The coronavirus pandemic may have forced the stoppage of Masses open to the public, but several priests in the Diocese of Wilmington have discovered positives during a trying time.
The diocese and a few dozen parishes in the diocese are now streaming daily and Sunday Masses online, either live or recorded, and the priests celebrating those services say the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the main reasons is the video Masses are a way for parishioners to connect with their spiritual home.
“It’s interesting the number of people that have been watching the live stream or watching it later. They’re from all over the country and people who have moved away,” said Father Norman Carroll, pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wilmington.
Father Steven Giuliano, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in Seaford since last June, has been getting notes from parishioners expressing their appreciation. When he started streaming Mass, Father Giuliano was at his residence because there was no wifi in the church. The parish has since installed the necessary equipment at the church, and Masses are now streamed from there.
In addition to Mass, Father Giuliano streams a daily reflection on Facebook Live, which is available through a link on the parish website soon thereafter.
“While I sit and have my coffee, I read the Gospel for the day and reflect on it with folks,” he said. “That has been very well-received.”
Father Giuliano also has done some other online presentations. He took photos of the stained-glass windows in the church that represent the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary, and he did the same with the Stations of the Cross at the church. For the stations, he composed reflections for each one related to the pandemic.
“It’s certainly different than normal, but it’s been a really good experience. I’ve gotten really tremendous positive feedback from people,” he said.
“We’re trying to keep people connected to the church, and most people seem to be most thankful for it,” said Father John Klevence, the pastor. “One person said to me, ‘You know, we could watch it on EWTN, but we don’t have a connection with that church. When we see St. Ann’s, we remember where we sit, we know the people next to us, we know our priests.’ They feel at home, and there’s a feeling of connectedness.
“Everybody is so grateful and so thankful.”
For Father Klevence and the other priests, standing at the altar of an empty church was strange at first, but now is something they are used to. He remarked that parishes adapted quickly to something that just months ago was inconceivable and technologically impossible until recent years.
“Not too many years ago, this would not have been able to be done. Whoever would have thought it would have to be done?” he asked.
At St. Mary Magdalen in Brandywine Hundred, the pastor, Father James Kirk, said this was not only the most unusual Holy Week in his nearly 35 years of priesthood and 63 years of life.
“It’s very, very odd,” he said.
“They’re so happy because they don’t have access to the sacraments any other way. It’s the virtual church at the moment. It’s the only way we have to have contact with the people of the parish. I certainly haven’t had any negative stuff. If they’re out there, they’ve been quiet,” he said.
In a way, Father Kirk continued, the current situation hearkens back to the role of priests in the past.
“From early times, from ancient times, the primary duty of the priest has always been to offer prayers on behalf of the people. As I was reflecting upon it earlier, it was a profound reality to me that maybe for the first time, I was really and truly offering this on behalf of the people as a sincere duty and a sincere responsibility because they couldn’t be there. I take that as a positive. I just came away with a sense of a profound duty and responsibility to do this,” he said.
One parish that is not streaming Mass is St. Thomas More Oratory in Newark. Oblate Father Michael Vannicola, in his first year as the pastor, said one reason is the variety of Masses available, and another is the setup at the oratory would not allow streaming the Mass “with the dignity it deserves,” Father Vannicola said.
“I also think this is a very good time for us to be united around our bishop and to be watching the Masses he’s doing,” he added.
That doesn’t mean St. Thomas More Oratory is not reaching out to parishioners during the pandemic.
“On our Facebook page, we put up something every day, something inspirational, or something related to the feast of the day,” Father Vannicola said. “We try to connect. We try to send our regular emails. Our parishioners have responded well to those videos, and they really like watching the diocesan Masses. We’ve gotten good feedback for that.”
“It’s tough. We all became priests to serve the people of God, to be there for them and be close to them, to pray with them and lead them in prayer. So for them not to be there is very difficult, but I take it kind of in a different way. I say I’m praying on their behalf,” he said.
The oratory, which serves both students at the University of Delaware and a segment of the local population, is also continuing several of its ministries through Zoom, the online video conferencing application. That includes religious education, a rosary group and two Bible study groups.
“We’re finding a good, positive response from the people. They feel very connected to the parish. I think that’s been a real blessing through this,” Father Vannicola said.
Looking toward the future
Each of the parishes contacted plans on keeping their current setup as long as is necessary. For Father Carroll, that means looking at photos of his parishioners in the chapel, which he has taped to the seats where they normally sit, “which means that some people are on top of each other because they don’t go to the same Mass.”
What Father Carroll and the other priests really desire, of course, is to be reunited with their parishioners physically. However, they are considering keeping the streaming once the pandemic is over. Father Giuliano said he has wanted to make this part of Our Lady of Lourdes for some time.
“Even after this is over, I’ve always said I would like to be able to live stream our Masses so that the shut-ins can watch Mass on their own church,” he said.
Father Kirk said officials at St. Mary Magdalen are discussing whether to continue to offer streaming.
“It might be worth the investment to buy some really good cameras,” he said. After all, EWTN “is not the same as your home church.”