Meeting the spiritual needs of large groups of people is a significant ministry in normal circumstances.
Serving as a chief operating officer for those same large groups adds another element.
Doing it all without the benefit of personal interaction makes the whole effort that much more challenging.
More than 50 Catholic pastors in the Diocese of Wilmington have been dealing with these and other issues in the time of coronavirus in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
Msgr. Steven P. Hurley, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Wilmington, and other administrators have been leading the charge in helping Bishop Malooly assist these pastors and their parishioners through these unprecedented circumstances. Assessing the needs of the parish leaders needed to be a part of the process and a significant step came when the diocese conducted a survey of the 56 priests running parishes.
“Nobody was prepared for this,” Msgr. Hurley said. “How could you be?”
“Everyone has stepped up. It’s kind of amazing when you think how we’ve done ministry and how much that’s changed in the last six weeks. “
First and foremost among the pastors was the health and well-being of their parishioners, the survey found. Delaware and Maryland have both been hard hit by death and illness in the coronavirus pandemic, and administering most sacraments has been made difficult if not impossible.
“The isolation of the elderly living alone, that is a big concern,” Msgr. Hurley said. “With no sacraments and trying to stay connected, especially with some people with no Internet access, we try our best to connect by phone.”
As pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Wilmington, Msgr. Hurley was facing some of the same challenges as the pastors he supports as diocesan vicar.
“I was not prepared for how much I miss seeing our parishioners,” he said, adding that a similar sentiment was expressed by his brother priests.
The diocese consists of seven deaneries and while it was nearly impossible to consistently stay in contact with each pastor, Bishop Malooly, Msgr. Hurley and Father Joseph W. McQuaide IV, diocese chancellor, have met weekly online with the heads of the deaneries to stay on top of issues each parish encountered.
“It helped us to know ‘What’s the general feeling? What’s going on in the parishes?’”
While they have some of the same challenges, many issues are unique to each parish, Msgr. Hurley said.
“The parishes in the beach areas, for example,” he said. “Beaches are closed for foreseeable future. How long? We don’t know.
“What are the ramifications? Spiritually, financially, emotionally. We don’t know. So we have to take it day-by-day. To look too far ahead is going to be overwhelming and with things changing so quickly, we just don’t know.”
Finding the way forward was part of the goal of the survey.
Pastors have employees, bills to pay, in some cases schools to support and many of the struggles of day-to-day workplaces. The majority of parishes have stayed connected with online Sunday bulletins, letters to parish members and expanded use of the web and social media.
Livestreamed Masses have become the norm and in some cases attracted people who otherwise might not have been at Mass at all. Services online have been a boost to people who otherwise can’t get out in normal circumstances.
“We’re going to have to keep this stuff up after we return to church because there are a lot of people who can’t make it and have become accustomed to it, and to take that from them, I don’t think would be a good idea,” Msgr. Hurley said.
The vicar general said he and the bishop are grateful for diocese employees who have kept up with works of ministry, in many cases remotely, and especially at schools where distance learning was dropped into the laps of educators with barely a moment’s notice.
“The schools are making it happen,” the monsignor said. “The kids are getting a quality education. If this had happened 20 years ago, it would look much different.
“So many people depend on us. We’re so proud of all our people.”
Offertory contributions have been a concern over the last two months, but online giving has helped since most parishes already had that option for donors and those that did not were assisted by the diocese in connecting parishioners to methods of contributing via the web.
“People appreciate the ability to do that,” he said.
Msgr. Hurley said everyone is looking forward to getting back to church, but it won’t be a simple flip of the switch. The diocese is uniquely positioned over two states and has adhered to regulations in both places.
“We’re not just going to open up and things will be back to normal. Never in modern times have we experienced anything like this.
“In any dark situation, always God’s grace will bring us to light. We’re being brought together in a different kind of way. The frenetic pace has come to a halt and maybe that’s a good thing for us. Something positive will come out of a terrible situation.”