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How parish life is changing during the pandemic

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After three and a half hours of drive-thru confessions on a recent Wednesday evening, Father Bjorn C. Lundberg, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester, and Father Stephen Holmes, parochial vicar, settled into a pair of large red chairs inside their rectory for a long-distance chat with parishioners. 

Sipping a can of LaCroix sparkling water, Father Lundberg broadcast live from his Facebook account as he and Father Holmes talked about the schedule for Holy Week and answered questions in the comments section  from viewers. It's become a recurring event for the two over the last few weeks as they try to fill the void for the kind of casual contact that once took place after Mass.

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The Shrader family put together a collage of photos of parishioners for Fr. Kevin Walsh, pastor of Precious Blood Church in Culpeper, to display in the church while he celebrates Mass during the pandemic. COURTESY

"It's everything from 'what did you eat for dinner' to 'explain the Trinity,' " Father Lundberg said in an interview. Live chats are a new way for people to get to know their parish priests, he said. 

"On one level, for most people, their experience of their parish or the clergy (is) they come to the parish, and that's the only way they interact with the parish," he said. "For them to come to social media, you're kind of coming into their home and they're coming into the rectory. They can just ask whatever."

Rectory live chats are just one of the ways local pastors are reaching out to their parishioners in new ways to keep parish life going. Sacred Heart livestreams Sunday Masses and Eucharistic adoration throughout the night, organizes a phone tree for shut-ins and offers drive-in adoration with the Eucharist on display in the window. 

"It doesn't replace human interaction," Father Lundberg said. "It doesn't replace being present at Mass. But we certainly found a way to connect with people in a new way."

Father Lundberg and Father Holmes were inspired to start the chats after watching similar videos from Father Francis de Rosa, pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach and St. Anthony Mission in King George, and Father Eric Shafer, parochial vicar. 

"The first time we did it, it was simply to send a message to people that we're thinking of them," Father de Rosa said. Now, more people listen to the "fireside chats" than attended Mass during the October Mass count, he noted. It's a way to "maintain cohesiveness as a parish community." 

At Precious Blood Church in Culpeper, Father Kevin B. Walsh and his staff set up a phone tree. At first, it was meant to connect with elderly parishioners; but it quickly found a robust following among anyone who wanted to sign up.

"If you're getting a call, we're asking you to call someone several times a week," Father Walsh said. 

The youth ministry program also delivered flowers to elderly parishioners during Holy Week, and offered a drive thru-blessing on Easter Sunday. 

"We're trying all these little things," he said. 

 The parish also compiled a database with email addresses to reach as many people as possible. 

 "Sometimes people write back and say they don't have any groceries; we try to pair them up with someone," Father Walsh said.

 The parish livestreamed the Masses and liturgies of the Triduum, recorded Stations of the Cross and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and is trying as many new things as possible to keep people connected, he said. Still, there's no roadmap for this. 

"We're sort of learning along the way," Father Walsh said. 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020