As COVID-19 cases rose rapidly in March 2020, dioceses around the United States responded by closing church doors to keep their communities safe. For many Catholics, the lack of in-person access to the sacraments was a particularly painful aspect of the lockdowns. Rachael Harvey, pastoral assistant for youth and young adult ministry at Sacred Heart Church in Enumclaw, Washington, remembers the sense of longing she felt after Masses were cancelled.
“I haven’t missed many Sundays in my lifetime. Not having that all of a sudden was hard,” she says.
Like many other Catholics around the world, Harvey soon found comfort—and a sense of connection—through technology. Sacred Heart parishioners began praying the rosary together over a livestream soon after the lockdown started. By May the parish was livestreaming Sunday Masses. Following each Mass, Harvey and her colleagues organized a virtual coffee hour for parishioners to connect via Zoom. Each coffee hour included breakout rooms where parishioners could connect in small groups and make conversation.
“We have volunteers serve as hosts to introduce everyone in a room and to help start conversations,” Harvey says. “It is great to help people learn one another’s names and get to know one another.”
Harvey estimates that, at its peak, around 30 to 40 people attended the Zoom coffee hours each week. Even today, with more people attending Mass in person, a group of people still attends the online coffee hours.
“The benefits were, in the beginning, to have that personal interaction and see people you normally would see at church on Sundays or through ministries and programs,” Harvey says. “For people who are still trying to quarantine, it provides that community aspect they miss.”
Harvey is grateful that her parish has embraced technology. In addition to livestreaming Masses and other sacraments, her parish also signed up for Flocknote, a program that allows for easier texting and emailing in groups, and began sharing the Word on Fire ENGAGE online faith formation series with parishioners.
This year has definitely changed everything around the board, but it has also opened up a lot of doors for ministry and how we can use technology in a positive way that can really impact people in their faith.
“This year has definitely changed everything across the board, but it has also opened up a lot of doors for ministry and for using technology in a positive way that can really impact people in their faith,” she says.
Sacred Heart Church is just one of many parish communities that turned to high-tech solutions to keep their ministry afloat during a year of social distancing. Whether by incorporating video streaming, virtual meetings, or other kinds of online ministries, these parishes found creative and new ways to walk with their community members on their faith journeys. Many of these new techniques, they’ve found, will be beneficial to the church community even after the pandemic is over.
Deacon Dennis Kelly is the parish leader for two Seattle churches: Christ Our Hope in the downtown area and St. Patrick in the city suburbs. As soon as the lockdowns began, Kelly—who had previously worked in broadcast news for years—began working closely with Christ Our Hope parishioner Nick Marson to develop a high-quality livestream system that both churches could use.
“Financially, this became a way to share the resources and join the two communities,” Kelly says.
During the Easter triduum, Kelly alternated locations for livestreaming services. Holy Thursday services were filmed at one parish and Good Friday at the other. Using Switcher Studio software, Marson incorporated readings and vocal performances prerecorded at the homes of parishioners from both communities, resulting in a joint celebration that couldn’t have happened otherwise. Since then, the two parishes have continued to hold joint virtual formation opportunities and faith-sharing groups.
“I feel God had blessed us with an opportunity to grow the two communities together,” Kelly says. “We’re doing Christ’s work as a shared community in a way we haven’t before.”
The livestreamed programs also help engage members of St. Patrick’s large deaf and deaf-blind community, many of whom remain quarantined. Every livestreamed Mass includes an in-picture view of a sign language interpreter.
“We found that a lot of people were watching our livestreams from around the country because they had never experienced a Catholic Mass that was fully ASL interpreted,” Kelly says. “People came out of the woodwork and some started sending donations. That was the kind of thing we never saw coming.”
St. Patrick parishioner Betsey Beckman, who has led St. Patrick’s parish liturgical movement ministry for nearly 30 years, incorporates sign language and liturgical movement performances from children and individuals with disabilities into the livestreamed Masses through prerecorded videos. At Easter she produced a video of the parish choir singing the song “Roll Away the Stone” that incorporated sign language performances from people in the L’Arche community and previous members of the movement ministry who have since moved away.
“This helps us still feel like we’re one body even though we’re in separate places,” Beckman says.
We found that a lot of people were watching our livestreams from around the country because they had never experienced a Catholic Mass that was fully ASL interpreted.
