April 23, 2021

‘God was with us’

Pastors reflect on parish ministry a year after start of pandemic

Bundled up for snow and temperatures in the teens, worshippers pray during an outdoor midnight Mass on Dec. 25, 2020, on the St. John the Baptist campus of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County. In order to accommodate more worshipers than would be allowed indoors, the Batesville Deanery faith community has celebrated Sunday and holy day Masses outside during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

Bundled up for snow and temperatures in the teens, worshippers pray during an outdoor midnight Mass on Dec. 25, 2020, on the St. John the Baptist campus of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County. In order to accommodate more worshipers than would be allowed indoors, the Batesville Deanery faith community has celebrated Sunday and holy day Masses outside during the coronavirus pandemic. (Submitted photo)

First of a two-part series
 

By Sean Gallagher

On March 19, 2020, the feast of St. Joseph, Father Michael Keucher sat in a church in Shelbyville dedicated to the saint.

The church that can seat 700 worshippers was empty. A day before, public worship had been suspended across the state due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I remember sitting in the front pew in front of the Blessed Mother statue crying,” Father Keucher recalled. “I thought, ‘What does this mean?’ There were so many uncertainties.”

But there were also certainties. For Father Keucher and many other parish leaders across central and southern Indiana at the start of the pandemic, there was the rock-solid certainty of faith in God and the help of all his angels and saints.

“We just entrusted the whole thing to St. Joseph—the whole pandemic and all the uncertainties,” Father Keucher said.

That faith spurred creativity in priests and their parish staff members across the archdiocese—a creativity that remained after public worship and other parish activities and ministries resumed in mid-May 2020.

Now a year into the pandemic, with more knowledge of how to protect people from COVID-19 and with the introduction of vaccines, archdiocesan pastors spoke with The Criterion about their experience of the challenges and blessings of parish ministry during the pandemic.

‘We were reaching more people’

With parishioners unable to come to parishes, several pastoral leaders turned to the internet to continue their ministry.

Many archdiocesan parishes were not prepared to post and livestream videos at the start of the pandemic. Grants awarded by the Center for Congregations early on helped 53 parishes across central and southern Indiana upgrade digital technology and make online ministry a real possibility.

The 2,700 grants totaling more than $13 million that the Center for Congregations awarded to congregations across the state were primarily funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, Inc.

All Saints Parish in Dearborn County jumped into livestreaming worship and catechetical presentations headfirst.

From March 18, 2020, until March 18, 2021, All Saints livestreamed or uploaded 1,391 videos—an average of nearly four per day for an entire year. They included daily livestreamed Masses and holy hours.

The Batesville Deanery faith community had been posting some videos before COVID-19 and had 15,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel a year ago. But its increased efforts during the pandemic has doubled its subscribers a year later.

“We actually started doing more work during the shutdown than we were prior to it,” said Father Jonathan Meyer, pastor of All Saints Parish. “Even though our churches were closed, we were reaching more people and being more effective and intentional in our ministry than we were even before.”

Father Keucher and his staff at St. Joseph made a similar effort in launching online ministry.

But as active as he was and with the good responses he received from many people who benefited from St. Joseph’s videos, there was still a hole in Father Keucher’s heart.

“I felt like a father who was not able to provide a meal for his family,” he said. “I’m the spiritual father of the family that we call St. Joe Parish and I wasn’t able to give them the sacraments, which is the food that our souls require. To know how much the people were hurting because of that was very hard.”

To gain back some of that personal connection, Father Keucher and Billy Cross, St. Joseph’s pastoral associate, drove the parish’s school bus around Shelby County to the homes of St. Joseph School students to visit them through windows.

“Even though we weren’t able to hug them or give them high fives, we were able to see them,” Father Keucher said. “And the smiles on their faces were just beautiful—and the smiles on ours, too.”

Old technology for new challenges

That personal and spiritual connection was maintained in many parishes through leveraging older technologies—telephone and print.

Father Meyer and his parish staff members reached out by phone regularly to parishioners who were sick or homebound.

“We went full throttle,” he said. “We made the commitment of calling them every single week.”

And he found that the connections between him, his staff members and those parishioners were deepened. In the past, visits to their home may have been focused on giving them Communion. With home visits and the sacraments unavailable, personal conversations came to the fore.

“We were doing more than we were doing previously—in different ways,” Father Meyer said.

Father Todd Goodson and his staff at Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood had a similar experience in reaching out by phone to parishioners.

“The more personal and one-on-one the connection is, the better,” Father Goodson said. “That was very well received by the parish. And I think the staff enjoyed it. We’re used to responding to requests that come in. It was nice to be able to minister, offer prayer and just check in on people.”

Benedictine Father Luke Waugh found he had many spiritual phone conversations with the members of St. Isidore the Farmer Parish in Perry County that he leads.

Soon after the shutdown began, he launched a weekly parish newsletter called “Farming the Soul.” Within weeks, a group of parishioners helped produce it, which included information ordinarily found in a parish bulletin, but also featured articles written by parishioners of all ages, reflection questions on Scripture passages, news about parishioners, Catholic humor and trivia questions.

Print copies of the newsletter were mailed to older parishioners who didn’t have access to the internet. They were also available online.

“I spent more time on the phone talking with people based on what they had read in the newsletter,” Father Luke said. “It was intended to keep the parish together when we couldn’t stay together physically.”

‘God was with us’

Catholics across central and southern Indiana were able to come together physically in limited ways when churches re-opened on May 13, 2020.

It was the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. More than 150 members of All Saints Parish gathered for eucharistic adoration in a field dedicated to Mary on its St. Joseph campus.

“We were back in a situation where people could be with our Lord,” Father Meyer said. “It was overwhelming. There were tears of joy.”

The sacrament of penance was also available again on May 13. For several days, Father Meyer and other priests heard confessions for up to 12 hours at a time at All Saints.

“The lines were huge,” Father Meyer said. “It was such a powerful experience of being a priest. This is why I’m a priest. These people had been trapped in their homes, but also trapped in addiction, guilt and shame. They just wanted to be set free.”

When Masses were able to be celebrated publicly, some parishes scheduled them for outdoor locations to allow for a larger congregation than could be allowed indoors due to pandemic restrictions.

All Saints Parish has continued to offer outdoor Masses on weekends on its St. John the Baptist campus, even through the cold weather of autumn and winter.

That included a midnight Mass on Christmas last year that drew 600 worshippers, with snow falling and temperatures in the teens.

“There we were, in very challenging times and conditions,” Father Meyer said. “But God was with us. The entire Mass was a microcosm of what we’d been through—the struggles, the difficulties and the toil. Yet, we had to find beauty in it. We had to know that God had not abandoned us. He was with us.”
 

(The second part of this two-part package will explore the lessons learned by parish leaders in the pandemic, and how they hope to change parish ministry now and in the future.)

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