Amid lockdown parish priests find creative ways to reach the faithful

Rev. Pedro Bismarck Chau. (Credit: Brandon Ocampo)

By Jai Agnish
Communications Manager

Priests and parishes in the Archdiocese have been using technology in all sorts of unique and creative ways to reach parishioners during the coronavirus lockdown, and it goes beyond just livestreaming Mass.

When looking at the archdiocesan “Parish Livestreams and More” web page, one will find that 115 parishes have listed a cornucopia of low- and high-tech virtual offerings for the faithful. Prayer and bereavement groups are video conferencing via Zoom, while Rosary and 24/7 Adoration is broadcast live at another parish.

Some are using telephone conferencing for daily benedictions and town hall-style meetings. A pastor in Bergen County records a new phone message exhortation daily.

Meanwhile, the Stations of the Cross never seemed so popular as priests helped parishioners relive the Passion of Christ when the heart of the global pandemic clashed head-on with Holy Week.

From left, seminarian Lynx Soliman, Bishop Manuel Cruz, and Rev. John Barno participate in a video production of the Stations of the Cross at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark. It was based on A Way of the Cross with reflections from Cardinal Joseph Tobin inspired by St. Alphonsus Liguori. (Credit: Jai Agnish)

“Yes, our churches are closed, but the Archdiocese is alive,” Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the Archbishop of Newark, summarized in a video message to the faithful. It was an observation made in a smartphone reflection after the Cardinal celebrated his third lockdown livestream Mass in March.

In a separate video message to his brother priests Cardinal Tobin said, “The restrictions that we’ve lived under goes against everything in our DNA as ordained ministers. I thank you for the many creative ways you are reaching out to your people…and helping people discover – even in this terrible famine – the richness of God’s word and the promise of his fidelity. Soon we will be able to gather around the Lord’s table again.”

Many priests are using social media to transmit personalized video messages and scripture reflections to the faithful. Rev. Pedro Bismarck Chau, the pastor of Saint Patrick’s Pro-Cathedral in Newark, was an early adaptor and makes regular videos in English and Spanish. His parish also livestreams Mass and Stations of the Cross.

It’s all been fun, educational, and bit stressful at times, he admitted of livestreaming, but after some time working out various technical kinks, things are running smooth.

“It is unbelievable that every single parish now is livestreaming the Mass,” Fr. Pedro said. “Groups are doing creative programs to keep connected with their parishioners. It is amazing what this pandemic has forced us to do.”

Zoom video conferencing has taken off across parishes. Saint Patrick’s Pro-Cathedral uses Zoom for their Monday prayer group and Coffee and Cocoa – a conversation about faith – on Tuesdays. Zoom is also used for religious education and confirmation classes, and for youth group and young adult meetings.

While acknowledging the benefits of virtual connectivity, Fr. Pedro cautioned against parishioners getting too comfortable.

“I believe that what we are doing now as a church is beneficial and a good experience to grow in the way we evangelize through technology,” he said. “However, my fear is that Catholics may become too comfortable to go out to church anymore after the pandemic. A parishioner of mine literally said to me: ‘I am liking having church at home. It is convenient and comfortable not having to go out.’ So, I do hope that we as leaders, must remind and encourage people of the need to congregate, the importance of gathering as a body to offer thanks and praise to our God.”

In Paramus, Our Lady of the Visitation created a parish “Pandemic Retreat” packed with an extensive Zoom schedule of morning and evening prayer. The parish bereavement group also meets Thursday evenings, and there is a 12-step outreach program. The parish retreatants are provided daily reflection articles.

Deacon Peter Emr, a centering prayer facilitator and the retreat organizer, described the experience as a “Lenten desert retreat with technology.” He expects the schedule will “continue as long as Covid-19 keeps us in our secluded monastic-like lifestyle.”

It just so happened that in the months leading up to the pandemic, Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River finished work on a new media center and were set up for livestreaming.

“Clearly now is the time to double down on our media presence,” said Rev. Robert Stagg, pastor, who posts video messages to the parish website along with his brother priests. In addition to livestreaming Mass there is also daily scripture meditations, Rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, and more.

Rev. Jesus Carlo Merino and Business Manager Bob Rooney with camera equipment at Church of the Presentation in Upper Saddle River. (Credit: Dave Simon)

Fr. Robert said he has been flooded with letters and emails about how to maximize this opportunity to reach young people “who live in this digital world,” regular church goers, and those who are participating in new virtual offerings but don’t regularly attend mass. “In the words of Rahm Emmanuel: ‘don’t waste a crisis,’” he said.

Covid-19 has changed the entire business model of the parish and the staff has redeployed as a technology team and a “firemen” team that triages the immediate needs of parishioners.

“Right now, the parish needs as much contact as we can provide,” Fr. Robert told his Pastoral and Finance Councils. “We can worry about content later.”

There have been 25 deaths in the past three weeks, Fr. Robert said, and the parish has had to “pivot hard to Zoom” to help families cope with loss. The last bereavement Zoom meeting was attended by 15 families.

Church of the Presentation staff also have been checking in on all 4,600 of the families registered to the parish by simply calling them over the phone.

“Many are isolated,” Fr. Robert said. “They talk, and point them to our website and offerings, and basically let them know we are here for them.”

At Our Lady of Lourdes in West Orange the church family has leaned heavily on phone calls and placed about 1,000 individual wellness check calls, said Rev. James Ferry, the pastor there.

“During the pandemic, those of us with large networks of friends and families and technological know-how have been able to socialize virtually and electronically,” Fr. James said. “This is not true for everyone. We have parishioners without any such ‘virtual’ social network. They rely on those whom they see as neighbors, those whom they see at church and other places they visit. As a result of the restrictions imposed on travel, we need to go to them.”

Between 30 and 50 parishioners partake in the virtual offerings at Our Lady of Lourdes through telephone conferencing. These include weekly Town Halls, Rosary, and morning and afternoon prayer.

At Most Holy Name in Garfield parishioners can simply call the church to hear a bilingual prerecorded daily message of support from their pastor. Rev. Msgr. William Reilly  said he was inspired by answering machine scripture readings he once did 25 years ago at a parish in Union City. He also sends the messages out through WhatsApp.

Msgr. William’s daily messages are sort of mini-homilies – uplifting reflections on the daily readings and teachings of Jesus. In a recent message, he commented on long grocery store lines and the hope of receiving the bread of life soon in the form of the Eucharist once parishes reopen.

“I spent 50 years trying to get people to come into the church and now we lock the doors on them,” he joked.