Church leaders, politicians, business leaders, and plain old regular people around the world have been struggling with the realities of restrictions emanating from the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic continues to take its toll, not only in terms of sickness and death but in disruption of the life of the Church and its members. The Vatican, episcopal conference, dioceses, and parishes have offered resources to the faithful who cannot attend Mass or experience the sacraments in person. The Church at all levels is planning for a return to “normal” in cooperation with civil and health authorities. All recognize that the definition of normal may change.
While every member of the Body of Christ faces challenges during the pandemic, one type of person must meet special demands: the priest serving alone in a parish, his church facilities closed to the faithful, and his opportunity to interact with people in person severely restricted.
Zenit’s Jim Fair spoke with a priest precisely in that situation: Fr. Carl Beekman of the Church of St. Mary in Sycamore, Illinois, in the Diocese of Rockford.
Sycamore is a town of 18,000, a two-hour drive directly west of Chicago. It is a pleasant and diverse, rather typical Midwest American place, best-know to outsiders as the home of the annual Sycamore Pumpkin Festival.
St. Mary is the only Catholic parish in town. However, Fr. Carl proclaims that he is responsible for the spiritual life of everyone within the boundaries of his parish: Catholic, Protestant, unbelieving, whatever. Acting on that responsibility during the pandemic has required an extra dose of creativity.
“My job is to be a spiritual entrepreneur,” Fr. Beekman said. It is a job description that complements the mission of St. Mary:
The Church of St. Mary, is a Roman Catholic Church whose Mission is that of Jesus Christ: The conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls. This is accomplished by preaching and living the Gospel, celebrating Sacraments and evangelizing the world around us.
“The first thing I had to do when we went into lockdown was to make sure I have myself in order,” Fr. Beekman recalled. “That meant keeping a strict routine, increasing my prayer, working out, and eating a healthy diet.”
At the same time, he quickly launched a variety of initiatives to continue his outreach to his parishioners and beyond:
- Live-streaming of daily and Sunday Mass.
- Question/Answer videos on the parish website.
- Emails to parishioners.
- Phone calls and video conferencing.
He recalls some unexpected things that have resulted from his daily Mass live-streaming.
“There is an elderly lady who has always attended daily mass,” Father said. “She doesn’t have internet so she can’t watch the daily Mass these days. But her daughter logs into the Mass each morning calls her mom and puts the receiver next to the computer so she can at least listen.
“That is great for the mom but what is also awesome is that the daughter was a non-practicing Catholic and because of being exposed to daily Mass she had said she wants to return to the full practice of the faith.”
Many families in the parish (and as Father says at the start of each Mass: “from around the world”) are attending virtual daily Mass. As a result, he is getting dozens of emails with questions, many from millennials.
“I’ve been using Zoom video calls to answer questions and have discussions with many young people,” Father explained. “Being deprived of the sacraments, many are anxious for the Church to reopen and in the meantime want answers.”
Fr. Beekman projects a sense of discipline, organization, and urgency to share the faith. Those character traits may well reflect his background: a convert from the United Methodist Faith, former Marine, former businessman, and epileptic.
He expressed concern for priests who are simply “hunkering down” during the lockdown. And he has some very direct advice for them:
- Continue to reach out to parishioners: email, social media, phone, website
- Pray your office and celebrate Mass
- Read, write, and take online courses
- Work to form yourself and your parishioners
Fr. Beekman insists that this time of suffering must be seen as sacrificial and should lead to changed, spiritually stronger lives. (He recently shared in views during a panal discussion on National Public Radio.)
“Have our hearts been pierced and have we changed,” he asked. “My fear is that during this time people decide to become their own shepherds.
“It is important to avoid isolation. We must crave the voice of Christ and infest people with joy.”
Church and civil authorities continue to ponder how Church services will function post-pandemic, but Fr. Beekman is already planning possible approaches. He envisions seating every other pew in the Church with families being together. And to allow for social distancing he will live-stream the Mass in the Church to the parish activity center, which has a large meeting area where people could sit far apart.
He also plans to add Masses so attendance can be smaller at each service. And in light of pent-up demand, he is committed to spending two hours every night hearing confessions.
Father is especially concerned about the impact of the lockdown on marriages and families. He predicts an increase in divorce and abuse.
To counter that danger, he is working with Catholic Charities to provide phone and online counseling to those in need.
The opposite side of that danger, he notes, is the blessing many families have of being able to spend more time together than ever before. It is an opportunity to improve communications and learn to apologize when things aren’t perfect.
If Fr. Beekman has one great fear it is that the faithful will endure this time of suffering and NOT change: “Will there be change and will we give meaning to our suffering – or have we just learned to live in fear?
“We can’t be afraid of change… our Lord changed everything.”