With COVID-19 Halting Road Ministries, Friars Shift Gears

Stephen Mangione In the Headlines

The COVID-19 pandemic has grounded friars Province-wide whose preaching ministries usually keep them on the road both here and abroad. Retreats, missions, workshops, classes, seminars, pilgrimages, and other related events have been suspended indefinitely. Below, eight friars – Francis Pompei, Dan Riley, Peter Chepaitis, Thomas Hartle, Kevin Cronin, Casey Cole, Dan Horan, and John Anglin – each share how their ministerial lives have been affected by the pandemic. Their stories begin in New York and conclude in Florida.

Francis Pompei, OFM, Cicero, New York
During the pandemic, the calls have been non-stop – almost overwhelming – from families seeking spiritual consoling, prayers for the dying, and help burying loved ones, says Francis Pompei, OFM. Even at the height of the stay-at-home edict, Francis responded to the calls. As a member of the HNP Ministry of the Word, that’s what he does – he goes where the people need him. He walked into hospital rooms to anoint the dying and pray with family members.

“I wasn’t afraid. I threw on my mask, I kept the appropriate distance, I washed my hands. It was important for me to be there, especially when someone was dying. They and their family members needed my presence physically, not virtually,” said Francis, who is based at Sacred Heart Parish in Cicero, a town in northern Onondaga County in Central New York, and who leads parish retreats and missions and gives talks to medical professionals across the country.

“People were surprised when I showed up. But the voices on the other end of the calls are always so desperate. I prayed to the Lord to give me a nudge if I was supposed to go somewhere. He nudged me a lot,” said Francis, who was one of the first in Syracuse to make up a sign posted outside the local medical center that read: “Heroes Work Here.”

“It was a small gesture to let all personnel and staff – from dietary and maintenance workers to nurses and doctors – that the sacrifices they were making, having to quarantine from their own families – and the care they were providing to the sick, was not going unnoticed,” said Francis, who was a diocesan priest for nine years before becoming a Franciscan and joining HNP in 1982.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Francis wrote an interfaith prayer service that he provided to the medical staff at a local hospital whose members would gather each morning before their 7 a.m. shift and recite the prayers.

The seminars, keynote talks, retreats, missions, and evenings of recollection that had been part of his ministry work were canceled, but that didn’t stop Francis from doing what he does best as a friar – reaching out to people and responding to those in their time of need. His ministry has changed drastically since the COVID-19 outbreak. He immediately launched a YouTube channel on which he live-streamed Sunday Mass, which has developed a weekly global following of nearly 500 viewers from coast to coast, and as far away as Spain and Japan.

Francis says he is also doing more pastoral ministry for individuals than ever before. “When you’re on the road as much as I am, giving missions and retreats, it’s mostly group ministry,” he said.

While much of his response has been in person, he has also been providing funerals, prayer services, and grief sessions remotely via video platforms like Zoom, as well as phone sessions, with families in Florida, New York, and New Jersey.

“These live services give family members the opportunity to gather virtually and pray, share stories, and reminisce. It provides healing and closure, and it gives them the chance to celebrate the life of the deceased – something they haven’t been able to do for months because of travel restrictions and not being able to leave their homes,” said Francis, who follows up with families to check on their emotional well-being.

During the pandemic, Francis used some of his extra downtime to complete his third book, “Your Loved One May Be Dying,” which aims to help readers through the death of a loved one, starting from the moment they receive the phone call. It is a book of the times – and, like Francis’s previous books, Jesus is his co-author. It is a book, he says, that funeral directors, emergency room nurses, and even priests should read because, with so much death surrounding them, it will aid in helping those they are caring for.

With the coronavirus claiming a staggering number of lives and family members overcome with unimaginable grief, Francis offers these consoling words – which he says are not his words, but rather, they are straight from the mouth of Jesus: death is not the end, it is a new beginning. Francis acknowledges that it has been painful beyond comprehension, with people dropping off their loved ones at hospital emergency rooms and never seeing them again.

“No visit, no final goodbye, no funeral, no closure. But life is school and death is graduation – and after every graduation is a new beginning. This isn’t an analogy, it’s what Jesus promised – and He promises to be with us when it happens,” Francis said.

