While the recent COVID-19 phenomenon has impacted all Alaskans, it poses a particular problem for Catholics (and believers of all faiths) who wish to gather for worship but find themselves unable to do so. Each parish community in the archdiocese has worked in the past weeks to provide faith, support, and encouragement to the people of God in southwest and southcentral Alaska. Parishes are facing the crisis head-on and taking important steps in responding to the needs of the people.
“One of the great challenges is that people are feeling the inaccessibility to the Eucharist,” said Fr. Steve Maekawa of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage. “There are many people who come to Sunday Mass, daily Masses during the week, or have holy hours during adoration, or are involved in ministry groups. There’s an absence in their life that’s really obvious, particularly in the Eucharist: an explicit presence of God in their life that they’ve lost, that’s been taken away.”
Beyond the initial challenge of accessing the sacraments, most people’s daily routines have been drastically altered. “Some people are isolated and don’t have a lot of contact,” said Fr. Maekawa. “We’re going through the parish registry and calling all of our parishioners, to check in with them, ask if they’re okay, how they’re doing, if there’s anything we can do to help them.”
In small communities such as Cordova, churches are the lifeblood of the community. “I know that the church is not a building,” said Fr. Michael Kim of St. Joseph Parish in Cordova. “I know Sunday is just a part of church life, but the last few weeks felt like a condensed symbol of loss. It hurt to know that our people would feel the loss, too.”
While small communities face distinct challenges such as limited access to healthcare and social services, they bond together to serve one another. “St. Joseph’s parishioners have a special affection and love for their local parish as the presence of the church in their community, and that’s a beautiful thing,” said Fr. Kim. “I hope this time of crisis brings out new and better ways of taking care of each other, praying for neighbors and doing stewardship and charity for those in need.”
In Kodiak, too, Fr. Frank Reitter noted the unique impact the parish has in the broader community. “We’re getting a lot of (Facebook) ‘likes’ from the larger community. I don’t know if anybody’s watching the videos, but they’re seeing that we’re proactive and reaching out to provide for people’s spiritual needs. We’re evangelizers,” said Fr. Reitter.
Fr. Reitter shared that he was recently interviewed on a local radio program and was asked,“What’s it like to be Catholic?” He responded, “We are a tactile religion. It’s physical communion. It’s holding hands during the Our Father. We are the Body of Christ, not the Spirit of Christ. It’s anointing, it’s laying hands on someone’s head, you know, and so for us, it’s making me aware of how tactile and physical we are.”
Fr. Reitter makes a point to pray with the St. Mary School children in their digital classroom and continues the Lenten traditions of Stations of the Cross and a “digital soup supper” with the Lutheran and Episcopal community. However, he noted that it doesn’t always go as planned. “My brother and sister sent me a new GoPro camera so I could do a better job,” said Fr. Reitter. “I can start and stop it with my voice, and I always forget to edit it out at the end. I always say, ‘Stop GoPro,’ but that’s the wrong one, so then I say, ‘GoPro, stop,’ and then it will turn off. And I always forget to edit that part out, and everybody laughs.”
Fr. Michael Shields at St. Michael Parish in Palmer also commented on how his view of technology has changed. “The technology stuff I always downplayed is really key right now. It’s incredible what can be done with it,” said Fr. Shields. “We have more people going to daily Mass now than we would have on a normal day. We have 25-30 attending daily Mass in the morning, and by the end of the day, there are 100 views.” He added that seeing those numbers has changed the way he approaches daily Mass. “I’ve decided that every daily Mass will have a Sunday-sized homily, anywhere from a 5-10 minute homily, focusing on building faith. I want to make sure that they have something they can take with them.”
Fr. Shields also noted that the parish’s outreach efforts have welcomed new people into the church. “There’s one young woman who just moved up from Philadelphia, and she’s not joining yet because of the isolation, but she’s really excited because she’s coming into a church that, even though it’s closed down, is active,” said Fr. Shields. “That’s the main thing we’re doing: making sure people have the Word of God preached to them in their home.”
Every community agrees that celebrating Mass has been a challenge. “We’re figuring out how as a faith community to celebrate the liturgy ‘apart together,’” said Fr. Hank Grodecki of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral. “We’re discerning what is absolutely necessary and what isn’t. The church law and norms are helpful with this, but there is still a need to prioritize, and always be mindful of the common good.”
