This is the first in a series of articles that HNP Today is publishing about varied aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic — reports on how people and ministries are creating a “new normal” since early in the week of March 15 when many states closed schools, churches, and other institutions.
With dioceses around the nation suspending Masses, sacraments and other in-person worship services, as well as all public gatherings, for the foreseeable future as a result of the extraordinary measures government and health officials are implementing to reduce the spread of COVID-19, friars at Franciscan ministries have resorted to an expanded and comprehensive digital outreach effort to stay connected in prayer and worship with parishioners, partners-in-ministry, and Province supporters and friends.
Utilizing social media platforms and Internet websites – along with some creativity – the friars are now bringing prayer and worship, meditations and reflections, and faith-sharing directly into the homes of thousands of Catholics. Among these new initiatives are a series of virtual novenas and devotions, inspirational messages, and spiritual guidance – including “Franciscan Minute,” one of the most popular new programs featured on FriarWorks, the website launched four years ago that shares stories of people served by HNP programs and ministries.
In the transition to social-distancing and this amplified online prayer and worship presence, visits to Province digital portals have skyrocketed. For example, FriarWorks experienced 56,000 new views and more than 5,000 new subscribers (all Franciscan digital subscription sites are free) over just a few days. The numbers have since surged even higher, which Province members attribute to the coronavirus and the Lenten season, both of which are causing people to turn more to their faith and spirituality.
David Convertino, OFM, director of the HNP Development Office, expects thousands more new subscribers and views in the days and weeks ahead – and, he says, the Province is ready to provide the spiritual fulfillment and sustenance that people are seeking.
“Everyone is live streaming Masses on Facebook, YouTube, and other online streaming applications – which people need, and which many of our parishes are doing. But we also want to offer other prayer and worship opportunities that are Franciscan-centric and characteristic of friars, such as reflections on daily life and what that means now in light of all the drastic changes driven by this pandemic,” said David, a Provincial Councilor.
“Although we are no longer congregating at our churches, friaries, colleges, schools and ministry sites, we as friars cannot stop bringing Christ and the Gospel to the people we serve in our ministries. Between the coronavirus and being in the midst of the holiest period of the Church calendar, people are seeking comfort in their faith now more than ever,” David continued.
“Being among the people is what we do as Franciscans, but these circumstances have challenged us to come up with different ways to do that within the guidelines of social distancing and the new normal,” he added.
Daily Devotions and Novenas
The Development Office has vastly expanded its online faith-sharing presence, rolling out a series of prayer and worship opportunities – which include novenas, devotions, Lenten reflections, Stations of the Cross, Franciscan daily minutes, spiritual-quotes, and FriarArt – that are featured either on the FriarWorks or St. Anthony’s Guild Facebook pages, or both.
Those who subscribe to HNP’s FriarWorks will continue to receive daily emails throughout Lent that provide access to prayers, inspirational videos, and spiritual quotes.
The online resource “Lenten Calendar for Busy People” has also been expanded by St. Anthony’s Guild with a series of weekly virtual novenas and devotions. Led by friars, including David and Michael Carnevale, OFM, these recorded novenas and devotions are interactive and participant-friendly and can be prayed at any time of the day.
The following can be found on the St. Anthony’s Guild Facebook page:
- Mondays: Novena to Our Lady Untier of Knots – a Marian devotion first broadcast by Pope Francis when he was cardinal of Buenos Aires, Argentina, that asks for Our Lady’s intercession to untie the knots of helplessness and hopelessness in our lives caused by fear and worry, sickness, emotional wounds, personal problems, and death of loved ones.
- Tuesdays: Novena to St. Anthony of Padua – a litany of general prayers and intercessions for 13 consecutive Tuesdays which also includes time for silent reflection on personal intercessions and a closing blessing by a friar with a relic of St. Anthony.
- Wednesdays: Novena to Our Lady of Lourdes: Patroness of the Sick – offering the opportunity for devotional prayer seeking intercession for the healing of those stricken with coronavirus and other maladies.
- Thursdays: A devotion to St. Jude – prayerful intercessory requests of the saint traditionally known as the patron of hopelessness and despair, particularly helpful and comforting at a time when we are feeling overwhelmed, down-trodden and helpless.
- Fridays: Stations of the Cross – maintaining the tradition of the Lenten season, and offered only on Fridays during Lent (although that could change after Easter).
