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March 31, 2020
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April 1, 2020

Clergy Create “Virtual Community” As Churches Close

By Kaelanne Jordan
Email: mediarelations.camsel@catholictt.org
Twitter: @kaelanne1

Archbishop Jason Gordon has said that social distancing severely affects the administering of the Church’s pastoral functions and is proving “very difficult” and even “painful” for clergy. However, he said, in the midst of all the turmoil, all are called upon to find new and innovative ways to engage, preach, teach, evangelise, form, celebrate, and live out faith.

“Here is where the effective use of technology will play a crucial role,” he said.

Archbishop Gordon highlighted that effective communication of the facts is “key” in a time like this to calm the fears, uncertainties and doubts that permeate and underline our human frailties.

He called upon all persons involved in pastoral leadership to make the best use of these communication media to ensure that real and spiritual connections are established, encouraged and maintained consistently for the well-being of the individual parishioner and congregation alike.

The Archbishop acknowledged that many parishes already had their own websites, and social media platforms, and used WhatsApp group messaging and telephone calls to connect with parishioners.

“Together we must assist and give the best pastoral care that we can do to those who rely on us to guide them in reflecting on and living out their faith now more than ever before,” he said.

In case you missed it: Archbishop Gordon LIVE on Instagram 

All face-to-face Catechetical classes: Infant Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, RCIA and all other religious/pastoral meetings and general gatherings are postponed until further notice. These can only continue using online or electronic media where possible. Liturgies are now in a reduced format and will be livestreamed.

Catholic News spoke to four priests from the Archdiocese of Port of Spain to find out their experiences, challenges of getting in touch with faithful digitally and their thoughts on how COVID-19 has pushed clergy to get better with technology.

Staying Connected

Vicar for Communications and Parish Priest at St Dominic’s RC, Penal, Fr Robert Christo admitted that the “cutting down” of gatherings has been a challenge. Preaching without non-verbal feedback has also been a challenging transition

“You [clergy] accustomed preaching to people and seeing people and being energised by people and now you preaching to chairs and cameras and that’s very debilitating,” he told Catholic News via phone.

“You can go through withdrawal as a priest,” he added.

Priests prepare for live Mass at Assumption parish in Toco. They are assisted by a member of the Sangre Grande RC Communications Team

Fr Christo, no stranger to technology, has livestreamed Masses via the parish’s Facebook page ‘St Dominic’s RC Penal Parish’. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Frs Christo and Gutemburg, a visiting priest from Venezuela went out into the streets of Penal with the Blessed Sacrament. The procession was livestreamed on Facebook, Sunday, March 29.

Commenting on this, Fr Christo said, “We believe we were led. We had a little drive through in the village and it was well received by Christians and non-Christians,” he said.

The live episode garnered over 20,000 online hits.

Fr Christo mentioned he is “lucky” to have a virtual community within his parish. “So it was easy to switch [to online],” he said.

The parish offers daily Gospel Reflections at 8 a.m., audio homily from the Archbishop also at 8 a.m. and the link for video Mass with the Archbishop at noon via community WhatsApp groups.

Fr Christo observed the need for a “shift” to more pastoral sensitivities. He spoke of another challenge as it relates to the vulnerable: the sick, elderly and finding creative ways for the Sacrament of Anointing among other pastoral issues to be administered. He also mentioned that he has 170 migrant families who are now jobless.

“So we can’t only be creative of doing online Mass. Each parish priest has to now remobilise and animate the structures in the parish to feed the people…” he said.

When it comes to technology, St Francis of Assisi, Sangre Grande is the “forerunner” in terms of communication. Parish priest Fr Stephan Alexander told Catholic News that broadcasting Masses and events at the Church “is nothing new”. He however explained the difference is now preaching to an empty church. Fr Stephan shared that technology is not difficult to use and the parish has a functioning Communications Teams equipped with a camera, phone and tripod.

“We just log into the parish accounts and we can go live…. So whereas people may feel we have people with us using cameras…no, that’s not actually the case. Everything is set up beforehand so it’s just to press record or go live depending on whichever medium we use,” he said.

Ideas from the outbreak

Meanwhile, Fr Simon Peter Ango, parish priest at St Peter and Paul, Mayaro has identified the importance of faithful joining Church groups as a way of keeping in touch. He told Catholic News, in this way, he is now able to send daily words of inspiration from the Bible to parishioners via WhatsApp.

He also shared he contacts parishioners every morning or on evenings to “check in” and encourage them.

“This keeps them busy and keeps me busy…we hear their joys, sadness, frustrations and testimonies…” he said.

When asked his thoughts on clergy’s online Zoom meetings, Fr Ango joked that more priests are “attending” the meetings than before.

“They have no excuses now,” he laughed.

Echoing similar sentiments Abbot John Pereira OSB hoped that these online meetings would now encourage priests to use these types of technology to communicate with parish councils and groups within their parish.

“I think that’s a good move,” he said.