May 28, 2021

Creativity, small groups guide ministry leaders through pandemic and beyond

By John Shaughnessy

The celebration of faith had been in the planning for months, all with the goal of having as many as 1,000 teenagers from across the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and the Lafayette Diocese come together to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ.

“We were excited to gather the teens and provide an environment for them to encounter the Lord and be ignited by his Spirit,” says Paul Sifuentes, the director of youth ministry for the archdiocese.

Yet similar to many people’s best-laid plans in the past 14 months, the in-person event called IGNITE that was planned for November in Indianapolis went up in flames because of the COVID-19 virus.

So Sifuentes and his team went to an alternate plan, creating a virtual event that allowed youths to gather in small groups at their parish or to participate virtually in their homes.

“This allowed us to meet people where they are and allowed parishes to serve their families in unique ways,” Sifuentes says. “The day itself was full of engaging talks and prayer experiences. It was powerful to see that we could still help youths walk with Christ, even if it wasn’t ideal.”

The IGNITE situation reflects the reality that all archdiocesan ministries have faced during the pandemic.

“We’ve all felt the burden of the drastic change and having to scramble to try to serve people in a different way,” says Brie Anne Varick, coordinator of the Office of Human Life and Dignity in the archdiocese. “As we’ve been talking in leadership, I think God is having us pause and go smaller and be intentional. You really get to walk with people closer when it’s smaller.

“Normally, I’d focus on trying to get as many people as I can at once-a-year events. Now, I’m looking to have smaller, more frequent opportunities for people to come together, whether that’s in a virtual Scripture study or retreats for 10-12 people. I’m trying to incorporate that more into my ministry so we can build relationships that facilitate encounters with the Lord and the sacraments.”

Being creative has been another focus of ministry during the pandemic—a direction that was strikingly evident in the pro-life rally sponsored by the archdiocese, the Lafayette Diocese and Right to Life of Indianapolis on Jan. 22.

A year of ‘prayerful innovation’

In a usual year, more than 1,000 people would attend a Mass and then participate in a march in downtown Indianapolis to stand up for life on the anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the country.

The pandemic forced a change in that approach, including “a last-minute plan to do a car rally,” Varick says.

“We could only have 250 people for the Mass, and they had a little over 100 cars for the rally,” she says. “That’s one way they were creative. Everyone was celebrating that we still did it. We didn’t have to cancel it. That’s where you have to discern what’s important and still make it happen, even if it looks different.”

That approach is echoed by Ken Ogorek, the director of the Office of Catechesis in the archdiocese who works closely with parish catechetical leaders.

“It’s been a year of high activity and prayerful innovation,” Ogorek says. “Coincidentally—maybe providentially—we were already leaning away from large, central gatherings for some of our activities in favor of smaller, more local experiences. 

“As we’ve proposed events like this to parish leaders, the response has been very positive. Larger gatherings still have a place, but we’ll be complementing them with smaller opportunities that involve a few parishes rather than all 126.”

The pandemic has also put a more intense focus on providing support to ministry leaders at the parish level.

‘The effects of isolation are real’

“Gathering together the community of believers is a key element of our Church,” Sifuentes says. “Not being able to do this with regularity has been difficult for our office, but even more so for the parishes we serve. The effects of isolation are real and have affected both youth and adult leaders in ministry.”

To ease these effects, the youth ministry staff started a bi-weekly call to check in with youth ministers across the archdiocese.

“There is no set agenda, other than to listen and support one another,” Sifuentes says. “We always begin and end with prayer, and it has helped keep the feelings of complete isolation as a minister at bay.”

Ogorek has seen a similar impact on parish catechetical leaders who have expressed how much they miss seeing their parishioners.

“These leaders have experienced a sense of loss in part because so much of what we do in faith formation ministry involves being an authentic, human presence for those we serve,” he says.

“This sadness and sense of loss have been challenging. And knowing that so many folks have lost loved ones and/or are experiencing financial hardship related to the pandemic lends a somewhat sad perspective to all of our ministerial activity. We’ve tried to accompany these ministers with support, resources and a listening ear.”

Amid these challenges, Varick also sees an opportunity.

‘People are yearning for community’

“One more thing that I think is important is God is really wanting to heal in this time,” she says.

That emphasis was a natural theme of the archdiocese’s annual Healing Mass on Sept. 15. About 60 people came to—and another 34 watched online—the Mass that focused on mental health concerns.

“People talk about the mental health crisis because of the pandemic,” Varick says. “Addictions got worse. Thoughts of suicide and suicides have gone up. So has domestic violence and any kind of abuse.

“The Mass was a powerful experience. We had the most people show up at that Mass than we ever have, and it was during the pandemic. I think that revealed that people are really yearning for community. They really want to pray with people.”

Even with all the changes, concerns and creativity that the pandemic has spurred, these leaders insist that the emphasis on coming together as a community of faith is still the guiding goal in Catholic ministry. There’s a sense of joy—and challenge—with the news that the Indiana bishops, led by Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, have decided to lift the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass effective on June 11.

Ogorek says it’s important “for our own sake to get to Mass each and every Sunday and holy day of obligation.

“Let’s not be shy about sharing with our neighbor how our relationship with Jesus is deepened beyond measure when we worship him at Mass each Sunday and experience his great mercy in the sacrament of reconciliation.” †

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