The nature of the COVID-19 outbreak presents parishes with a very new challenge. People cannot leave their homes, but most people are still able to do things, just only in their homes. Thus, for now, ministry must occur primarily in the digital sphere. As an Echo student, I live with church ministers and work at a parish. I know firsthand that transitioning ministry online is hard, and, honestly a little weird. But even in the past three weeks, it’s clear that making the transition is far from impossible, and it can actually be quite beautiful. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. One of the implications of this truth is that humanity, sufficiently open to God’s grace, is creative—and with a virtually brand-new ballgame of ministry, a lot of creativity must be had, so I hope to offer a few ideas here that parishes can implement to digitally engage their parishioners, as well as provide a good bit of hope.
Regarding the different ministries of the parish, Zoom (a digital meeting program) and other programs like it are truly gifts from God. Meeting online is definitely not ideal, but it undeniably gets the job done for a lot of ministries. Marriage prep meetings, RCIA classes and interviews, Bible studies, etc. can all be conducted online. At the parish where I work, youth ministry has increased their events from Wednesday and Sunday nights to every day over Zoom. We kept our regular Wednesday and Sunday meetings starting at 6:30pm, but we now host ‘bonus’ meetings at 4pm, theoretically right after ‘school’ gets out. Each day has a different theme (Monday Funday, Taco Tuesday, Throwback Thursday, it’s Friday I’m in Love, and Saturday Night Live-stream) and involves some fun and at least a little catechesis. However, the focus for these bonus days is more on creating a space for community. Most people do not see their friends every day anymore, so the hope is to give them some structured way to interact.
Another noteworthy element in all of this is that because the meeting space is now digital, more people can access it. I know that certain parishes have combined their youth groups and have had shared sessions. One parish has more resources for online ministry than the other, and since it literally costs nothing extra, the two parishes combine their youth groups on certain days over Zoom. Who would have thought that relationships, even between parishes, would strengthen at this time?
My parish has a healthy youth ministry program, but the majority of our parishioners are older and a good amount of them do not know how to use Zoom, and thus cannot go to their normal Bible study, etc. We minister to them by asking other ministries—such as the women’s club and men’s club—to help us call them, check in, and simply talk. Our card ministry, too, has begun sending cards to the older population of the parish, especially those on the fringes of the population. Although it may look different, ministry can very much occur distantly and offline, as long as hearts are willing.
Regarding actual services and sacraments, live-streaming is a wonderful thing. Our average daily mass attendance was about 50. Now, our average live-streamed daily mass attendance is about 600. People very much have a thirst in their hearts to be connected especially now; simply seeing and hearing their priest on a live-stream can help satisfy their thirst in a real way. My parish has also begun live-streaming funerals, with the permission of the family. Funerals can only be celebrated with ten people at most, and that brings obvious challenges. Thankfully, live-streaming can help us answer some of those challenges.
In a recent a Zoom staff meeting, one of the office workers asked my pastor, “Father, how did you come up with all of these ideas?” He laughed. “I didn’t!” he said. “I just asked the millennials on staff to do what they thought needed to happen.” Likewise, he and the older folks on staff came up with ideas for how to minister to the older parishioners. There is a deep truth in this: we are each called to do what we can. All of these ideas require a lot of work, definitely, but it is becoming clear that, with the grace of God, they actually can work. Let us remember the words Moses spoke to the Israelites as they were about to go into lands unknown: “It is the Lord, your God, who marches with you; he will never fail you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). God is with us, friends. With God’s grace, let us do what we can.
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