Fear Not: local parishioners adapt to COVID-19 restrictions with charity and faith

by Mary Lou Seewoester

North Texas Catholic

March 23, 2020

Bishop Michael Olson celebrates a livestreamed Mass in an empty St. Patrick Cathedral March 22.(NTC/Juan Guajardo)


FORT WORTH — The pews were empty this weekend at every Mass in every parish in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Parish priests offered Sunday Masses, assisted by one deacon and/or server, but without a congregation.

Parishioners, however, were able to receive holy Communion. They waited in their cars until directed by an usher to approach the church, one at a time, to receive the Eucharist.

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life,” Bishop Michael Olson stated in his March 18 pastoral letter announcing the newest liturgical changes. “The Eucharist is what unites us together with the Church triumphant in heaven, the Church militant, and the Church suffering.”

After consulting with local and state officials, Bishop Olson made these changes to protect those vulnerable to COVID-19, to help mitigate the spread of the highly contagious disease, and to continue serving the spiritual needs of his flock as safely as possible. In a press conference March 22, Governor Greg Abbott stated Texas had 566 cases of the novel coronavirus.

“Our spiritual needs, like our other essential needs, do not abate during a time of crisis. In fact, our spiritual needs become even more prominent,” Bishop Olson said a few days earlier. “We must pray and worship God and ask His assistance as we heed the responsible declaration of our civic officials and make accommodations to our worship and ministry.”
 

MASSES IN THE AGE OF CORONAVIRUS

From the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in North Texas, the local Church has not been immune from effects of the virus on liturgies and ministries.

In addition to celebrating Mass without a congregation (sine populo), Bishop Olson also directed pastors to distribute Communion only in the hand, keep churches open for Eucharistic Adoration on a regular, published schedule with no more than 10 people in attendance, and to continue offering the sacrament of Reconciliation behind the screen. Parishes with the technological capabilities to livestream their Masses were encouraged to do so. As of March 22, 19 parishes in the diocese were offering livestreamed Masses to their congregations.

On March 19, Bishop Olson shared a pastoral letter explaining how Communion would be shared after daily and Sunday Masses celebrated sine populo. People were instructed to remain in their cars until beckoned by ushers. Eucharistic ministers distributed Communion outside after the Masses.

St. Patrick parishioner Wanda Styrsky (right) gives Communion to a parishioner following the 11 a.m. livestreamed Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral. (NTC/Juan Guajardo) 


On March 22, the diocese began livestreaming the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass celebrated by Bishop Olson at St. Patrick Cathedral on the diocesan website, fwdioc.org. As the bishop was closing the Mass that day, parishioners walked to Eucharistic ministers stationed outdoors who gave them Communion. Many parishes likewise livestreamed their Masses which resulted in many thousands watching online. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Keller, for instance, livestreamed seven Masses over the weekend with a viewership totaling 13,729.As early as Jan. 10, the Church had offered dispensation from the Sunday obligation for anyone who is sick or susceptible to illness (those over the age of 60 or with a chronic or underlying health issue), or for those who care for vulnerable persons.

 

KEEPING IT CLEAN

As coronavirus began spreading throughout North Texas, Bishop Olson released his March 13 pastoral statement, and public health agencies increased demands on society to stay home, avoid crowds, and stop unnecessary travel. Restaurants offered only take-out or drive-through services or shut down completely. Gyms closed and local and national sporting events were cancelled. And nationwide, anyone who could work remotely began working from home.

As recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local and state agencies changed almost daily, based on the spread and virility of the virus, the local Church responded in kind to protect the faithful, while finding new ways to meet their spiritual, physical, and educational needs. 

Catholic schools switched to online learning until March 30, while school buildings were sanitized and deep cleaned. Parish formation classes and all ministry events involving large groups were suspended or are being taught online.

St. Maria Goretti parishioner Alex Benavides attends a Mass limited to less than 250 people in the SMG cafetorium March 14. (NTC/Ben Torres)


However, rather than suspend public celebration of Saturday Vigil and Sunday Masses on March 14 and 15, priests, deacons, parish staff, and the laity worked tirelessly to implement Bishop Olson’s directive allowing no more than 250 persons in the church. They also helped sanitize the church after each Mass and removed the hymnals and worship aids. Once the number of persons reached 250, the overflow was directed to another location on parish campuses for an additional Mass or a Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest (SCAP).

At St. Patrick, volunteers roped off every other pew to keep them vacant, then placed signs on the open pews indicating how many people could occupy that pew.

Deacon Walter Stone, chief of staff at St. Patrick, explained that all but two of the church doors were locked, and ushers counted the faithful as they entered. Because several priests serve at St. Patrick Cathedral, the number of Masses increased from six to 11, with additional Masses in the parish hall beginning soon after the regularly scheduled Mass.

Throughout the diocese, a similar process allowed parishioners to attend Mass while maintaining a safe social distance.