One thing that has been disappointing is not being able to spend time with his Franciscan fraternity at St. Bonaventure University. “I miss my brothers, and I am not really sure when I will be able to resume my visits with the friars there,” said Francis, who has been attending a men’s prayer group, with appropriate social distancing protocols, to compensate for the absence of fraternity in his life.

The summer training and teaching sessions would have been going strong at present, and the invitations for winter missions in Florida would have been scheduled by now, but all of that work ceased with the pandemic. Before the outbreak, his retreat and mission work had him on the road months at a time in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, New York City, and parishes in the upstate New York dioceses of Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. The last missions he gave before the outbreak were in early January in Florida, speaking to audiences of 750 and 900, respectively, in Ocala and Fort Lauderdale.

Francis doesn’t think that missions and retreats, or the talks that he gives to teams of medical personnel, will resume any time soon, but that will leave more time for the new turn that his ministry has taken in recent months.

Dan Riley, OFM, West Clarksville, New York
The friars at the Franciscan mountain community of Mt. Irenaeus are planning for what it will be like at the Western New York retreat when students from St. Bonaventure University and other visitors can return to the Mountain to recharge and renew.

“Everyone will have to wear a facemask, they’ll have to adhere to social distancing regulations, and meals will be served instead of passed. We will maintain smaller groups. We want the Mountain to be a place of relaxation, not anxiety,” said Dan Riley, founding director of Mt. Irenaeus.

The chapel is usually packed at this time of year as well as in autumn when fall foliage is all the rage. Although visitors are starting to trickle back, the Mountain already has plans to accommodate smaller groups of 10 to 14 to guarantee adequate space for social distancing.

People are beginning to come back to take walks on the beautiful grounds and for a change in scenery from their homes, according to Dan. During the height of the pandemic, the Mountain saw virtually no visitors – which gave Dan and the other three resident friars time to focus on fraternal prayer, personal reflection, future planning – and some grounds-keeping chores, such as cultivating their vegetable garden and tackling a few projects that they never could get done. The friars usually have a team of volunteers to maintain the grounds, but with no visitors, the work falls on their shoulders.

Dan said the Mountain’s “in your home” and “on the road” ministries went electronic when people weren’t leaving their homes. Friars are providing Zoom retreats and prayer experiences that participants from coast-to-coast are attending virtually. Outlines, readings, and suggested reflections are sent to participants in advance of these Friday and Saturday sessions.

“We are finding great success and participation in our Zoom programs – which include prayer times, Lectio Divina, and retreats. This is allowing us to bring the prayer, contemplation, and communal experience of the Mountain into homes,” said Dan. “People are really trying to understand what is important to them. They’re trying to find their ground again — the center and core of their life. It’s a natural and ancient practice for people to retreat to natural settings, like mountains and oceans, to let the earth speak to them.”

The Mountain’s electronic media makes available resources to those seeking spiritual counsel and companionship, and Dan has been posting reflections on his podcast, as well as videos and prayer selections, on the Mountain’s website – covering subjects that range from Gospel readings to current themes such as racial issues and a society seeking healing from its brokenness.

“I am an itinerant friar, so the biggest challenge has been to avoid going stir-crazy. It’s the first time in 30 years that I have slept in the same bed for this long a period of time,” said Dan, who professed his first vows as a Franciscan in 1966. “I am experiencing the richness of the Mountain by having this time for prayer and reflection – and a disquieting sense of the fact that the pandemic is out of our control. It moves us into deeper prayer with God and what He wants us to do at this stage of our lives.”

The Mountain may continue some of the Internet programs that evolved as a result of the pandemic – in particular, the use of the Zoom video platform. “It’s a fascinating way to connect, and that’s what people want,” said Dan.

A group of recent SBU graduates requested that Dan livestream a Mass for them. He was also a surprise guest on a Zoom party of SBU alumni and their spouses, during which he led the attendees in prayer, scripture readings, and reflection.

“Everyone called it a ‘great Mass,’ even though it wasn’t a Mass. It was what they needed: an organized prayer experience,” Dan explained.

This year, Dan had the opportunity to see the plants grow from the ground up. “I have been watching life unfold. What a privilege! It brings me to a deep gratitude for God’s abiding presence in all of this,” said Dan, whose picture window in his room offers breathtaking vistas that inspire him to a more open and grateful heart.

Ironically, in being restricted and closed down, the inner sense of life has become more expansive, and life opens and transforms him, says Dan, who has lived at Mt. Irenaeus since it opened in 1984.

