WASHINGTON (CNS) — Bishops John E. Stowe, Oscar Cantu, and Mark J. Seitz are known for putting on the miles visiting their respective dioceses, whether on the rural roads of Kentucky, the bottleneck traffic of San Jose, California, or the border community of El Paso, Texas.
But in mid-March, like the rest of the world, the three prelates, along with bishops worldwide, were forced to change the way they operated their dioceses practically overnight as civil authorities put in place restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, they’ve had to run their dioceses ‘virtually,’ meeting with staff via teleconferencing services, filming public service announcements and connecting to their communities through the lens of the camera in nearly empty cathedrals or chapels as they livestream Mass.
When Kentucky put in place a stay-at-home order in mid-March, one of the first in the country to do so, Bishop Stowe said the Diocese of Lexington, which he leads, didn’t have much time to prepare. But he quickly “lifted” the obligation to attend Mass, sending out “strong encouragement for vulnerable populations not to attend,” as all pulled together to move as fast as possible to institute social-distancing measures for those who were still attending physically, while trying to move the celebration of the Eucharist and local church operations online.
With social media in wide use in his diocese, “we got the word out rather quickly and were able to get the Mass available ‘virtually’ to a lot of people with a lot of expressions of gratitude for having that in place,” he said in a May 1 phone interview with Catholic News Service.
Within days, priests and lay ministers began to connect with parishioners via a variety of platforms, which besides keeping the Mass alive online, also organized activities to serve the local community with the needs the crisis produced.
“My biggest fear was that, with this shutdown and stay-at-home regulations, the church would become invisible, but it hasn’t,” Bishop Stowe said. “Appeals for Catholic Charities had a great response. Our Catholic schools were the first to open their cafeterias to kids that were undernourished and depended on their school lunches for regular nutrition. I’ve been impressed by the way they (priests and lay ministers) have responded.”