- Saturdays: Novena to Our Lady of All Children – a newly created devotion by the Guild for parents – particularly mothers and grandmothers – who would like to pray for their young and adult children and grandchildren, especially those who may have drifted from the Church.
- Sundays: Mass from St. Francis of Assisi Church – celebrated by parish friars.
Last week, the Development Office launched one of its newest digital initiatives called “Your Daily Franciscan Minute” – a daily video series in which a different friar each day provides an inspirational 1-to-2-minute meditation, along with reflection and spiritual guidance, on the impact of the coronavirus and dealing with it in our daily life.
“The friars thought about how we could do something to help people deal with being isolated at home and being out of work, and away from family and friends and our normal socialization. It offers people a way to ‘invite’ friars into their homes in prayer. It’s a typical Franciscan response – using real-time situations, involving real people, to help everyone better cope with this crisis,” David explained.
For example, Basil Valente, OFM, the Province director of vocations, reflects on massive job loss, particularly among hourly wage earners, a subject from which he speaks of familiarity since he comes from a family that owned a restaurant. In another meditation, Julian Jagudilla, OFM, parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street in New York City, shares the words of someone who says we just need place our faith in Jesus – and while this is true, Julian reminds that we also should follow government instructions and precautionary measures to keep our loved ones safe.
“Since people are now working from home and are being asked not to venture out unless for food and medicine, in many ways this enhanced Franciscan online presence is the perfect time to offer spiritual help. We have adapted our response to where we are as a society and as a Church during this pandemic,” said David, adding, “but this is all very fluid, and we expect the Province’s digital approaches to prayer and worship to constantly evolve, week-by-week and even day-to-day.”
Staying Connected at St. Francis of Assisi Church
Although things are eerily quiet at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan – with all public expressions of faith, such as Masses, confession, adult education classes, and ministry programs, suspended indefinitely – the friars who reside at the 31st Street friary are staying connected to congregants of the parish through involvement and participation in these digital faith-sharing initiatives.
The historic church remains open daily for private prayer from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but the building is virtually empty, except for two or three people sitting 15 pews apart, and fonts emptied of holy water – signs of how life has changed these past few weeks at one of the busiest churches in the city. A friar is on duty in case someone wants to chat or make a confession – from a safe distance, of course. Although it is a thriving parish of regular parishioners, the parish’s 10 daily Masses, the sacrament of reconciliation and a host of programs also serve thousands of commuters and tourists – populations that are non-existent because of the coronavirus.
“We are making ourselves present within the government-mandated guidelines, but the larger outreach is through the Internet,” said pastor Andrew Reitz, OFM, who is struck by the scant number of pedestrians, and even fewer number of vehicles, in the desolate sidewalks and streets, which he overlooks from his office window at the friary.
The friars are now live streaming a Mass in English every Sunday at 11 a.m. from the upper church, according to Andrew, who noted that parishioners’ intentions are being remembered at this liturgy.
Inspired by the past actions of friars stationed at St. Francis of Assisi on Long Beach Island in New Jersey – whose daily emails helped parishioners through the devastation of Super Storm Sandy – Andrew sends daily messages of encouragement to parishioners, supporters, and friends of the 31st Street parish.
“It’s a way to stay connected with people. Some of my messages are meant to be spiritual and inspirational, and some provide facts – like the one I sent about St. Joseph on his feast day,” explained Andrew.
“Sometimes I keep it light – for example, talking about what life is like these days for us friars at St. Francis. I try to write about things that will interest people, and offer words that will be helpful and comforting. Although we are not physically present, I remind everyone that the friars are praying for them every day and that they continue to be an important part of our lives and ministry,” he said.
Accompanying Andrew’s email is a video link, which also can be found on the parish Facebook page, from St. Francis music director Meredith Augustin, who shares a daily hymn – different each day – by playing the piano and singing the selection, with views of the church’s beautiful interior serving as a backdrop.
Messages on the parish website also invite visitors to pray during this Lenten season for those stricken with the coronavirus, the medical professionals who are caring for them at great sacrifice to their own families, and those who are economically impaired by business interruptions and job loss.