He watched a rainstorm move in on him from the woods, listening to its roar as it approached. It was so mesmerizing that he paused from the book he is writing.

Peter Chepaitis, OFM, Middleburgh, New York
Road ministry for Peter Chepaitis, OFM, came to a screeching – and unexpected – halt long before the pandemic. When he returned home from dinner after celebrating his birthday last Sept. 5, that night he couldn’t move his legs. A trip to the emergency room revealed that he had had a stroke – which, although mild, required a brief hospital stay and months of physical therapy, effectively sidelining him from ministry work.

As someone who is used to traveling across the country to give retreats and parish missions, he was looking forward to returning to active ministry at the conclusion of his physical therapy in early March. But COVID-19 had other plans –- although this time, unlike during his personal health crisis, Peter was better prepared when the pandemic indefinitely canceled all retreats, missions, days of renewal, workshops and presentations at parishes, congregations and retreat centers which he provides through Bethany Ministries, the collaborative ministry that he and Sr. Anna Tantsits, IHM, established in 1995.

Peter, who lives in Middleburgh, New York, not far from where he grew up, placed greater emphasis on prayer, one of the principal elements of Bethany Ministries; the others are proclamation and hospitality. For example, throughout the pandemic, Peter maintained a spiritual presence with members of the Peacemakers of Schoharie County. Although unable to join them at their daily, 11 a.m. small-group assembly on Main Street in the nearby village of Cobleskill to spread the message of peace, Peter prayed from his home every day during the hourlong gathering.

Although all travel and events were canceled, Peter filled the gaps, noting that “despite not being on the road, there often wasn’t enough time in the day.” That’s because he and Sr. Anna continued to provide pastoral support by email, phone, and text to their Bethany Ministries network. They also conducted their monthly ecumenical meetings with ministers of other local faith communities by conference call.

“We were still planning our annual interfaith events that we thought might have a chance of taking place,” said Peter, noting that most, including the baccalaureate Mass for graduating seniors, were canceled. “Our monthly meetings would normally be social and practical in nature, but now that we communicate by conference call, the meetings have become more about faith-sharing moments. We listen to each other’s stories on how our faith communities are responding to the pandemic.”

Earlier in the year, traditions like Holy Week services, which have been a major joint event between Bethany Ministries and the local reform church, were also canceled. But the in-person events were replaced with virtual ministry –- which involved Peter recording Masses and services at the request of the local Knights of Columbus to post on their website. Peter also found himself posting more often on the Bethany Ministries website and social media platforms –- photos and summaries of homilies from past events, messages and reflections, and links to other sites.

They have been responding to people from around the country who know them from preaching missions and retreats. In-person monthly meetings of the Franciscan Spirituality Group – usually 15 to 20 participants – and the weekly contemplative prayer group of 5 to 10 participants continued uninterrupted by switching to conference calls. The weekly calls, Peter and Sr. Anna agree, kept people connected to the outside world when they were sheltering in place.

“We prayed together and spent 20 minutes of the call in meditative reflection,” Sr. Anna said.

They also continued meetings via conference call with members of the Prayer House Community, a Pennsylvania-based ecumenical partnership of which Peter is president and Sr. Anna is secretary. As the region became one of the first in New York State to reopen – although with continued restrictions and strict safety guidelines – Peter and Sr. Anna managed to restart some local ministry activity.

The ecumenical group held its annual summer outdoor interfaith service – whose theme, “God created one race: the human race,” appropriately focused on racial injustice and the pandemic. Peter was one of the key speakers at the event, which was held in a local park, and Sr. Anna presented the Gospel. Although not a Catholic service, it felt good for Peter to be back in action.

“Not being able to celebrate public Masses, and not being able to express support with a reassuring embrace or handshake, has been most difficult for me,” said Peter, who professed his first vows in 1968. “It was frustrating to watch things happen and not be able to help people. I was challenged by this thing of doing nothing. It was very tiring and very disorienting – and I have heard many people say this. If it wasn’t for my pillbox, I sometimes wouldn’t know what day it was because I was so far from my set routine.”

Although most of their road events are canceled through the end of the year, Peter and Sr. Anna are bringing comfort to local residents while adhering to COVID safety guidelines. Peter celebrated Mass on the lawn of a family to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of a loved one. For some, it was the first time they had received Communion since the pandemic – and for Peter, it was his first public Mass since Labor Day last September.