As his parish grows together in new ways, Fr. Grodecki noted the special blessing of being a part of living in a religious community. “I have a deeper appreciation of the importance of our gathering as a Church for worship, celebration, and mutual support,” said Fr. Grodecki. “We’re blessed by the kindness and understanding of the parishioners, and they are checking in on each other by social media.”
Fr. Leo Walsh of St. Patrick Parish in Anchorage noted four challenges at the parish: connection, communication, finances, and formation. “The biggest challenge is that we are not meeting as a congregation, and that is one of the very things that define a congregation…we congregate,” he said. “Most people are used to giving to their church in the Sunday collection. Since that is not happening, we have seen a marked drop in stewardship of treasure in the parish. Online giving helps tremendously, and many are mailing in their envelopes and donations. Still, when folks are experiencing their own financial uncertainty, that will be reflected in what they are able to give to their parish.”
Parishes recognize the importance of bridging the gap between broadcasting and providing formative faith experiences, which can be particularly tricky over distance. “Although we can keep the information flowing, there is a difference between ‘formation in the faith’ and simply passing on information about the faith,” said Fr. Walsh. “We are formed in community. Still, I think there is a lot more personal prayer going on among the people of God. Folks have a little more time and have been very creative in setting up prayer spaces and ‘cyber chapels’ in their homes. I hope they continue to make as much time for personal prayer when this is over as they are now.”
Many parishioners and parish staff members have also taken an active role in ministry throughout this time and are appreciative of the support from the clergy. “Father Michael is doing a great job with video Mass,” said Debbie Collins, Director of Faith Formation at St. Joseph Parish in Cordova. “He offered a novena for everyone’s safety, Stations of the Cross, and Adoration. Most of the Faith Formation teachers work in the school as support staff and teachers, so they are in contact with the students on a daily basis.”
Many parish staff members are using this opportunity to understand faith in a new light. “Fr. Leo encouraged us to discover ‘extraordinary means’ of receiving God’s grace,” said John Gagnon, Business Manager at St. Patrick. “I have been blessed by having more time to pray. A prayer I have rediscovered from my early years is the Angelus.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Anchorage has begun a “COVID Outreach Ministry,” coordinated by Diana Weber and Tessa Wilson, to assist in reaching the parish’s needs. “It’s difficult for high-risk folks to get groceries and supplies without being afraid of risking their health,” said Diana Weber. “The Ministry established a rapid referral process that made sure high needs parishioners got connected to medical, emotional, technical and spiritual supports.” With Fr. Scott’s vision many volunteers are pitching in and are working very hard so that no parishioner feels alone.
While St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School’s students can’t attend the usual Wednesday Mass, they, too, are still connected to the parish community. “Fr. Scott has preached some wonderful homilies to help the children overcome fear in a troubled time,” said Weber. “He gave such a comforting description of how a Christian understands death that many adults watching the Mass voiced their gratitude for his wisdom.”
Young people have the unique opportunity to focus on prayer this Lent, while their lives are a little less busy than usual. “I have seen many students growing spiritually during this time and diving deeper into their relationship with Jesus and the saints,” said Elise Martinez, Youth Minister at St. Benedict Parish in Anchorage. “A couple of students are doing more Lectio Divina, and one student is doing a lot of spiritual reading and praying all the mysteries of the rosary throughout the day.” Martinez added, “I have also seen the hunger and longing for the Eucharist that should always be there, but has been deepened since we cannot receive Jesus at this time.”
In her work with her teens, Martinez noted that she has seen new students begin attending youth nights. “It’s a time of slowing down and reflecting on priorities,” said Martinez. “We are currently doing a virtual youth night via skype.” She shared that one family reached out to her two weeks ago saying they are thankful for what we are doing and that it has helped their teen. “That is why I love doing ministry: bringing Christ to these students and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through this time and through me,” Martinez said.
While we continue to face these challenges, we commend our parishes for their courageous efforts. “One of the blessings is that there’s a certain amount of creativity, the desire to make the best of a bad situation, and I think that’s a blessing,” said Fr. Maekawa. “That’s a sign of faith.”
The connection is vital, in small and large parishes alike. “We’re just letting folks know that we’re praying for them,” said Fr. Reitter, “that we’re physically distant, but we can still be spiritually close together.”
“When all this is over,” said Fr. Walsh, “we are going to get together and have one heck of a party!”
If you are facing a particular spiritual or physical need, please don’t hesitate to contact your local parish. You may also reach out to Catholic Social Services for crisis relief at (907) 222-7300 or cssalaska.org.