The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is making headlines across the world, making waves in the global economy and disrupting social patterns across the world. As it begins its spread throughout the United States, our lives closer to home have been changing. Many US Catholics have been following the news of quarantines and lockdowns in China, Italy, and throughout Europe and the Middle East. Throughout the past weeks, we have extended our sympathy for our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering across the world and we continue to pray in solidarity with them.
Now, as cities and dioceses in the United States begin to escalate social distancing measures, such as closing schools and canceling Masses, our solidarity with other Catholics is taking on a more concrete shape. In this time of uncertainty, many people are wondering how to respond.
“Build Each Other Up”
In times of pandemic, we have an additional moral imperative to focus our attention on the most vulnerable in our communities. A quick study of the death counts in the United States reveals that the highest concentration of deaths has occurred in Washington State. Of those, the majority have occurred at Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, a nursing home outside Seattle. Clearly, the elderly are the most at risk.
The elderly, those with chronic illness, those whose health is compromised—these are the populations that are most vulnerable to coronavirus and need our attention and our ministerial concern. During this crisis, we have to make our choices not just with our own health in mind, but the health of the entire Body of Christ, particularly those who do not have the same strength, health or ability as ourselves. As Paul writes to the Romans: “It is good not to […] do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble” (Romans 14:21).
During this uncertain time, we should act with the goal of strengthening others and refrain from acting in a way that could potentially harm one of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, with this in mind, how can Catholic churches minister to the most vulnerable among us?
This past weekend, major cities and states across the United States followed the lead of the Italian, South Korean, and the Japanese governments to ban public gatherings. Catholic bishops throughout the United States have followed suit by canceling Masses and lifting the Sunday Mass obligation. Catholic churches around the globe have accommodated these closures by streaming Mass online to their parishes. The Archdiocese of Seattle has followed suit by suspending Mass in the diocese indefinitely.
Seeing the Vulnerable in Our Midst
While it’s true that nothing can replace the physical gathering of the people of God to worship in the liturgy, this crisis is calling each Catholic in affected areas to a deeper solidarity with the Body of Christ. This crisis is highlighting how many Catholics already lack access to Sunday Mass and are not guaranteed the Eucharist each Sunday.
In many regions around the world, the lack of priests means that Catholics do not have regular access to the sacraments. In certain countries, government or social persecution of Catholics means that Catholics cannot attend Mass or take great risks to attend Mass.
But, even closer to home, in our own neighborhoods, many elderly men and women, the homebound, those who lack public transportation or access to priests, or those who work for companies who do not allow them to take Sundays off already cannot make it to Mass on Sundays.
Besides lobbying for stronger rights for workers—a longstanding tradition of Catholic Social Teaching—one avenue through which parishes have reached out to these parishioners are live streams of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on their websites.
When parishioners are homebound or quarantined, your online presence can be a ministry to reach out to your parishioners. Sending messages to your parish members via mass email or voicemail, uploading homilies to your site, and live-streaming Masses are all important ministries through which parishioners can connect with the church community remotely.
Meeting the Need Online
One parish in our own home diocese of Brooklyn and Queens offers a ministry to the elderly in its community. On an earlier generation of our parish website software, St. Mel’s of Flushing, Queens initiated live streaming of their daily and Sunday Masses. Since it launched six months ago, St. Mel’s live-stream Mass page has received over 2,000 unique visitors. Recently, it became the third-most visited page on the site, trailing behind only the home page and the bulletin.
Although we are currently caring for one another by keeping physically distant, the Church—parishes, pastors, and the laity—still has a mission to be Christ’s body in the world and gather together the people of God. As such, we have to reach out to our neighbor, to care for one another, to make one another feel welcome.
During the uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis, we invite you to take this time to consider how you could reach out through your website, social media, or other digital channels not only to fellow Catholics but to all your digital and physical neighbors who find themselves looking for the peace the world cannot give.