“It was a very beautiful experience,” he said.

Peter officiated at a burial at a local cemetery attended virtually by family members through FaceTime, and he celebrated a memorial Mass in the back yard of another family. He and Sr. Anna helped bury a deceased member of the weekly prayer group in a ceremony attended virtually by her family in Florida, Virginia, and California.

Since restrictions on in-person gatherings have eased, a few members of the contemplative prayer group come to Peter’s living room while most still participate via conference call.

Peter has been maintaining contact mostly by phone with other friars in the faith-sharing fraternity (formerly known as Emmaus) – which is a combination of friars living singly in their ministries and others living communally.

“This helps us maintain a strong connection to a Franciscan communal life,” said Peter, who looks forward to the day he can resume fraternal visits to the St. Bernardine of Siena Friary on the Siena College campus, about a one-hour drive from Middleburgh.

“I was looking forward to the Chapter and regional meetings, but everything was postponed. In the meantime, all we can do is communicate by phone,” he said.

Until travel and large-group gatherings are permitted, he and Sr. Anna will continue to fill the void by participating in local events – such as the recent Black Lives Matter vigil in a park outside the village.

Thomas Hartle, OFM, Butler, New Jersey
At least twice a week since the COVID outbreak, Thomas Hartle, OFM, gets together on a Zoom call at 4:30 in the afternoon with friars and friends from New Hampshire, Maine, Florida, and as far away as Padua, Italy.

“It’s not quite like being in the same space, but it’s as close as we can get face-to-face for the time being,” said Tom, who lives at St. Anthony Friary, the Province retirement house in Butler.

The time spent sheltering at home has been challenging for Thomas, particularly as someone who is often behind the wheel of his car traveling to monasteries in his role as the religious assistant to the Most Holy Name of Jesus Federation of Poor Clares in the eastern region of the United States.

He normally visits monasteries on a rotating basis in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Florida, as well as Montana. He also visits the missionary of Poor Clares in Bolivia every three or four years. Thomas attends the federation’s annual meeting and leads small-group retreats throughout the year.

The pandemic put the brakes on retreats and missions, and pilgrimages that he was scheduled to lead in Assisi and Padua. One of the groups was supposed to be women religious from Australia. All of this activity – including facilitating retreats and provincial chapters for Franciscan Missionaries of Mary of Africa, Australia, and Papua New Guinea – has been suspended. Thomas has been receiving requests from the groups of women religious to do retreats via Zoom and other video conference platforms.

“Although it certainly would be a new experience for me, I am giving serious thought to how I would put this together,” said Tom, who admits that he has resisted using technology, for a reason. “I direct my reflections to the group that is sitting in front of me. What I say is driven by my audience. I get feedback and reaction that I won’t get on a Zoom conference. However, I am considering going in this direction if there is no letup in the pandemic. It would be better than nothing at all.”

As someone who has given lectures and workshops around the world, Tom says the past several months have felt like imprisonment.

“We can’t leave the house, we can’t visit anyone, we can’t have visitors – all of which is understandable for our own protection and the safety of the friars who are up there in age and living in the friary,” said Thomas, noting that the pandemic has not changed much for the lifestyle of many friars at the Butler retirement house because they are quite content with staying indoors.

“With the Canadian and European travel ban on Americans, it is like we are prisoners in our own country. I miss going to Italy and leading pilgrimages for the Poor Clares. I feel exactly the same way when people express frustration, disappointment, and sadness about not being able to go to Assisi.”

Since the shelter-in-place edict, Tom – who professed his first vows in 1976 — has made more time for prayer, something that he hopes to continue post-pandemic.

“Since I am not off and running to do things, I find myself making more time for prayer — particularly quiet prayer and reflection. I would like to see that continue, having more time to focus on my prayer life,” he said. “I have also made a conscious effort to reach out to people by email who I have not been in contact with for a long time. That’s something I also hope to continue. People know that I am praying for them and providing pastoral support when they need it,” he said.

Although he has retreats and programs scheduled toward the end of the year, their status remains subject to COVID conditions closer to the dates of the events. Thomas had hoped that things would be better by September. But he says we should not be frustrated or disappointed because scripture tells us that the Lord says to wait for the vision at the appointed time.

