Area Catholics move online to share faith, connect during pandemic

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Father Matt Foley, pastor of St. James Parish in Arlington Heights, records a video to share on social media with his parish and school community April 1, 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parishes, schools and groups have turned to social media to connect and pray with each other. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

When public Masses and group meetings were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic and Catholic schools closed their doors, parishioners and students were not left totally bereft.

For many, connection to their communities of faith and learning were as close as their laptops or smartphones.

Schools are posting and tweeting pictures of their students learning at home and parishes are streaming Masses and prayers. Teachers are hosting class meetings online and pastors are sending video homilies.

Father Matt Foley, pastor of St. James Parish in Arlington Heights, has been offering a series of brief daily videos, some with reflections on Scripture and others offering children and parents advice for “spiritual fitness.”

The first features Foley — a military chaplain who served in Afghanistan — doing pullups in the school playground while wearing his Roman collar and praying. Another is a plank challenge: How many planks does it take someone to read all 16 chapters of the Gospel of Mark out loud? Doing a “plank” means to hold the body in a straight line horizontally — like a plank — supported by the toes and either hands or forearms.

“For me, it’s about a thousand,” Foley joked. “But some of our kids can plank for like 20 minutes.”

The “spiritual fitness” name comes from what Foley and other chaplains called the (much longer) optional workouts they devised for members of the military while they were in the service. Those workouts had both physical and spiritual components, Foley said.

“The kids like them,” he said. “It gives them an opportunity to get out and do something, get some activity.”

At the same time, Foley said, the stay-at-home order can be seen as a “graced moment.”

“People always tell me they’re so busy,” Foley said. “This is a graced moment for our society to slow down and do the things you always say you don’t have the time to do, whether that’s breaking open the Word or calling a family member or writing a good old-fashioned letter. Those are graced moments.”

Father Bradley Zamora, director of liturgy and chair of the Department of Music at Mundelein Seminary/University of St. Mary of the Lake, has also been posting daily videos. His include a hymn or spiritual song, and, for the past several days, a brief reflection to help people pray along with the lyrics.

Zamora said he decided to post the videos as soon as public Masses were suspended.

“What I quickly realized is that having to curtail our public celebrations of the Eucharist meant that many people felt helpless and disconnected from the church,” Zamora said in an email interview. “Ours is very much a sacrament-based experience and tied up in that is our relationship with Christ. However, the Body of Christ is not limited to the act of receiving communion. Communion isn’t just something we receive; it is something we are also called to live. For me, getting that message out there, was crucial.”

For Zamora, music has always been a way he connects with Christ and so he pledged to post a video each day for people to pray with.

Using social media is nothing new to him. He’s maintained a presence on various platforms since he was ordained, he said, something that was encouraged by Bishop Robert Barron, who was rector of Mundelein at the time.

“There is so much that happens in the lives of our people during the week that it is good to have the Good News out there for them to latch onto when they need Jesus,” Zamora said.

Michael Bayer, the director of evangelization and adult formation at St. Clement Parish, 642 W. Deming Place, has been surprised at just how many parishioners are logging on to watch streamed Masses.

The parish is using a variety of platforms, from Facebook and YouTube to Instagram, to get material out to parishioners, Bayer said. All kinds of groups — men’s groups, women’s groups, Scripture studies — have moved to videoconferencing platforms, including Zoom and Google Hangouts.

The parish is also starting a virtual ministry of care, allowing parishioners to check in on various platforms with other parishioners who might be elderly or isolated.

“I’d say the digital space has not been as well-utilized in the past as we’re using it now,” Bayer said. “We’re not necessarily using different tools as much as we’re using the tools that we already had in a more intentional way.”

Instagram seems to be the most popular platform among young families, especially young moms, Bayer said. One popular post was a one-minute video about how to watch Mass online with young children.

“They don’t necessarily have the time to watch something longer,” Bayer said. “But our older parishioners will log on and watch the whole Mass or something more in depth.”

Marian Catholic High School Principal Steve Tortorello said that anyone trying to reach teenagers on social media have to go to the platforms where they are: Instagram, but also Snapchat and TikTok.

Marian Catholic decided to get involved by having a TikTok contest for its students who are participating in e-learning from home.

Students who want to join can make TikTok videos of themselves participating in an existing TikTok challenge, or videos themed on e-learning.

Submissions are uploaded to a schoolwide FlipGrid, another digital platform used at the school to allow teachers to have all the students in a class post, say, a video response to an assignment. A committee will determine winners in a few categories.

There were about 15 submissions by the afternoon of March 27, roughly 36 hours after the contest was announced.

Tortorello said he expected a lot more to arrive over the weekend, after students had more time to create them.

“A lot of these take a lot of work,” he said. “It always amazes me how adept kids are at this.”

One submission he had already received was based on an existing TikTok challenge in which users adapt the theme from the TV show “Full House,” which introduces all the characters. The student had gotten video clips from 15 to 20 other students and cut them all together to the theme music.

“It’s really something else,” he said.


  • coronavirus

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