: set up Stations of the Cross in their back yard; take a Rosary walk using the Sorrowful Mysteries; on Palm Sunday, divide the gospel narrative of St. Matthew into parts and have members of the family read them; for Holy Thursday, they could emulate Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles by washing each other’s feet; for Good Friday, families can put on their own Passion Play based on the Gospel of St. John and venerate a cross or crucifix in their home; and on Holy Saturday, families can color Easter eggs together.

All the suggestions are aimed at keeping people connected to the traditions of their faith, Father Beckman said.

“In a situation where we are physically removed from His presence, I encourage everyone to dig into the rich treasures of Catholic devotional life,” said Father Fye. Scriptural reading, novenas, candles, writings of the saints, hymns, and silent conversations with Jesus “are all ways to encounter the living God every day.”

Theresa Laurence contributed to this report.

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