“He tells us it will not fail, and that even though it delays, we should wait patiently because it will come – and when it does, it will be right on time. Therefore, if things don’t clear up until December or next March, that’s when the right time will be,” said Tom.

One thing sheltering in place has done for him – it has eliminated the mileage he puts on his car and it has saved him a ton of money on gas. “Since early March, I have filled my gas tank only twice,” he said.

Kevin Cronin, OFM, Butler, New Jersey
Before the novel coronavirus outbreak, Kevin Cronin, OFM, was beginning his third mission of the Lenten season at a parish in Queens, New York. He previewed the mission as homilist at the Saturday vigil and Sunday Masses. That was the last weekend of Masses held in New York, and the mission was one of three that Kevin had to cancel because of the spread of COVID-19.

“Lent is always the busiest time for preaching ministry, so the pandemic really affected what I do,” said Kevin, who has lived at the Province retirement friary in Butler since 2008.

At first, he was going to stay in Long Island for a while, but with businesses, retailers, schools, and just about everything else closing down – and government and health officials advising everyone, with the exception of essential workers, to shelter in place – he quickly changed his plans.

“That’s when I decided it would be best to return to Butler, or risk not being let back into the house,” said Kevin, who has been part of the Franciscan Ministry of the Word since 1993.

When the friary went into lockdown to protect residents – many are elder friars with health conditions – Kevin said everyone felt like the pet parakeets he raises in his room.

“We were caged up for months – like birds! – but that’s what we had to do to keep everyone safe,” he said.

For someone who’s on the road as much as Kevin – he likens his car to an office on wheels during mission and retreat season – he took full advantage of the opportunities that home life offered.

“It was a chance to retreat and recharge – to be more contemplative – and to live in fraternity. That’s something I do between missions anyway, so this was just an extended period of downtime,” explained Kevin, who last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first profession. “The challenging part was dealing with not having the freedom to do your ministry – and being cooped up with my brothers for that long,” he quipped.

Kevin noted that living in community was important during the quarantine because the friars celebrated Mass, prayed, shared meals, and recreated together. He feels grateful for the prolonged time that he spent with his brothers – especially enjoying the weekly gatherings organized by the friary guardian, Robert Frazzetta, OFM, and events like pizza night and shared reminiscence about parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, as well as Masses and prayers in St. Anthony Church next door, which lent itself to greater social distancing than the smaller chapel in the friary.

“It was very helpful to share thoughts and to have a chance to unwind -– and to receive updates on safety protocols to keep everyone healthy and safe,” he said of the weekly house gatherings.

One of the saddest challenges has been burying five friars from nursing homes at the Province’s cemetery in Butler.

“There could only be 10 of us at the gravesite for the burial. It was sad. We lost some really good men,” he said.

His only experience with virtual prayer during the pandemic came at the request of a family he has long-known from his days at St. Mary’s Parish in nearby Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. He virtually administered the sacrament of anointing to their dying mother through a Zoom conference arranged by her son, whom Kevin had baptized and officiated at his wedding.

“He was at his mother’s side physically anointing her while I was praying and anointing her virtually. She was fully conscious and understood what was happening. It was a unique and beautiful experience, and one that became quite common; another friar did this for someone in Peru,” Kevin explained.

Several events have already been canceled – including retreats for secular Franciscans and Brooklyn diocesan priests, and Advent missions in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and Flushing, Queens.

“At this point, the future is in limbo. There’s no indication if and when people will start to rebook missions and retreats,” Kevin said.

As someone who doesn’t even own a cell phone, delivering retreats and talks remotely is not something he intends to pursue. Besides, says Kevin, speaking into a camera is not the same as being physically in front of people – as a great deal of the emotion and passion of preaching comes from the chemistry that he develops with the audience. You need a human reaction from the other side, reading body language and facial expressions, he says.

When restrictions were relaxed and in-person Mass resumed with reduced occupancy, it restored a piece of normalcy to Kevin’s ministry. With July and August the off-season for retreats and missions, Kevin usually spends these months as a visiting priest covering for vacationing clergy at diocesan parishes in Long Island. In July, he was at St. Ignatius Martyr Church in Long Beach, and he is providing pastoral support this month at St. Philip and James Church near Smithtown.

