On March 24, as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up, four Catholic priests in northeast Minneapolis gathered with a map to plot a route through the city. Then, they slowly processed in cars through the streets, each priest carrying the Holy Eucharist. Fr. Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron Maronite Rite Catholic Church, stood in the sunroof of an SUV and raised a monstrance high while the speakers pumped out the Divine Mercy Chaplet in song.
Parishioners used Google Maps to track the Eucharistic procession’s progress for seven and a half miles. As the priests passed, people gathered at their windows, knelt on their porches, or followed in their cars. Their shepherds were bringing Christ to his flock in a way they would never forget.
Today, many churches are shuttered, and discouragement and uncertainty reign among clergy and the faithful. But some courageous church leaders—drawing inspiration from Saints Gregory the Great and Charles Borromeo—are battling with all they’ve got. In this time of crisis, they maintain, people need the Church and its sacraments more, not less. Their mission is threefold: to maintain sacramental life, overcome isolation, and fortify people with the faith, hope, and fortitude they need to overcome loneliness, anxiety, and illness—all while living creatively within social distancing rules.
My suburban Minneapolis parish, Holy Family Catholic Church, is a good example. When public Masses were suspended, our pastor, Fr. Joseph Johnson, made clear that if the people could not come to Mass, he would take Mass to them.
The next day, the church began live-streaming daily Mass via a shaky handheld iPhone. Volunteers partnered with church staff and scrambled to collect the web cam, mics, lighting, and sound system necessary to turn the church’s Perpetual Adoration chapel into a production studio. Within a week, they had moved from the digital Stone Age to smoothly live-streaming liturgies and devotions, including daily and Sunday Masses, the Rosary, Benediction, and Stations of the Cross. After Sunday Mass, parishioners gathered in the church parking lot. Though Holy Communion was not allowed, Fr. Johnson passed from car to car for Benediction with a monstrance, blessing occupants.
Across town, at St. Maron Catholic Church, a similar can-do spirit prevails. There, three priests from neighboring parishes have rigged up the church garage with a sheet, a crucifix, and an image of Jesus. During Lent and Passiontide, they are offering drive-in confession for three hours every day. “Roll on up, remain in your car and be reconciled to God!!,” the church’s Facebook page invites.
At nearby Holy Cross Church, Fr. Spencer Howe has led outdoor Stations of the Cross along a busy street, advising, “Remain in your cars and we will pray along the sidewalks.” He has also live-streamed the Angelus, praying on the street as the church’s bells peal joyfully. It is a vibrant public witness to the church’s motto: “As the world spins, the Cross stands firm.”
“People must be reassured and encouraged,” explains Fr. Howe. “One thing I’ve learned as an urban priest is that we must keep the light on in the lighthouse. We must keep manning the watchtowers. We can’t just disappear at a time like this.”
Paradoxically, at Holy Family the pandemic seems not to have suspended parish life but intensified it. The pastoral staff is using the crisis in service of a longer-term vision: to encourage parishioners not to see themselves as consumers of spiritual services, but as a spiritual family.
A team of volunteers is phoning every parishioner to assure them their welfare is important to the parish family, and to ask if they would like a weekly call. People are being encouraged to page through the parish directory and contact someone they have always intended to get to know. A virtual parish talent show is in the works, as is a plan to festoon side altars at Easter with colored ribbons bearing the names of all parishioners.
Another positive change: During the pandemic, we are hearing from our pastor every day, not just at Sunday Mass. Fr. Johnson uses daily Flocknote emails to inform, uplift, and inspire, and to show how God may bring good out of the current crisis. The daily email promotes spiritual resources such as the church’s new webpage of suggestions for how to keep the whole Sabbath Day holy. It has featured ideas about how to rejoice on the Feast of the Annunciation; video meditations on topics such as Psalm 23; reflections from the writings of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI; and announcements of virtual events such as a Lenten retreat for women and an Exodus 90 retreat for men.
Each email also showcases music, ranging from Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” to a video of local students singing on a pilgrimage to Rome. “When physical touch is not possible,” says Fr. Johnson, “music is a substitute that speaks to the emotions.”
Holy Family also launched a YouTube channel shortly after public Masses were suspended. Now Fr. Johnson can read stories to our parish school’s kindergartners and send video messages of encouragement to second-graders preparing to receive First Holy Communion, high-schoolers stuck at home, and college students deprived of their last weeks on campus. We were also able to enjoy a beautiful, if poignant, concert of Stainer’s “Crucifixion.” It was performed by six members of our choir, spaced across the choir loft.
Churches can do all these things—and much more—while operating within government rules. “The secret, for us, is the collaboration of a number of priests,” says Fr. Howe, who helped engineer the Eucharistic procession in northeast Minneapolis. “Creativity flows from fidelity to tradition,” he adds, “and must be coupled with it.” He suggests, for example, that the Church could partner with Catholic-owned private businesses to offer confessions at locations where people already need to go for essential services.
Beyond this, churches could offer Masses for a specific, limited number of people—every hour on the hour, if necessary, during Holy Week. Attendance at each Mass could be capped at a percentage, say 20 percent, of church capacity. Eucharistic adoration could proceed with social distancing rules in place. The laity must tell the bishops, “We need the sacraments; we expect our shepherds to be shepherds.” And government must get the message that churches provide essential—indeed, vital—services.
The “new normal” underway at many Catholic churches began as a way to get through a perilous time. Yet it is demonstrating our ability not just to maintain, but to strengthen the vitality of communities of faith after the pandemic ends. New ground is being broken, and new possibilities raised for evangelization.
Katherine Kersten is a writer in Minnesota.