By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
December is traditionally a month of anticipation and excitement for Catholics, with caroling, Christmas programs, midnight Masses, holiday treats and camaraderie.
Yet, even in the absence and amending of some of these activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, parishes and chaplains are still finding ways to spread the Good News during what singer Andy Williams called “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
Re-imagining the Christmas season
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day Masses often draw in Catholics who may not regularly attend Mass. Because of social distancing protocols limiting Mass attendance this year, St. Anthony Parish in Knoxville is encouraging parishioners to envision Christmas as a season rather than a day, said Abby Glann, the parish’s communications and social media director.
The parish will celebrate daily Masses the week after Christmas in the evening instead of the morning so that more families can attend. “We are encouraging regular parishioners to come the other days. That way, people who only attend Mass on Christmas and Easter can still feel welcome and know there’s a seat for them.” If regular Mass-goers do go to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day Masses in person, they’re encouraged to sit near the back to make room for people who don’t regularly attend Mass.
Livestreamed Masses, a valuable evangelization tool this year, will continue during the holiday season, Glann said. “People who haven’t been here in forever are commenting on the livestreams.”
The parish has also established a webpage filled with Advent activities and lessons to guide evangelization efforts in the home. “We wanted to make sure we were still observing the Advent season as a parish, and maybe doing a better job of helping the parishioners bring the church home.” The parish will create a similar webpage for the Christmas season.
Evangelization through connection
As Father Troy Richmond prepares his Christmas homilies each year, he tries to keep in mind that he is preaching “both to the every Sunday Catholic and the Catholic who may be coming to church for the first time in a long time.” The pastor of St. Mary Parishes in Oskaloosa and Pella also places a high priority on “making sure we are practicing intentional hospitality so that all experience a genuine sense of welcome.” Although Mass attendance and in-person activities are limited this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still possible for parishes to evangelize at this time of year.
During the pandemic, Father Richmond has come to realize that evangelization “begins with meeting the basic needs of others. There is a much greater desire for connectedness and meaningful relationships.” In his experience, the most effective evangelization takes place when a relationship is established. Then it is much easier to bring someone closer to Christ and the church. “Oftentimes this happens as they see something in your life they, themselves, would like to possess — the joy and peace that comes from being a committed disciple of Jesus.” These are the types of connections that can happen anywhere and with anyone.
During December, his parishes are calling all parishioners as a way to reach out and build relationships. “The response from parishioners has shown us that making these phone calls can keep our people connected to the parish and keep us aware of parishioner needs.” He also encourages parishioners to form Discipleship Quads or small groups as part of the Emmaus initiative. On Dec. 6, Father Richmond visited parishioners outside their homes dressed as St. Nicholas on the saint’s feast day.
Finding new ways to celebrate
Father Jim Vrba, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, said parish life “certainly changed” after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring. Keeping parish life vibrant yet safe is a priority and involves “reaching out in many ways to make connections with people and walking with them in faith.”
This mindset will continue as the parish incorporates social distancing into its holiday celebrations. For example, the parish hosted a “St. Nicholas Express” drive-through event Dec. 6. The church grounds were decorated with inflatables, a jib-jab screen and a live Nativity scene. At the final stop, “St. Nicholas” (Father Vrba in costume) blessed the passengers in each car and “elves” gave out treats. “This event attracted many families, young and old, who have only been connected to the parish through the internet to experience a personal connection,” Father Vrba said. “The line of cars with headlights reminded me of the final scene of the movie Field of Dreams.”
The parish also developed new ways to celebrate the season with people who are homebound or in care facilities. In past years, parishioners visited Bickford Cottage in Davenport to sing to residents, but pandemic safety measures prevent singing this year. Instead, parishioners are making cards to send to residents and to parishioners who are homebound.
Hospital hospitality: Channeling the Christmas story
With ongoing visitor restrictions and an increase of patients coming in from other parts of the state, University of Iowa Hospitals Chaplain Father Timothy Regan has developed a new understanding of the Christmas story.
“During this time of continued pandemic modifications in all our lives, I have a heightened awareness of how a few elements of the Christmas story have particular relevance in my ministry as priest chaplain,” he said of his work in the Iowa City-based medical center.
Like the Holy Family traveling to Bethlehem, “the patients and their family members have had to leave their homes and travel to an unfamiliar area, there to be ‘put up’ in even more unfamiliar accommodations at a time of special need. A simple but very important work of evangelization at this point is to recognize their presence in our midst, to offer welcome and refuge, and then to address their special needs in their time of distress and dislocation. The strangers in our midst are our sisters and brothers, and we accord them the honor and the personal services that go with this dignity.”
He sees the doctors and staff of the hospital as “magi from afar,” strangers who acknowledge the presence of patients and their families and offer gifts honoring the three-fold expression of their being: the biological, the social and the spiritual. “This, too, is a work of evangelization in the example of our creator who knows each of us by name and provides for our needs.”
Father Regan said all Catholics could channel the accompaniment and welcoming aspects of the Christmas story as they work to spread the Good News. “Perhaps it can be summarized best in the experience of the bedside (or version thereof) contact, one with another, in which we find that Christ is indeed present in our midst and walks this journey with us.”