“Exhilarating” was how Kevin described the feeling of celebrating a public Mass on July 3 at St. Ignatius for the first time in nearly four months. “I enjoy this time because I can be a parish priest. The congregations know me from my missions and from returning every summer. But it has been frustrating not being able to greet people with a handshake or an embrace,” he said.

It has been challenging to preach to a sea of faces covered in protective masks, said Kevin, who peppers his homilies with humor. “I miss seeing their smiles, but humor is still part of my preaching because I know that behind those face-coverings, they are smiling. It’s all very impersonal, but that’s the present-day challenge for everyone in ministry,” he said.

Despite the many changes – such as giving Communion at the end of Mass – Kevin is just grateful to be back in church celebrating public Masses. When he returns to the Butler friary in September, he will have to quarantine in his room for two weeks and be tested multiple times before he can integrate again with the fraternity. But at least he will have his parakeets to keep him company.

Casey Cole, OFM, Macon, Georgia
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Casey Cole, OFM, devoted a good deal of time to producing video reflections and talks that provided pastoral comfort and reassurance. Not long into the pandemic, he pivoted – using his voice not to comfort, but rather to challenge others to embrace pain to revolutionize hearts.

“People seemed to be getting enough reassurance from other places. With a number of controversial social issues arising, I felt a stronger need to encourage people to embrace the discomfort they were feeling,” Casey explained. “With racial injustice, I challenged people to recognize that each of us carries subtle forms of bias and racism that need to be addressed. As protests and riots grew stronger, I told people not to look away, but rather to let the pain wash over them and inspire them to action. With regards to people opposing facemask requirements and the shutdown of the economy, I talked about the nature of freedom and challenged people to greater responsibility.”

His role as campus minister of the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia in Athens ended abruptly when students were sent home and education went from classroom to remote learning. He completely shifted efforts to his already established online ministry by producing more content than ever – including three videos a week for two-and-a-half-months – for his social media platforms that include a blog, podcast, and YouTube channel called “Breaking in the Habit.”

While he had the advantage of a successful virtual presence, Internet ministry was not the comfort zone for most friars. However, Casey has been encouraged by the many friars who ventured into this virtual universe and saw firsthand why he devotes much of his ministerial life to it.

“A number of friars have told me they were shocked at how effective it is and how they never expected to reach so many people,” he said.

Despite his success at virtual ministry, Casey noted that using social media as a vehicle for evangelization is always an extension of the in-person work of the Gospel.

“During the pandemic, without that daily personal interaction with the world, at times I found it difficult to know what to say. My finger was no longer on the pulse of the people, and preaching online became an incredibly difficult task,” said Casey, who professed his first vows in 2013.

“It’s a reminder to me that teaching is never a one-way street. It is from my in-person interactions with the people of God – hearing their struggles, sharing in their joys, listening to their questions – that I find inspiration to preach and teach online,” he said.

More recently, Casey was preoccupied with moving from the Catholic Center to his new ministry home at St. Peter Claver Parish in Macon. He is now spending his time constructing a new studio for his podcast and YouTube channel, in which he offers reflections on his experience living as a Franciscan friar in the 21st century, and uses social media to evangelize and catechize through blog posts, videos and podcasts – many of which will continue to challenge viewers and readers to face issues, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable.

Dan Horan, OFM, Chicago, Illinois
Last year, Dan Horan, OFM, zoomed across the globe to Israel, England, Australia, and Rome, and to dozens of domestic destinations to give lectures, retreats, workshops, and pilgrimages – in the process, collecting tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles. This year, he’s traveling to Brisbane, Australia, and domestically to Georgia and Indiana, and he’s reaching people in Europe – all without leaving a five-mile radius of the Blessed Giles Friary in Chicago, where he lives.

That’s because now he gets around the world remotely via Zoom conferences – and the reason the radius is five miles, it’s the trail he follows when he goes out for a run. His travel and ministry schedules were turned upside down by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Dan was scheduled to fly to Reno, Nevada, to lead a workshop for diocesan deacons in formation just as Chicago was being hit by the coronavirus. The scale of the pandemic was still sporadic and reports were changing by the hour and, although the diocese was still planning the workshop, Dan decided to cancel his trip. Shortly thereafter, he was scheduled to co-lead a pilgrimage to Assisi. That, too, was canceled – as was in-class teaching at Catholic Theological Union, where he is an assistant professor of systematic theology and spirituality.

