Priests continue ministry despite pandemic
Friday, Mar. 27, 2020
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Fr. Stephen Tilley, administrator of St. John the Baptist Parish, is shown March 22 offering the Sacrament of Confession from his vehicle to maintain safe social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
SALT LAKE CITY — With the public celebration of Mass prohibited, hospitals and nursing homes barring sick calls, and social gatherings postponed because of the need to observe social distancing to stop the spread of coronavirus, what’s a priest to do?
Get creative about how to minister, is the answer from priests in the Diocese of Salt Lake City.
When Bishop Oscar A. Solis suspended the public celebration of worship beginning the weekend of March 14, several local priests immediately began to either livestream daily and Sunday liturgies, or videotape them and post them online. As days went by, other priests joined in.
Seeking to continue to meet the needs of their parishioners during this time of the coronavirus pandemic, some priests are offering online prayers or reflections. St. Ann pastor Fr. Omar Ontiveros livestreamed the March 18 worldwide rosary called for by Pope Francis. For the traditional Lenten Friday Stations of the Cross on March 20, Fr. José Barrera Hernández, pastor of St. Therese of the Child Jesus Parish, used his cellphone to record Deacon Stan Stott leading a procession in English of two candle-bearers and one person with the crucifix; an online text was available for viewers to follow. Two hours later, Fr. Barrera led a procession in Spanish that also was posted live on Facebook. At St. Mary of the Assumption Parish, Fr. Christopher Gray has begun a weekly “Way of Christ Talk,” followed by an “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer session.
The ministry isn’t limited to virtual offerings. On March 22, Fr. Stephen Tilley, administrator of St. John the Baptist Parish, held a drive-up penance service he called “Meet Me at the Jeep,” during which he parked his Wrangler in the circle of the Skaggs Catholic Center and heard Confession from those who drove up.
Because of the response, he plans to continue that ministry on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 6 p.m. to sunset.
Fr. Tilley said he also is making personal phone calls to parishioners, just to touch base with them.
Many Catholic churches are remaining open for private prayer. “In the course of the day, there’s a good 20 to 30 people who come into the church,” said Fr. William Wheaton, pastor of Holy Family Parish, which has closed its Eucharistic chapel because its small size didn’t allow for proper social distancing.
Fr. Wheaton, like many of his brother priests, is offering spiritual direction and the Sacrament of Confession in a modified manner. At his parish, he is hearing Confession only behind the screen, and those waiting outside the confessional maintain at least 6 feet of social distance between themselves, he said.
“And when we do Confessions, we also have exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, so people can come in and do that,” he said.
Because of the pandemic, Fr. Wheaton is unable to visit the sick at Ogden Regional Hospital and the many nursing homes within his parish because those facilities are closed to anyone except staff members, he said. However, he will respond to calls if someone is in need of viaticum, or has a life-threatening situation, he said, adding that, thankfully, he has had no such calls so far.
St. Vincent de Paul Parish faces a similar situation. The parish boundaries encompass 27 care centers and rehab centers, along with St. Mark’s Hospital and Intermountain Medical Center. Ministering to his flock is always difficult, pastor Fr. John Norman said, but the coronavirus has made the task monumental.
The parish first began getting phone calls from the various facilities at the beginning of March that they were going to go on lockdown. Filled with vulnerable populations, this measure was initiated by these facilities early and prohibited visits by extraordinary ministers of the Holy Eucharist, deacons, priests and family.
However, “They have accommodated allowing priests and ministers to come at the point of death, if someone is dying,” Fr. Norman said.
Therefore, it is important that parishioners who are going into the hospital or to other health-care facilities to call the rectory and let them know that they would like a priest to visit, Fr. Norman said.
For his parishioners, “We’ve been calling some people that we know whose health is failing or have been recovering from surgeries and staying in touch with them,” he said. “My concern is that there might be someone we don’t know [of], so I’ve invited and requested that parishioners call friends. We’ve requested that each group like the choir calls and stays in touch with its members, the Eucharistic ministers stay in touch with the other Eucharistic ministers and the religious education or the faith formation teachers stay in contact with their students and their family.”
As Lent began at St. Jerome Newman Center, Fr. Joshua Santos, chaplain, had scheduled daily Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to pray for vocations, as well as the traditional Friday Stations of the Cross, followed by a simple vegetarian meal. However, with the memo from Bishop Oscar A. Solis to suspend activities, these have been canceled, as have their regular weekly Bible study and Evening Prayer.
Although the activities stopped, “I assured them that, as their chaplain, I will always be available for them if ever they need the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or even if they need some guidance,” Fr. Santos said.
He also has used social media to send the students information about the livestreamed Masses at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, as well as encouraging pictures and uplifting messages. On the Feast of St. Joseph, he used social media for a Bible study, and that evening, keeping in mind social distancing, they together watched the movie “Joseph of Nazareth.”
Then, last week, he posted a live Facebook bilingual Stations of the Cross for parishioners and students. He has plans for additional outreach on social media, he said.
The diocesan jail ministry also has been suspended, because the facilities have been locked down. This is a hardship because the inmates “really count on these things,” said Deacon Joaquin Mixco, who organizes the ministry. Also, the inmates’ access to the Internet is limited, so livestreamed Masses aren’t readily available. To offer some comfort to the inmates, Deacon Mixco said he is trying to arrange donations of rosaries and Bibles.
Other local Catholic organizations have been affected by the strictures brought about by the pandemic. At Mount Calvary Catholic Cemetery, all pre-need and memorial sales have been suspended, and public access to the cemetery office has been limited, said John Curtice, the cemetery director. No chairs or sound system are being provided at graveside services because of fear of contamination; and attendance is limited, he said.
Numerous events throughout the diocese have been postponed. The deacon inquiry sessions that were scheduled for March and April have postponed until the time that public gatherings may resume, said Deacon Drew Petersen, director of the Office of Diaconate Formation.
The annual Diocesan Council of Catholic Women Convention, which had been scheduled for April 25-26, has been rescheduled to July 25-26. The Sheraton Salt Lake City Hotel will remain the venue. The convention registration and hotel reservation deadlines have been moved to June 25. The program will stay as close to the original as possible, depending upon the speakers’ schedules; however, everything else, including the prayer services and the Woman of the Year banquet, will not be affected, said Casey Pond, president.