—Deacon Dennis Kelly
Beckman says that making these videos—while time-consuming—has been rewarding and another way to use her creative gifts in service to God.
“I’m really enlivened by the creative process and by the community,” she says. “When I’m working on something I feel like, ‘I can’t wait to show this piece, and it’s going to be a part of Mass.’”
Likewise, Marson, who works as a technology consultant and has expertise in video streaming, says he enjoys using his talents to help his parish. It was humbling for him, especially in the beginning, to be part of such a small group of people filming the Mass for those at home.
“It’s been a lonely and challenging time since all this started,” he says. “It was great to finally feel like I could contribute something where there was a real need and help fill the gap.”
Although the entire year has been challenging for the parish community, Kelly believes the problem-solving and creativity resulted in a “heck of a lot of fun” for the outreach team members putting it together. They’re looking at their ministries in new ways and finding inspiration wherever they can.
“We’re just trying to think creatively and not lock ourselves into thinking that church is in this box and we can only do church a certain way,” he says. “We want to free ourselves from the box and say, ‘How can we think about this differently and draw more people to church and create a longing for the Eucharist?’”
Msgr. Bernard W. Bourgeois also thought creatively about how best to engage his community during the months of lockdowns and separations. As pastor of three parishes, which together make up the Rutland-Wallingford Catholic Community in western Vermont, he found himself missing regular contact with his parishioners during the early days of the pandemic.
“We livestreamed Masses. I was doing a virtual evening prayer, Liturgy of the Hours, and other things specific to Lent,” he says. “It just hit me one day that it was all very formal, which was fine—Mass is supposed to be formal—but it would be nice to have something a little less formal I could do.”
The solution, he decided, was to connect over coffee with parishioners via Facebook Live. Every weekend, Bourgeois sets aside some time to “meet” with parishioners on Facebook Live to answer questions and talk about his life.
“The first few weekends, I had no script, nothing,” he says. “I told viewers they had to be the script and send in questions, comments, and ideas. So they did.”
As the months have gone by, he says, the program has become a little more planned. Each coffee hour starts with a prayer and one of the weekend’s readings, followed by a reflection. After that, Bourgeois talks about a moment in ministry that touched him and then he’ll transition into a regular segment called “What’s Bugging Me,” where he talks about daily grievances such as annoying Starbucks orders, drivers not using their turn signals, or other frustrations.
“Sometimes they’re funny and sometimes they’re not,” he says. “The whole thing has opened up people’s eyes about what it’s like to be a priest.” Bourgeois also takes time to respond to viewers’ questions, comments, or reflections. He ends each session with a closing prayer.
The sessions are popular, often bringing in hundreds of views. Bourgeois believes parishioners see them as a connection to their community and a learning opportunity.
“I’m convinced more and more that our people are just hungering for more information and for more ways of praying with one another and for learning more about their faith,” he says. “They’re a captive audience and seem to enjoy it.”
Bourgeois believes it’s important for parishes to embrace new technologies and evolve their ministries whenever it’s necessary. “If you think about it, the church has been adapting to the world in which it lives all along,” he says. “The core message of Jesus Christ and the message of the Eucharist remain the same, but how they get delivered has changed.”
If you think about it, the church has been adapting to the world in which it lives all along.
—Rev. Msgr. Bernard W. Bourgeois
While most of the viewers are parishioners, Bourgeois has seen viewers from up and down the East Coast as well. He has grown to enjoy the sessions as a different form of ministry, which has helped him build personal connections just by being himself.
“When the pandemic began and we were completely shut down, my whole life moved online almost overnight. Things were completely shut down to a point where the phone in the house wouldn’t even ring for days at a time,” he says. “[These virtual coffee hours] gave me a way of connecting with people, and it was so easy to do. I just turn on Facebook Live, get a cup of coffee, and go without being too fancy about it.”
Kym D. Allex is coordinator of missionary discipleship for a cluster of three churches in northeastern Wisconsin: St. Joseph, St. Kilian, and St. Thomas the Apostle. Like Bourgeois, she found success by keeping her online ministries simple and authentic. Her program for women titled “Holiest Happy Hour” was a series of Zoom happy hours that included icebreaker games and discussions centered around the Marian apparitions. During each event, the women talked about various visions of Mary and the role the Virgin Mother plays in their lives. At the final event, they talked about Our Lady of Good Help, an apparition site in Champion, Wisconsin.