“I went from seeing students every day in the classroom, to not seeing them ever again. It all happened so abruptly,” said Dan, whose dual role as an academic advisor meant he had to switch all scheduled in-person student meetings to Zoom conferences — 46 over a four-day span!

“That was the first time I experienced Internet fatigue,” he said – which shows that the new normal of ministering virtually even takes its toll on people as tech-savvy as Dan, who co-hosts The Francis Effect podcast.

It has been a cascading effect of cancellations, from spring through the summer months, and now into the fall. Despite restrictions on international travel and event cancellations, Dan filled his schedule throughout the pandemic, including signing on as a professor when the Bernardine Center at CTU launched a weekly online lecture series. Dan’s lecture on the spirituality of Thomas Merton in the age of COVID drew participants from as far away as Australia and Europe. He was preparing to give a live-streamed talk jointly with the archbishop of Brisbane, Australia, on Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’.

“There are some silver linings in this tragic COVID moment. The pandemic connected me to people who would not have been able to attend these lectures,” said Dan, who professed his first vows in 2007. “We are also seeing the creativity of dioceses throughout the Church in how they are sharing spirituality and theology.”

More than 12 of Dan’s scheduled fall lectures have already been moved online – including those at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia), St. Mary’s College (South Bend, Indiana), and an academic paper he is presenting for Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium. The status of scheduled presentations – and how they will be delivered – to the Carmelite Sisters in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, is still being determined.

“I would have been doing all of these in person if not for COVID. My talks and presentations are energized by getting to know the people, spending time in their physical space, experiencing the culture and local community,” explained Dan. “That’s lost sitting in front of a camera. It’s not the ideal way to do it, but I have gotten used to the challenges of presenting a live lecture or workshop without the physical responses and engagement from the audience. The greater disappointment is not being present among the people, which is a Franciscan ideal. But another silver lining – it is a less expensive way for people to attend these lectures and classes because they don’t have to travel,” he added.

As a member of the board of trustees for several institutions – including his alma mater, St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York, the Franciscan School of Theology in San Diego, California, and the International Thomas Merton Society at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky – Dan has been attending board meetings via Zoom conferences.

“It hasn’t been the worst thing saving on fossil fuel by not having to travel,” said Dan – although he also says marathon Zoom conferences of seven or eight hours can be far more draining and exhausting than sitting around a boardroom table engaging with colleagues. “Now that everyone is familiar and comfortable with platforms like Zoom and Skype, I feel like the meetings are constant and I have more work than ever. We all went from zero to 100 very quickly.”

Despite being on the road and in the classroom for a large chunk of his waking hours, in some ways, Dan is surprised how easy it was for him to adjust to the new normal in lectures and workshops. “On a personal level, I have the resilience to be able to juggle so many things at once. That gift allowed me to adjust to the change,” said Dan, whose time has also been filled with responding to countless emails.

One of the benefits of being a friar, says Dan, is that he lives in a community with five other friars who support one another. “We were able to celebrate Mass together. It was just the six of us during Holy Week, and being the only ordained in the group, it was like being pastor of a tiny community. Our Franciscan life made it easier to get through this,” said Dan, who writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter.

“I think it has been challenging to deal with the uncertainty and novelty of this event – the fact that it was unprecedented and there’s no example in our lifetime to help us get through this. But one of the greatest challenges has been to be in one place for such a long period of time. I can’t help but think of Trappist and Benedictine monks who take a vow of stability to stay in one monastery for their entire life. Franciscans are just the opposite – we should take a vow of ‘instability’ because our charism is to be itinerant – on the move, with people,” Dan said.

“One of the things I hope continues – and I think it will – is the continuation of reaching people in real-time through these technologies because it has shown us how interactive we can be around the globe. It helps people who are isolated, and those with travel and economic limitations. It has opened opportunities for people on a scale we have never seen before,” he said.

Dan’s message to friars, ministers, and teachers is to engage in new technologies and resources so that they can connect with a broader audience. Although it may not be perfect, he says, the available platforms that allow for chats and conferences are an important form of human connection in this time of the pandemic.

This couldn’t have been more evident in a recent online event, of which he was part of a five-member panel speaking to a live audience of roughly 300 people.

“The Zoom function created breakout groups, and I suddenly found myself in a space with people from all over the country and world. It was a moment of great human connection that would not have been possible in other venues and circumstances. It was an important moment of connection and sharing,” said Dan – another silver lining in this tragic moment in history.

