Already, the lockdown has turned out to be an opportunity for new kinds of service. Heidi Witte used to lead Children’s Liturgy of the Word at her parish. Since the new regulations, Witte told the Catholic Herald, she and her husband Mark, a post-production manager, have been creating video sessions for children. At first, these were on their parish’s website, but the videos have proved to meet such a need that CatholicTV is now broadcasting them weekly.
At Holy Infant parish in Durham, NC, many parish programmes continued to meet on Zoom. Leanne Woodward, who coordinates youth ministry, invited teens to create hand-written notes and cards for the sick and homebound and found that opportunities to serve and get away from a screen struck a real chord with the teens, some then asking her how to make blessing bags for a local homeless shelter.
Other kinds of ministry have found lockdown tougher. Tim Pisacich, who helps lead a formation programme for catechists at the University of Notre Dame, says that catechists report “zoom fatigue” and lament “the loss of informal moments of in person encounter”. Even so, Pisacich says, for some students “the new online venue has reduced distractions and revealed their desire for knowledge of the faith and opportunities to practise it.”
Where Mass has returned, Catholics may still be nervous about returning. St Ignatius parish in Austin, TX returned to public celebration of Masses on May 10. Fr John Dougherty CSC reported that attendance was around 15 per cent of normal – even though new capacity restrictions from the city would have allowed around four times as many people. They were prepared to manage larger crowds, with a socially distanced queue to get into the church, and overflow options to watch a livestream, but Fr Dougherty does not think they will see a lot more people until June.
St Ignatius will continue to livestream their Masses, recognising that this does not appeal equally to all. Fr Dougherty reported that his Hispanic parishioners seem much less likely to watch livestreaming than the Anglos. While access issues probably play a role, online options are less attractive to people with a more tactile and communal spirituality.
Like many parishes, St Ignatius has seen a drop in donations, though Fr Dougherty reports that a few parishioners have started giving double to try to offset those no longer giving. Russ Elmayan, Chief Financial Officer of the Diocese of Raleigh, reported that while some parishes are suffering financially, others have seen an increase in offertory. He says that parish communications are vital, and is working to help parishes promote online giving.
Yet the coronavirus has also connected Catholics beyond their parish boundaries. Nicole Labadie, a campus minister in Houston, has been watching Masses from her alma mater and discussing the homily afterwards with friends. Others prefer to celebrate a Liturgy of the Word as a family.
The impact of the lockdown has varied from place to place. Different states, counties and cities have issued different advice and ordinances; different bishops have also given different directives on matters such as drive-through confessions, and while some dioceses have started to open up, others are waiting.
The diversity is likely to continue for some time. As some dioceses return to public celebrations of the Mass, the bishops’ conference has provided recommended liturgical best practices to ensure safety, but it is up to each diocese to choose what directives to issue. But in this difficult time, there are signs of hope: burgeoning and growing ministries, and an evident hunger for community and for the sacred.