“I wanted to increase awareness of this jewel that’s right in our backyard,” Allex says. “I encouraged people to go and visit on their own, which brought incredible fruits for the women who participated.”
Each of the five events ranged in attendance from 6 people to about 35, Allex says. Some women in attendance weren’t even Catholic, but they joined because they were longing for community and had heard of the events through friends.
One reason Allex thinks the program was so successful was that the women could speak openly and honestly about their struggles and feelings of isolation or frustration.
“I love technology because it can inspire us, but I think it’s so important to show the reality within that of the struggles and challenges of what it means to be a modern disciple,” Allex says. “The Holiest Happy Hour really did that, because we were authentic with what we were feeling, which then encouraged people that they don’t need to have Instagram-worthy lives. We don’t have to have filters on. We can really be OK with being in the gunk of what we’re feeling right now.”
Allex also planned Friday date night events for married couples who wanted to participate in an hourlong date night via Zoom. Couples who participated ranged widely in age from a newly engaged couple to a pair of senior citizens.
“We had one elderly couple who did not know how to use technology at all, but they wanted to join. We couldn’t see their faces, but we could hear their voices and their joy and laughter,” Allex says. “It was so great to utilize technology to hit a vast number of age demographics that you generally don’t see together in parish life outside of Mass.”
For other parishes hoping to incorporate technology into their ministries, Allex has some simple advice: Instead of trying to be perfect, strive for authenticity.
“You don’t have to be a master of technology or have the best camera equipment or light ring. That’s one of the hurdles: People are worried that their video doesn’t look the best or it’s not Word on Fire–worthy, but it doesn’t have to be,” she says. “People know that your program might not be the best ever the first time, but it could still open the hearts of those who are seeking.”
Not all technology has to be digital. Last year at Saint Joseph Church in South Bend, Indiana, parishioner Leonard DeLorenzo helped lead a successful new ministry using a form of technology that is more than a century old: the telephone.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, the parish organized an outreach team of about 57 volunteers who devised a plan to call all 900 registered households within the parish.
“We wanted to reach out to each one to see how people were doing and to see if there was anything we could do as a parish community to help by offering material stuff, prayers, or anything they might need,” DeLorenzo says. “Parish life is all the more important in times of great uncertainty and instability in people’s lives. We needed to find a way to reach out and offer accompaniment—not just reassurance but a way of fostering our parish community through direct contact.”
Each volunteer caller received a short training and talking points. If they uncovered a specific need in a household, they would communicate it back to the outreach team so they could pool available resources.
“What we found by and large was that people were surprised and very grateful someone called,” DeLorenzo says. “Most people didn’t have a specific need. Some people asked for prayer requests. Many people offered to provide support or resources for others.”
You don’t have to be a master of technology or have the best camera equipment or light ring.
—Kym D. Allex
The team’s first round of calls took place in early spring of 2020. They did another round of calls in the summer and began thinking of other ways to engage the community. Because many of the original volunteers are busier now than they were at the beginning of the pandemic, the team now focuses its attention on calling people who are more isolated, including older parishioners and families with more severe needs.
Although his parish also took steps to embrace digital technology through virtual faith-sharing groups and racial justice movie nights, DeLorenzo believes the simple step of reaching out by phone may have been a vital move to keeping the parish community together in the long run. He knows that many parishes were already losing members even before the pandemic.
“Church doesn’t feel as important or like a priority anymore for some people, and the pandemic has definitely accelerated those trends,” he says. “If this time is not responded to with active outreach and almost a renewal or reinvention of parish life, we might not see people coming back to our parishes.”
Rather than waiting for church leadership to make decisions on the kind of ministries or technologies that should be used to engage parishioners, DeLorenzo advises Catholics to use their imaginations and talents and offer up whatever gifts they already have.
“I think it’s on us as a parish community to make this effort to engage people, to serve people, and to nourish people,” he says. “I think the lower-stake things—like making outreach by phone and building active connections with people—are going to be the same things that end up making parish life seem like something worth prioritizing.”
This article also appears in the August 2021 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 86, No. 7, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.