Six months into pandemic, US Catholic organizations adjust

Groups are increasingly going online and adapting to the world's changed landscape

Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

Updated: September 24, 2020 06:09 AM GMT

A woman attends a Mass in honor of Covid-19 victims at San Vicente Martir Church in Guatemala on Sept. 15. (Photo: AFP) 

In the six months since the World Health Organization declared the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus a pandemic, US-based Catholic organizations have learned how to adjust to the changed landscape of the world in which they operate and make adaptations that may outlive the global health emergency.

The Christian Family Movement, which depends on meeting in small groups for its lifeblood, continues to do so but very carefully! said its executive director, Lauri Przybysz.

We have discovered that around the country, people are finding ways to do it. They value their small groups. It's like a lifeline for them in all this isolation, she told Catholic News Service. Some groups have experimented with social distancing outside, getting together, under a tree, bring your lawn chairs ... everybody bring your own snacks. They have found that to be life-giving for them.

Przybysz added, A lot of groups have experimented having their meetings on Zoom. They have found it to be very good. They have been able to expand their groups to people who hadn't been able to come to a meeting in good times, One upside from Zoom meetings, they've found, is they don't have to worry about babysitters, she said.

We miss each other, said Vincentian Father Dennis Holtschneider, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which told its workforce at the end of February to work from home. My team meets every single day by iTeams to catch up on what's happening. They talk with their supervisor about what they're going to do that day, he noted.

ACCU isn't likely to tell its staff to head back to the office until sometime next year. Father Holtschneider said many employees are parents with children who are going to school online and would have to take public transportation to get to the office. They work together in a very Catholic kind of way, he told CNS.

The association has shifted all of its meetings and trainings from in-person to online, including its annual meeting with all ACCU member presidents.

How do you create a national meeting and do it online? Father Holtschneider asked, before answering his own question: We're using the same organization that did the NCEA (National Catholic Educational Association) conference. That was 6,000 people and they did it online.

Even though the Washington staff of Support Our Aging Religious, or SOAR, is back in the office — its East Coast and West Coast regional reps work from their home-based office as they always have — Zoom has become my friend! laughed Sister Kathleen Lunsmann, a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who is the group's executive director.

SOAR made a series of COVID-related supplemental grants to a number of religious orders. The grants assist U.S. congregations of men and women religious in caring for their elderly and infirm members.

We promised everyone a 14-day turnaround, Sister Lunsmann said, rather than the typical four-month process. SOAR could make good on that promise by conducting visits via Zoom rather than hopping on a plane to make in-person visits.

It gives me a lot more time in the office. I'm not sure my staff is thrilled, Sister Lunsmann laughed once more. But on the other hand, she said, togetherness sparks creativity and collaboration, so we find working together really helpful.

After six months of adjusting to different situations, we actually do have a three-ring binder and a digital version of all the things we've learned from this process, said Joan Rosenhauer, executive director of Jesuit Refugee Service.

JRS staffers' lives and work have been disrupted due to the pandemic, she acknowledged, but for refugees, it's at least the second time for this kind of upheaval. Children's education, a fragile thing at best, can be one of the first things to fall by the wayside.

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She added, We've found incredible levels of creativity so that people can learn and protect themselves.

Rosenhauer noted, One thing we had been building out more and more even before the pandemic (was) digital training for students, post-secondary. What we're training them to do is basic Microsoft Office programming, and for some, advanced coding skills. That way, she said, they can get jobs anywhere in the world and do it digitally.

As the new president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers, there were things I was planning on doing, Mike Day told CNS. There's the plans that I have and there's what the pandemic threw at us.

As a result, it's not just the operations that have changed, it's a full-scale shift in the ministry, and we haven't had the time yet to fully grasp it, said Day, who is director of the Office of Family Life in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida.

The pandemic-induced shutdown was new to everybody, but that's when the network and the association became the most valuable, he added. A town hall meeting and a panel for family life leaders at the parish, diocesan and national level reflecting on different facets of ministry, he said, were most helpful.

Day has advice for his successor: Just pray. In discernment, there's why you think you're doing something, and there's actually what you're there to do. That's an important thing to do. We have only so much foresight, given our limited capacity for that. ... Be open to what God might be trying to use you for. He added, We're here for a reason, even with the world kind of falling down all around us.

Despite the pandemic, we welcomed 12 new missioners and volunteers to this program this past August, and they're in formation right now, said Liz Hughes, executive director of Franciscan Mission Service. That's inspiring right now in a moment when there's so much suffering in this world.

Lockdowns in Bolivia and Jamaica — stricter than any imposed by the U.S. government — missioners' work has altered the nature of their ministry, Hughes said. In Jamaica, for example, the missioners distribute food, medicines and other supplies at the back door of a convent.

There's another consideration for Franciscan Mission Service and those like it, according to Hughes: Organizations like ours depend in large part on summer mission appeals. When Masses stopped, those mission appeals stopped. We're looking at the financial realities of that.

Even so, her organization seeks to establish next year a new mission on the US-Mexico border, which she said was envisioned before the pandemic.

Maryknoll Lay Missioners, which typically has 55-60 missioners in the field, is down to 47, according to its executive director, Ted Miles. Some of the change in numbers is due to mission terms expiring; others have coronavirus-related health concerns, and Miles said some of those taking a break intend to return to complete their term of service. Two missioners, he added, had Covid-19 symptoms but did not require hospitalization.

Maryknoll has lay missioners in the United States, Haiti, El Salvador, Bolivia, Brazil, Tanzania, South Sudan, Kenya and Cambodia.

I'm not going to say is hasn't been challenging at times, Miles said. As missioners discerned what they would do when the outbreak first hit, our primary task was to keep our commitment to mission alive and vibrant, he added.

That entailed making gatherings virtual and establishing a weekly prayer routine that any missioner could adopt. Maryknoll also has tried to increase support for the resources that are needed during this time, Miles said, and the organization's benefactors have generously responded.

Miles said Hughes taught him a valuable lesson on coping amid the pandemic: All you can do is take the next right step forward. She shared that with me, and that has stuck with me. We have really tried to support each other and put our best foot forward.

He added, It requires a lot of patience, flexibility, support for each other. You have to maintain a sense of hope, and as Catholic Christians, isn't that how we define ourselves?

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