Priests reflect on ministry in the time of coronavirus
By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Plans great and small, cancelled. Public celebration of the Mass, suspended. Lives on hold, all because of the coronavirus crisis. But “Jesus Christ still rose from the dead and sends us out to spread the Good News to the world,” says Father Jeff Belger.
Like many priests in the Diocese of Davenport, Father Belger has been exploring new ways to connect with people, to sustain a community of faith and to trust in Christ’s presence during this time of societal upheaval.
“My attitude is mostly positive,” said Father Belger, the priest director of the Newman Catholic Student Center on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. “Last week it seemed like I was more stressed out then normal and I don’t know why.” He thinks being away from people for a long time was a contributing factor.
His solution? “I took a day and a half off and went to my island (a 2-acre spot on the Mississippi River near Burlington). “I never expected it to be the blessing it was. But I realized that it was the one place that it was normal to be alone. I could pretend for a while that COVID-19 didn’t exist. I cut down poison ivy and painted. That’s my recreational activity.”
The suspension of public celebration of the Mass and physical distancing precautions have brought changes, “but with the blessing of technology, we’ve been able to continue our ministries,” Father Belger said of himself and the Newman Center staff. “The mission doesn’t change; the context changes.”
Student Bible studies take place over Zoom or Skype video conferencing. Father Belger learned how to livestream Mass and other faith-based activities on YouTube using the software program OSB Studio. He chose to learn the technology to meet Newman faith community members where they are at. He also livestreams Mass with Music Director Joe Mattingly, who is also a composer. Conscious of music copyright issues, Mattingly has improvised hymns in the public domain to give them a new appeal, Father Belger said.
He emphasized the importance of having a “Plan B,” in case the technology doesn’t work because keeping in touch with students and families is essential. He and the staff planned an online tribute for graduating seniors as part of a livestreamed send-off Mass. The trial run for the virtual commendation flopped. With some assistance from Austin Strom, a student who is much more adept in technology, he adapted the original idea to make it work.
Typically, during summer months Father Belger travels to different parishes to celebrate Mass while the university students are away. That might not be possible this year. He’s hopeful that classes will resume on campus in the fall. If not, he will go to Plan B. “I am so looking forward to having Mass with people,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the time when we can pack the church again.”
Father Joseph Phung
This present time of isolation and suspension of public celebration of the Mass reminded Father Joseph Phung of the restrictions he lived with as a youth in Vietnam after the war ended in 1975. The ruling government controlled the practice of religion. It was difficult for people to gather for Mass and to openly celebrate their Catholic faith. “We had to find a way and had to be creative to have our faith,” said Father Phung, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison and St. Joseph Parish in Montrose. Worship, faith studies and gatherings were done underground. He also remembers not being able to move about freely while living in a refugee detention camp in Hong Kong.
While persecution doesn’t factor into his exercise of Catholicism during the coronavirus crisis, he sees one similarity with his past — Catholics need to use creativity to celebrate their faith. “How do we find a way to strengthen our faith, our way of being church, of being a faith community?” One way is offering Mass, livestreamed on Sunday for parishioners. Some of the elderly who don’t have internet access watch Mass on EWTN TV. He describes Zoom video conferences for parish council meetings and other activities as “good things and interesting to do.”
In the months leading up to the coronavirus crisis, Father Phung felt so busy that he wished he had more time. “And suddenly, everything stopped,” he said. He told God, “I needed this time and you gave it to me.” That extra time has allowed more time for prayer, reflection on Scripture and telephone calls to people to see how they are doing. “A lot of people call and ask, ‘Father, when can we come back for Mass?’ There is a strong desire to come back. I think that is great.”
Father Phung prays for a quick end to the pandemic and for the safety of all who have fought the disease, especially health care workers. He prays for the authorities making decisions that impact the economy and people’s lives. He prays that “we can survive and grow stronger in faith and see that God is working with us.”