John Anglin, OFM, St. Petersburg, Florida
As the movement against racial injustice unfolds on the nightly news, John Anglin, OFM, can only watch from the distance. Under normal circumstances, he would probably be on the streets protesting peacefully, or sharing his thoughts on inequality and care for creation at his mission talks. But these are hardly normal circumstances.

Like all friars whose ministries take them on the road, John has been grounded due to travel and group-gathering restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. It has been disappointing, for someone who has spent the past 33 years with the HNP Ministry of the Word preaching more than 500 parish missions, countless retreats for men and women religious, and, in recent years, dozens of missions for an international non-profit agency that advocates for children and families.

Earlier this year, in January and February before the COVID-19 outbreak, John – who has lived at the Province retirement house in St. Petersburg, Florida, since 2006 – preached at parish missions in Texas, Indiana, Utah, and, closer to home, Orlando. He managed to complete a Lenten retreat at a parish in Spring Hill, Florida, but two others – along with a day of prayer for a group of priests in Palm Beach – were canceled due to COVID-19 fears. He hasn’t preached a mission or retreat since.

“The obvious feeling is frustration, not being able to do the things I have been doing for more than three decades. Living in a retirement community among some who have underlying health conditions, I feel an enormous responsibility to do everything possible not to be the one who brings the virus into the house. I don’t want to put any friars at risk,” said John, who has been lending his support to racial justice organizations by participating in online petitions, among other ways.

Although his mission and retreat ministry has been suspended, the pandemic pause has placed greater emphasis on the contemplative nature and communal prayer of Franciscan life, according to John. It has also provided the opportunity for more prayer and reflection on such issues as climate change, racial injustice, and the lack of leadership from national and state governments.

“The quiet time of the pandemic has enabled me to reflect on what is happening in the world outside, and on my own life,” said John, who as a young friar participated in anti-war demonstrations and peace marches after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

During his self-reflection, John decided to retire and officially become a “senior friar.” He made the announcement in his July 3 blog entry, saying, “I was hoping to prolong this decision for a few years… but the reality of the COVID-19 crisis has brought me to the awareness that I will not be going out to preach missions and retreats… for the foreseeable future.”

John, who celebrated his 50th anniversary as a friar in 2014, doesn’t plan to completely remove himself from his preaching ministry. “In the Franciscan world, that doesn’t mean you stop being a friar or your ministry comes to an end. There’s no such thing as retirement when you’re a friar,” John pointed out in a phone interview from the St. Petersburg friary.

“I saw this as an opportunity to listen to the people who, before the COVID outbreak, had been telling me not to push myself so hard and to cut back on my travel. I will continue some level of preaching ministry when the pandemic is over, but as a ‘senior friar,’ I will be able to do as much or as little as I want,” he said.

John had hoped to get back on the road this summer to preach four scheduled weekend appeals for Unbound, the non-profit agency that secures financial sponsors for thousands of children and families in Central America, South America, the Philippines, and several African countries. Not only were the weekend appeals canceled, but his entire fall schedule has also been erased from the calendar. He also believes that all winter events, including parish Advent missions, will likely be added to the list of cancellations.

For now, John will continue to stay connected from a distance, as he has throughout the pandemic – bringing his Ministry of the Word preaching to the outside world through an amplified Internet presence that has included more-than-usual blog entries and Facebook posts that share reflections and endorse social justice efforts.

He is also working on his third book and has fit neighborhood strolls into his day. When things return to normal, John is hopeful that a reduced travel schedule will allow more time to assist at local diocesan parishes, especially at Spanish Masses since he is fluent in the language. He would also like to do a scaled-back schedule of Lenten missions and occasional weekend preaching for Unbound – an involvement born of his desire in the early 1980s, while working at the Province’s mission in Bolivia, to make an impact on poverty in poor countries.

“At first, I was okay with slowing down. Sheltering in place was a nice break in April and May, but by June and July it became frustrating not being able to travel and give missions,” he said, knowing that it may be well into 2021 before he can safely resume his preaching ministry.

“I approach things with the discipline of taking one day at a time. Do what you can today without worrying about what you’ll be doing in November or December,” said John. “I have adapted to not being on the road, but I miss it. I will be one of the first in line for a vaccine.”

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.