Father Joseph Marcoux was called up last spring for active duty as a chaplain in the Army National Guard. He worked long hours in Syracuse ministering to his fellow service members during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and his hours grew even longer in June when public Masses were allowed to resume at his parish in Ithaca.
“I would come back (from Syracuse) Friday night, write my homily, have a staff meeting Saturday morning, preside at Mass with three or four other people, livestream all weekend, then I would leave and go right back after that Mass to do Mass at the armory in Syracuse,” recalled Father Marcoux, pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Ithaca.
This schedule was unlike anything Father Marcoux had experienced in his 20 years as a priest, and he’s not alone. Priests throughout the diocese, faced with unprecedented challenges over the course of the pandemic, have found themselves carrying out their priestly ministry in ways they’d never previously imagined.
Early in the pandemic, for example, Father Peter Van Lieshout, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Phelps, Clifton Springs and Shortsville, set up a makeshift confessional, complete with a screen, outdoors on the front porch in front of one of the windows of the parish rectory. This setup allowed Father Van Lieshout to hear confessions from inside the rectory so he could continue to offer the sacrament of reconciliation while still following social-distancing guidelines.
After the pandemic hit, Father Richard Brickler found himself working from home, which is an unusual situation for a priest. Father Brickler, one of the diocese’s senior priests, had worked for years in the diocesan Tribunal and continued to go to the Tribunal office to work on marriage-annulment cases one day a week even after retiring from active ministry. When COVID-19 case counts started to rise locally, however, he stopped heading to the office.
“They send me cases, I work on cases at home and send them back. I’m able to do whatever I need to do from here,” explained Father Brickler, who this June will mark the 60th anniversary of his ordination.
Prior to the pandemic, Father Brickler had celebrated Masses at local parishes at least once each weekend and several days during the week. This stopped abruptly in March 2020 when public Masses were suspended, and although Father Brickler said he was grateful to have more time for reflection and private prayer, it was difficult to be apart from the faithful.
“You really miss having a congregation around. I like being with the people,” he remarked.
Father Brickler is glad he’s been able to start celebrating Mass more frequently as restrictions on public gatherings have eased in recent weeks.
Father Daniel McMullin also said he found more time for prayer during his pandemic-induced break from celebrating public Masses. He was a Benedictine monk and lived in a monastery for 16 years before becoming a diocesan priest. Prayer and work were “paramount” in the monastery, so it was good to have more time for uninterrupted prayer, said Father McMullin, director of Cornell Catholic Community and Ithaca College Catholic Community.
Liturgical leadership, pastoral counsel and pastoral care are key parts of Father McMullin’s ministry, and although the pandemic hasn’t changed those priorities, he said it has made it harder to accomplish them. Last spring, when both colleges sent students home, Father McMullin’s access to his offices and the schools’ chapels was severely limited. In fact, since March 2020, he’s only been able to be on Cornell’s campus briefly to get needed items from his office, and he has had access to Ithaca College’s facilities for just a few hours each week.
“I use those two hours to alternate Mass on campus, which only has one or two participants because of the limitations on space, and the opportunity to schedule pastoral counseling … or celebrate the sacraments of reconciliation,” Father McMullin said.
A neighboring parish, Immaculate Conception in Ithaca, has graciously allowed Father McMullin to use its church to celebrate one Mass each Sunday for students from Cornell and Ithaca College. Students must sign up in advance for the limited number of seats available at the Mass, but that hasn’t seemed to deter them. What’s more, students also have been making the trek from their campuses to Immaculate Conception to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. Each Saturday afternoon, both Father McMullin and Father Augustine Chumo, pastor at Immaculate Conception, hear confessions from students and parishioners alike for a solid three hours, he said. He believes part of many students’ desire to receive the sacrament comes from their hunger for personal contact, as opposed to interactions through email or Zoom.
“We need to do some re-education about what the purpose of reconciliation is. So many are coming more for pastoral care or to sort of work out some issues, and unfortunately there’s just not enough time to do that on Saturday afternoons, but I’m not going to discourage them from coming,” he said.
“Zoom fatigue” is a real thing, especially for college students, but at the same time, Zoom, email and livestreaming have allowed Father McMullin to keep in touch with students.
Over at St. Catherine of Siena, Father Marcoux also has utilized a variety of digital tools to connect with parishioners. When public Masses were suspended, Father Marcoux and his staff focused their efforts on answering a few key questions.
“If we take away the Eucharist, how do we still be church? … How can we keep people connected, and how can we empower them?” he said.
He and the staff worked to bring church to the people through livestreamed Masses, frequent digital communication, and even by bringing Communion to some parishioner’s homes. They offered online faith-formation opportunities for people of all ages, and drive-through distributions of such items as candles and blessed palms to supplement families’ participation in livestreamed liturgies. Chief among those efforts, Father Marcoux said, was training lay parishioners to lead such livestreamed devotionals as the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the rosary.
“We literally empowered our people to take ownership of their faith life, with our guidance,” Father Marcoux said.
These efforts do not in any way diminish the importance of a priest’s role in the parish, he added. Rather, they are about asking, “How can we make them be church, instead of just coming to church on Sunday and leaving? No, we want you to be church 24/7 in a very secular world,” he said.