Dcn. Stone, who also serves at St. Catherine of Siena in Carrollton, said the faithful were ushered into the church through one open door and asked to separate themselves in the pews. Ushers directed the overflow to Assisi Hall where Dcn. Stone led the SCAP.

“We did this because we wanted to give the faithful as much an opportunity as we can to worship while still complying with the civil directives,” Dcn. Stone said.

He added that attendance at Mass has decreased during the coronavirus outbreak, but participation has not.

“The people who did come were enthusiastic. There were no hymnals, but everyone sang from memory and full-throated,” he said.

Dcn. Stone said the communities at both St. Catherine and the cathedral are “coming together to get through this. No one has told us ‘no’ when we asked for help.”

In Keller, Allison Sullivan, pastoral assistant and director of outreach ministries at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, reported similar energetic responses to requests for help.

It just took one email, the night before volunteers were needed, to get enough people to clean the church between Masses. 

“It’s always like the fishes and loaves here,” she said. “We always have lots of volunteers who say, ‘What do you need from me?’ and they jump to it.”

 

CHARITY ENDURES

In all four of his pastoral letters regarding COVID-19 precautions for the faithful, Bishop Olson has reiterated the need to reach out to the homebound and the vulnerable who may become isolated, for both their spiritual and temporal needs.  

St. Maria Goretti music director Freda Breed sanitizes pews after a Mass on March 14. Public Masses in the Diocese of Fort Worth were cancelled as of March 18. (NTC/Ben Torres)


His March 13 pastoral letter stated, “our baptismal obligations of charity and outreach to those who are most in need should be foremost in our minds during this time because the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls as exhibited through works of charity and mercy.” In all his letters, he also urged the faithful to continue praying daily for all those suffering from the pandemic.

Because nursing homes and assisted living communities are on lockdown, distribution of holy Communion there has been suspended. However, St. Catherine of Siena prepared prayer cards for making a spiritual Communion that could be mailed to care facilities previously visited by extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. These cards could be delivered to Catholics at the discretion of the facility’s life enhancement director. 

Dcn. Stone said bringing Communion to St. Patrick parishioners who are confined in their own homes “has been scaled back quite a bit but hasn’t stopped completely.”

 “We’ve actually been educating people on how to receive spiritual Communion,” he said.

The diocese directed clergy to continue reaching out to hospitals and nursing homes to inquire about and provide sacramental care, especially the Anointing of the Sick.

“We’re letting them know that we’re available, ready, and willing to cooperate and minister to those people, but we will comply with any civil restrictions,” Dcn. Walter said.

“All of society’s infrastructure is contracting,” Dcn. Stone continued. “We are not. The mission of the Church has to go on.”

At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, church staff re-posted the Outreach Ministry number on the parish Facebook page so people in need of food or supplies can call for assistance.

 “We are working this week on a plan to make sure we’re able to do that,” Sullivan added. “We have some supplies because we take regular food collections and we always have food boxes for people who need it immediately.”

“They can call and we will figure out a way to help them, even if it is just dropping off meals at the door and making sure there’s no contact with those folks so we don’t expose them,” she said.

She said that when more volunteer opportunities become available, it will be done “systematically so that we can meet the need but remain in compliance” with any requirements for the safety of all involved.

“Folks are at the ready and waiting to be told what is needed,” she added.

Deacon Jim Bindel at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Wichita Falls said, “A few Eucharistic ministers are still bringing Communion to people in their homes, unless there’s any indication that someone is sick, or the person has declined the visit.”

He also said, “Those who have been instructed on how take Communion to others are bringing the Eucharist to their homebound family members.”

Additionally, the parish has posted an online message inviting parishioners to call the parish office if they need help with food or supplies.

“We’re Church and our mission is to reach out, so we’re learning as we go.” Dcn. Bindel said. “Right now we’re just trying to figure it out and I think that’s what everyone is doing. We’re trying to adapt daily.”

Currently, Dcn. Bindel is adapting the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) so that the formation can be delivered online.

He suggested that the faithful use their time at home to pray the Rosary, pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, read sacred Scripture, and talk about it with their children. 

He added that Formed.org, which is available through most parishes, offers many lectures, homilies, other instruction, and “great family movies that give good instruction at the same time.” At the moment, Formed.org is providing free 40-day access to people who don’t have access to it through their parish.

But above all, he reminded, “There’s no need to fear.” 

“It’s mentioned in the Bible 365 times, ‘Do not be afraid.’ We just need to stick together and pray,” he continued.

 “God is in charge of all of this,” he added. “Even though our heads are spinning, His plan is so much greater than we can understand. We just have to put our hope in God.”

FORT WORTH — The pews were empty this weekend at every Mass in every parish in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Parish priests offered Sunday Masses, assisted by one deacon and/or server, but without a congregation.

Published (until 12/5/2041)