Father Marty Goetz and Father Dan Dorau
You might call them the “Cruise Brothers,” based very loosely on the crazy duo of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the 1980 “Blues Brothers” musical comedy. Father Marty Goetz, pastor, and Father Dan Dorau, parochial vicar of Divine Mercy Parish in Burlington-West Burlington and St. Mary Parish-Dodgeville, make a weekly road trip on Thursdays from 4-5 p.m. for the “Two Priests in a Car Call-In Show.” Last Thursday, toward the end of their show, they stopped at Culver’s drive-thru for ice cream and savored their treats while responding to a reporter’s questions about how they are coping and ministering during the coronavirus crisis.
Like so many priests in the diocese, Fathers Goetz and Dorau have had to embrace social media to connect with parishioners and to rekindle the light of faith during this trying time of being away from the church.
Two weeks ago, the “cruisin’ clergy” visited nursing homes in the area, standing outside the windows to bless the residents inside. The night before the May 7 call-in show, Father Goetz and Father Dorau livestreamed their walk along the Mississippi River while praying the rosary together. “We had 60 to 70 people who walked along with us, virtually,” Father Dorau said. “The camera was outward facing except for the final prayer. We walked side by side so the microphone would hear us and the viewers got to enjoy spring along the river.”
“We try to think, ‘How can we do something different to keep everyone engaged?’” Father Goetz said. At the same time, the priests provide some staples of faith to try to create a sense of normalcy. On a daily basis, they livestream Mass, provide a noontime prayer reflection from Father Goetz, and offer morning or evening prayer. Weekend Masses are livestreamed at the same time as the Masses are normally celebrated.
Both priests have some time to themselves. “For me, it’s been more reading and prayers,” Father Goetz said. “And I get out once a week to play golf.” During his downtime, Father Dorau learns new technology (livestreaming was one of the first technologies to study), does some cooking and has brewed beer. He thinks he should probably get out on his bicycle for exercise. The two, who live in the rectory, generally share breakfast and dinner together.
“There’s been so much good that has come out of this,” Father Dorau says. Father Goetz agrees, but admits, “I get down every so often. I miss the people. I miss the ‘High Fives.’”
Getting out on the road —praying, blessing, laughing, taking phone calls on a call-in show — all of it reminds Father Goetz of the goal of the diocesan Vision 20/20 initiative. “In a way, this is Vision 20/20. We’re reaching out.”
Father John Spiegel
Until the coronavirus crisis emerged, Father John Spiegel did not use Facebook, a social media platform. As the pastor of St. Mary parishes in Oskaloosa and Pella, he desires to stay connected with parishioners, and one of those ways is through the parishes’ Facebook pages. He’s still a bit puzzled by requests from people who want to “be my friend” on Facebook.
Father Spiegel prepares his Sunday homilies for the website, something new for him, and delivers a faith-based reflection every couple of weeks to post on social media. “I’ve used text and online communication more than I would have if this (coronavirus crisis) wasn’t going on.”
His comfort level with the new technology is growing. He participates in Zoom video conferencing for Scripture study with parish groups and with people who would have entered the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil. “It gives them a greater sense of community,” he said.
Father Spiegel makes telephone calls to parishioners he previously visited on Communion calls or who are more isolated than others. Connecting with those who have awareness issues can be challenging. “So much of how we communicate is ‘seen,’” he observed.
He spends the extra time he acquired during this time away from public celebration of liturgies in a variety of ways. Producing a written homily as a text to be read takes more time, he discovered. One day he found himself busy with the sacrament of penance at mid-morning, a late-morning Communion call on a hospice patient (non-COVID 19 at home) and a marriage validation in the early afternoon. Currently, he and his staff are working on how to connect with graduating seniors in the parishes. “Our faith formation staff engage in online communication much better than I do,” he said. Back-burner projects also get his attention.
On a personal level, he has not felt the sense of isolation that some Catholics have experienced. He limits visits with his older brothers, Msgr. Bob and Father Tom Spiegel, to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. “At this point, loneliness has not been an issue for me,” said Father Spiegel, who is preparing for another bit of the unknown: retirement.
In a Scripture reflection he gave on April 19, Father Spiegel contrasted the apostles’ initial fear after Jesus’ death with the fear that some have today because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Holy Spirit filled the apostles with the gift of faith, casting out their fear, and Father Spiegel reminded his viewers to allow the gift of faith to cast out their fear. “It’s important to not allow fear to take anything more from us.”