The Church on Arch Street
At St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, Massachusetts, friars are live-streaming two Sunday Masses from their private chapel – the first at 10 a.m. in English, and the second at 12 p.m. in Spanish. Both are live on the Shrine’s Facebook page. This past Sunday, Jeffery Jordan, OFM, presided at the 10 a.m. Mass, and Ray Selker, OFM, celebrated the noon Mass in Spanish.
“While we may not be able to worship under the same roof, technology affords us the opportunity to continue to pray together. We hope that everyone joins us and ‘attends’ these live Masses every Sunday,” said Thomas Conway, OFM, executive director of St. Anthony Shrine.
To inspire worshippers to pray from their homes during this time of uncertainty, the Shrine’s renowned Arch Street Band has posted on Facebook the “Surely the Presence Project” – a sing-along scrapbook that will be regularly updated and encourages viewers to sing with the band and email a selfie to firstname.lastname@example.org
Frank Sevola, OFM, guardian of the Shrine, is among many friars around the Province sharing their thoughts in video reflections. In a video recorded from the friar’s chapel on Arch Street and posted on Facebook, Frank reflected on what it means to love God, your neighbor and yourself in the midst of the pandemic.
“We can love our neighbor by realizing that we are all in this together. It’s not the time to horde or be selfish, but a time to think of the greater good. It’s not the time to ignore one another, but the time for a phone call or a text, especially to the elderly and lonely. It’s the time to pray for calm, for an easing of anxiety,” Frank said.
“We can love ourselves by taking a deep breath, closing your eyes and centering yourself in the presence of God. Spend time in prayer asking God to give you a calm heart. Remember that fear and suffering always lead to greater love. By loving our neighbors and ourselves more, we will love God more,” he continued.
“What can we learn about God in this pandemic? This is not God’s will. God is not sending us the virus as a punishment, or to teach us a lesson. Anyone who says that does not know the God of Jesus Christ,” said Frank. “God always wants peace, love, security, and goodness for us. God uses everything in our lives and in the world to teach us and draw us into a deeper relationship with him. This pandemic is no exception. This too shall pass.”
Other Parishes Using the Internet for Prayer and Worship
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many other parishes are using the Internet to reach their congregations. The following ministry sites are providing Mass and reflections online, primarily through their Facebook pages:
Allegany, N.Y. – St. Bonaventure Parish
Spiritual reflections every Wednesday on the parish Facebook page.
Athens, Ga. – Catholic Center at UGA
Daily written reflections on the center’s Facebook page.
Durham, N.C. – Immaculate Conception Parish
Sunday Mass (English at 9:30 a.m., Spanish at 10:30 a.m.); daily reflections in English and Spanish on the parish’s Facebook page; and a live-stream from the Eucharistic Chapel in their church.
Greenville, S.C. – St. Anthony of Padua Parish
Sunday Mass as well as daily Mass on the parish Facebook page.
Long Beach Island, N.J. – St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Daily written reflections on the parish’s Facebook page.
Macon, Ga. – St. Peter Claver Parish
Sunday Mass and daily reflections in English and Spanish on the parish’s Facebook page.
Paterson, N.J. – St. Bonaventure Parish
Daily Mass, as well as Mass at 5 p.m. on Saturday, and 11 a.m. (English) and 5:30 p.m. (Spanish) on Sunday on the parish’s Facebook page.
Pompton Lakes, N.J. – St. Mary’s Parish
Sunday Mass (9 a.m. in Spanish, 10:30 a.m. in English), daily reflections, a children’s liturgy on Wednesday at 9 a.m., and Friday Mass at 9 a.m. on the parish’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Raleigh, N.C. – St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Facebook Live sessions for children and their families Monday to Friday at noon, Virtual Evening Prayer at 7 p.m., Sunday Mass (English) at 9:30 a.m., and daily reflections. All available on the parish’s Facebook page.
Tampa. Fla. – Sacred Heart Parish
Sunday Mass on parish Facebook page.
Triangle, Va. – St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Sunday Mass and written reflections on their Facebook page.
Wood-Ridge, N.J. – Assumption of Our Blessed Lady Parish
Sunday Mass (English) on the parish Facebook page where Holy Week services will also be live-streamed.
— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jocelyn Thomas provided research for this article.
Editor’s note: Friars are encouraged to provide updates to the HNP Communication Office about how they and their ministries are adapting to restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Information will be posted on the HNP website and Facebook page.