BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
In the afternoon of March 19, 2020, Fr. John Thomas of Holy Spirit Parish in Bowling Green took out his cellphone and, with fellow parish priests and seminarian intern, began to pray the rosary over Facebook Live.
The COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to take the United States by storm, though multiple other countries were already reeling from rising coronavirus cases. A few days earlier, Bishop William F. Medley had announced a temporary suspension of public Masses to help stop the spread.
At Holy Spirit, Fr. Thomas asked Fr. Shijo Vadakumkara (from India), Fr. Jude Okeoma (from Nigeria) and seminarian Martin Ma Na Ling (from Myanmar, also known as Burma) to lead their respective decades in their native languages, “and we’ll respond in English.”
“This is a worldwide pandemic,” he said. “Let’s make this an international rosary.”
Much has changed – and continues to change – in the Diocese of Owensboro since March 19. Beginning on May 20, public Masses were permitted once again within the diocese.
Restrictions remain, however.
Masks are required at Mass and social distancing is enforced in churches. The bishop has extended his general dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass until further notice, keeping in mind the needs of those especially vulnerable to the virus, who cannot yet safely attend public gatherings. Some parish and Catholic school activities have resumed – but with significant restrictions and guidelines to foster the safety of all involved.
Fr. Thomas told the WKC that Holy Spirit has had a revolving door in past months. While Fr. Vadakumkara remains as a parochial vicar, Ma Na Ling has moved to Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Henderson for his summer internship, and Fr. Okeoma is now the parochial vicar of St. Mary of the Woods Parish in Whitesville and St. John the Baptist Parish in Fordsville.
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than, who was ordained to the priesthood in May, has joined Holy Spirit as a parochial vicar.
But Holy Spirit’s multilingual, international rosary is still prayed Mondays through Fridays at 3 p.m. on Facebook Live, with a dedicated digital following.
Fr. Thomas said that despite the anxiety about the ongoing pandemic and what the future may bring, this routine of the rosary has been “enriching” to pray with his brother priests “and to reach out.”
“I have done my best to look for the positive in the worst,” he said.
Needing to be patient
Fr. Suneesh Mathew, HGN, pastor of Precious Blood Parish in Owensboro, admitted that the pandemic shutdown was difficult for him in the beginning, “as I am an extrovert and like to meet and be with people.”
“At the same time it was a constant realization that without the people, the priests are ‘zero,’” said Fr. Mathew. “I never imagined celebrating Mass in an empty church.”
He said that like many other parishes in the diocese, Precious Blood began livestreaming their Masses when the suspension of public liturgies was announced.
“That was the only way to pray with people in the beginning,” said Fr. Mathew. He also mourned the loss of the ability to visit the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, and of not being able to take Holy Communion to the homebound.
Fr. Mathew said he was touched by the generosity of parishioners who, even though they could not be physically present during the shutdown, would send their Sunday offerings in the mail – “which made me realize their love and sense of belonging for the parish.”
Now that public Masses may be celebrated again, he said most of the people who had participated via livestream have started coming back to in-person Mass. His daily Mass regulars have returned for the most part, but weekend Masses are still “not very well attended.”
“I see only a few young people at church,” he said. “Most of the people that come to church here at Precious Blood have been elderly.”
Since there are multiple reasons why people have chosen to postpone returning, Precious Blood continues livestreaming Mass.
“Time is the best healer,” said Fr. Mathew. “But we need to be patient. Let us continue pray for one another and reach out to one another as we can.”
Gratitude for committed staff
Fr. Brad Whistle, pastor of St. Thomas More Parish in Paducah, said he really missed his parishioners during the shutdown, especially the familiar faces of his daily Mass goers.
“There was such a spiritual hunger to share the Eucharist with the people,” he told the WKC.
With in-person Masses starting up again, he said the number of people attending Sunday Mass “is far from normal… the majority of our people are still not coming to Sunday Mass.”
They have added two extra weekday Masses as options for people not yet comfortable attending the larger Sunday liturgies. Fr. Whistle said this system has been “working well and consistent.”
St. Thomas More has also continued to livestream Mass, since “word got to us very quickly that the people wanted to watch Mass (celebrated in) our church,” he said.
Fr. Whistle credited the parish’s “dedicated and committed staff” who have been conducting Zoom meetings for RCIA candidates and sponsors as well as for the stewardship committee members; providing children’s Liturgy of the Word materials; perfecting the livestream for Masses; communicating weekly with parishioners; helping Fr. Whistle film “mid-week reflections” for the website; remaining conscious of the business aspect of parish life; and overall just being there for anything.
“Over these past four months this staff did a lot of their ministry from home,” he said. “They have just been phenomenal.”
Fr. Whistle also added “a tremendous ‘thank you’ to the many offices at the McRaith Catholic Center. You were there to answer questions when we needed you. Thank you.”
A spiritual ‘sheltering in place’
Fr. Richard Meredith, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Hopkinsville, said his philosophy over the past months has been “to be careful but not fearful, cautious not to spread contagion to others, using masks, distance, and hand sanitizer.”
During the shutdown, he said he viewed the experience as a “spiritual ‘wartime’ sheltering in place,” and gave himself more time for prayer, reading and writing.
Fr. Meredith said he was quickly taught how to video the Mass with his phone and post it to Facebook, later transitioning to “even better technology.”
With public Masses happening again, he said many people still pray the Mass over livestream and/or radio; the parish currently livestreams at least one Mass a day, and on Sundays one in English and one in Spanish.
“We have many parishioners for whom this is the only way to pray with us, given their concern for their vulnerability,” said Fr. Meredith. “Information from Facebook indicates that we have people participating from around the U.S., sometimes Germany, and sometimes Argentina.”
He is thankful for his parish family and staff who “acted with a very positive ‘can do’ attitude even while experiencing anxiety and fear.”
“All look forward to better, less dangerous times,” he said. “We keep this in prayer together.”
Fr. Meredith also believes God has made the pandemic “an occasion of evangelical grace.”
“By and large the faithful have met it with prayer and spiritual resilience,” he said. “The suffering of the pandemic and the disruptions and losses have been met with determination and with hope.”
Originally printed in the August 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic