By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Catholics in the Iowa City-Coralville area began meeting on Zoom nightly to pray the rosary.
More than a year later, COVID-19 cases are dropping in the U.S. and most pandemic restrictions have eased. Yet, the “Fatima 100” prayer group continues to meet online so as many people as possible can participate.
“It’s an amazing and positive consequence of the pandemic,” group leader Meliza Wise said of the emergence of video conferencing. Through this format, group members from Des Moines and Minnesota are able to participate. People on the road are also able to listen in.
More online meetings and events are returning to an in-person setting. Yet parishes, offices and groups are exploring how virtual offerings might continue to be useful in a post-pandemic world.
Social Action Office embraces video conferencing
Amy Kersten, a volunteer for the diocesan Social Action Office, has been leading monthly Lunch and Learn programs on Zoom. The program grew out of the pandemic. “We recognized that people might need a connection with others and that many were becoming more comfortable with technology as a way to converse. This also gave us the ability to include people throughout our diocese without requiring anyone to travel any distance. We could reasonably host a one- hour session that truly only required one hour of each person’s time.”
Since the virtual program has been successful, the Social Action Office plans to continue hosting Lunch and Learn online. The office also plans to continue utilizing video conferencing in situations where the online format allows more participation, said director Kent Ferris. “Virtual meetings are time and resource efficient. There will always be value in meeting in person, but for a diocese that covers 11,438 square miles, virtual meetings have become indispensable.”
One example: a Racial Wealth Gap Simulation, which will take place in August via Zoom. Kersten said it will take a bit more work and a few extra people to execute, but the goal is to give participants training to take the program back to their home parish and host an in-person session. “Basically, we are using a train-the-trainer model supported by Zoom.”
Flexibility enhances participation
Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine plans to continue offering baptism classes online through the upcoming year. It has less to do with COVID-19 and more to do with the advantages of this format, said Sister Cheryl Demmer, PBVM, the parish’s director of Religious Education. The one-on-one nature of the classes allows couples to be “a little more honest,” and the parents found it convenient to participate from home, she said. “Many of these young couples are new to the parish and it gives me a chance to hear their stories.”
The parish would also like to offer an online religious education option next year, in addition to in-person classes. “I think we are going to use Flipgrid again for those families who find it hard to come to class on Wednesday evenings because parents are working.”
Stephanie Zeising, director of confirmation for St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City, said she is considering hosting the parish’s next Surviving Divorce group online, “pandemic or not.” She saw how the online format made the program “so much more accessible to people anywhere in the diocese, people who are homebound, people who can’t leave their children alone, etc.” She considers the online format “a blessing that I would not have discovered if it weren’t for the pandemic.”
St. Mary Parish in Oskaloosa began hosting an online Coffee and Scriptures group last year. The group meets Wednesday mornings at 8 a.m. to read that week’s Sunday Gospel and share thoughts and reflections. With pandemic restrictions easing, the group considered meeting in person, “but people thought that not everyone would be able to attend if we did that,” said Tom Leah, the parish’s director of Religious Education. “So, we decided to keep it over Zoom!”
That format will continue this summer so people with physical challenges can participate. Bible study groups usually do not meet during the summer, but participants feel it is beneficial, he said.
Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton also plans to continue its Bible study group through the summer to accommodate homebound individuals, said Annette Lyons, parish outreach minister. Participants feel it is so beneficial, she said.
Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa in Iowa City plans to use video and Zoom conferencing to keep in touch with students this summer, said Christine Wissink, director of Outreach and Education. “We are continuing to livestream the daily rosary, daily Mass and Sunday Mass on our YouTube Channel at this point. We are continuing to use Zoom for some activities such as interviews and meetings with students who are outside Iowa City this summer.” Newman Center also plans to upgrade the chapel’s audio/visual technology to improve its online presence.
St. Ambrose Campus Ministry in Davenport plans to upgrade technology to allow for continued and higher quality livestream Masses. Campus Ministry also plans to maintain its social media presence, which grew during the early months of the pandemic, said former campus chaplain Father Thom Hennen.
Livestreaming increases access to special liturgies
Susan Stanforth, director of Religious Education and a Faith Formation associate for Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport, said the cathedral has been livestreaming funerals since the beginning of the pandemic and broadcast its first Communion Masses online.
“I know many people have watched funerals because they were out of town and not able to be there,” she said. With the first Communion Masses, more relatives were able to tune in. “I would love to see this continue,” she said of the livestream option.
Nichole Wander, office manager for St. Mary Parish in Solon, said the parish has benefited from being able to record and livestream Masses and sacraments. “Some positive things to take away from the last many months is that our staff has learned more about technology than some may have ever imagined.” A video system is in place so the parish can offer video/audio recordings of weddings, baptisms and other special liturgies to interested families. Homebound individuals or families on vacation can join in for livestream Masses “to be with their parish family. Technology during this pandemic has been able to offer a way to connect until we could gather together in person, for which many are grateful!”