A priest doing one-armed push-ups. Afternoon public displays of the Blessed Sacrament from rectory windows and parking-lot Adorations. Drive-through confessionals. Live-streams and Zoom gatherings. Online classes and catechism. A phone call from the parish priest.
These are just some of the ways priests and parishes in the Diocese of Orange have altered practices and found ways to stay connected with congregants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After just three months, 21st-century ministering in the Catholic Church may be undergoing fundamental and, perhaps, permanent change.
That’s the view of Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Freyer of the Diocese of Orange.
“We’re taking advantage of the pandemic to create new paradigms, not just for the short term, but the long term,” the bishop said.
Although Bishop Freyer said the core duties of priests remain the same: delivering the good Word, administering the sacraments and caring for the poor and infirm, the ways in which those are done are undergoing a transformation. Priests have been called upon to adapt and to interact in new and profound ways.
Although restrictions are gradually being removed and parishioners will slowly be allowed to return, the pandemic caused unprecedented challenges for priests who, because of the coronavirus, were physically removed from their flocks.
As a result, many fathers learned new technologies on the fly as they sought to maintain connections with the faithful.
Bishop Freyer said much in the way widespread literacy and reading changed preaching from a mostly oral tradition, so are new technologies changing practices.
The pandemic accelerated the process.
Bishop Freyer said the Church is continually called upon “to be more effective, as people and society changes.
“The truth is always there. How it is taught changes.”
Parishes have taken to live-streaming Masses for congregants to view remotely and others have found new and inventive ways to interact with parishioners. Many priests have learned that “zoom” is no longer just a verb.
Many meetings with groups of congregants are now held on popular videoconferencing programs.
Then there is Father Damien Giap; he, a master of the one-armed push-up. The rector for St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Costa Mesa, along with other priests, has been featured in posted videos offering morning prayers, announcements and shout outs to students. Not to mention the occasional display of physical prowess.
Father Damien said he was raised on 1980s technology, but has scrambled to become more adept with new technologies.
During the pandemic, he said he has taken his mobile phone around and shot and posted clips on social media as a way to stay connected, particularly with students and youth. He also has been featured on the online JSerra Lion Report: Quarantine Edition.
“I’ve never shot videos before,” Father Damien said. But he was inspired to start reaching out online after students would remark about having seen him on Instagram or other platforms.
“So I just started making short videos,” he said.
Father Brandon Dang, director of the diocese Vocations Office, said he is lucky that as a millennial, unlike many fellow clergy, he was conversant in new technologies. He has even helped churches set up their live-streaming and social media platforms to be more accessible to parishioners.
Recently, Father Brandon and seminarians studying for the priesthood and diaconate met via Zoom for a Day of Recollection, which is usually an in-person prayer experience.
One of the positive changes Bishop Freyer sees has been an effort to reach out to the parents to take a more active role in their children’s religious education by offering online instruction for things like communion and confirmation.
“The church has been asking for as long as we’ve been alive to help parents teach their kids,” Bishop Freyer said, and that’s starting to happen as more content is being developed for home learning.
It’s not all about new technology, however. Many priests have been reintroduced to an old friend — the telephone.
Bishop Freyer said, “many priests have been just calling and reaching out to the elderly. They’ve found that rewarding and people found it touching that priests would reach out.”
Father Brandon says he has been on the phone much more in recent months.
“I’ve had a lot more calls to walk with people,” he said.
For all technology can do to connect people, it lacks the connection that can only be made in-person.
“It’s not organic,” said Father Brandon. “It’s different. When you preach you have the crowd. There’s a dialogue with body language. There’s an interaction that’s missing.”
Bishop Freyer said priests miss seeing familiar faces when they preach to a camera.
Fr. Damien said electronic interaction is lacking in fundamental ways.
“In the long run, I want to be back to where we’re all together. I like to be present and put away all the things that distract us, like our gadgets. I’d like to look a person in the eye.”