Ministry in the digital age

ORLANDO | Whether you’re using Zoom, FaceTime or something more advanced, the reality is the coronavirus has turned digital ministry on its head. Everyone from grandparents to elementary school kids is interacting, caring for and learning from one another through technology. Youth directors, ministry leaders and priests are finding new ways to evangelize and continue faith-based ministries in ever increasingly creative ways.

Angelo Guevara is a systems architect for Lockheed Martin who works with the Spanish ministry at Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo. He is also in diaconate formation. Every night he gathers with other ministers via Zoom for the Liturgy of the Hours. He participates in the celebration of daily Mass through San Pedro Spiritual Development Center from his home office, and when he runs, he prays the Rosary with students and alumni from his university’s radio station in Colombia.

Prompted to meet the spiritual needs of the faithful, organizations are offering these possibilities via a variety of channels. San Pedro Spiritual Development Center immediately got on board after Florida’s stay-at-home mandate went into effect. Program Director Kimmy Zeiler paired resources and expertise with the Secretariat for Laity, Family and Life staff at the Diocese of Orlando, launching virtual retreats for all ages. Their Facebook followers increased by 991% compared to March and post engagement is up 397%.

“Our mission of spiritual development is more important than ever,” Zeiler said. “We want to help others reconnect with what really matters… No one expected or wanted this to happen, but I am thankful that we at San Pedro are able to offer even a moment of community and peace in the midst of what is happening.” Flexibility is making a difference. Before quarantine, there were 20 people registered for the Lenten Retreat. Adapting quickly, the staff offered the retreat virtually and even more people participated.

Their video of Father Anthony Aarons taking viewers down a nature trail and reflecting on our faith, Closer Walk with God, is now their most popular video on YouTube. The new series, offered Monday nights at no charge, A Priest, a Therapist, and a Theologian Walked into a Zoom Meeting… is their highest-attended virtual program to date. Views on Facebook have reached close to 1,000.

For Guevara, all of this is an exciting adventure. He says the options are endless. Noting many of these platforms are not new, he says the pandemic has actually empowered many to expand their vehicles of evangelization. “The pandemic has made us aware, as a global society. It has brought us together and allowed us to see that we are not bound to finding God within four walls alone. It takes us back to our beginnings as a Christian community where there were 12, then 24, then 72 disciples and it kept growing and growing. It has opened our eyes to these ‘new ways’ of communicating and growing.”

Meeting the challenge head on, parish youth groups are gathering online now more than before. They are stepping up, adding game nights, studies and movie nights followed by a related activity and Q&A. “The goal is to keep the faith alive and active,” said Carlos Bernard, Jr., director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Orlando. “We want to remind youth they’re not alone. To help them not forget about their faith.”

He meets weekly with youth directors to touch base and share ideas and with the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministers to continue best practices and stay informed. “This is a whole new way of living. The future is going to be totally different,” he noted. The changes have prompted new diocesan policies addressing safety issues while using these tools to insure youth protection. Bernard insists the rule of three still applies – there must always be two young adults who are fingerprinted and background checked through the Diocese of Orlando for any group meeting with youth. If only one teen shows up, a parent must give permission and acknowledge the student is signing on. Bernard recommends parents sign in with younger children.

Embracing the trend to go virtual, Lynda Monckton, director of family ministry at the diocese has taken marriage preparation online. Mentor couples are meeting with engaged couples via Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime. Pre-Cana workshops are being offered as webinars for couples going forward with the Sacrament of Marriage during the COVID-19 pandemic or those seeking Convalidation. Monckton noted an estimated 50-60% of those involved have chosen to proceed with digital marriage preparation. “A lot of couples preparing for Convalidation were supposed to come into the Church at Easter Vigil. They are still going to do that, so this helps. We’re just trying to help couples prepare. They have enough anxiety as it is,” Monckton noted.

The idea is to maintain uninterrupted ministry. Workshops are offered in English and Spanish. Materials are mailed to their home ahead of time so they can follow along. Although some couples have chosen to wait until this crisis passes, to proceed with their Sacraments, the webinars are proving useful and timely for others. She said it is unlikely that webinars will continue after the pandemic is over because, in this area of ministry, interaction is best.

The downside, says Monckton, is there is not as much time for group discussion. In addition, the remote preparation defers parish participation. “You just don’t get the same level of connection with a webinar,” she said. “Marriage prep is moving to a parish-based process to get the couple connected – not just to the coordinator and the pastor, but to the people in the parish. So by the time their wedding date comes, they’re getting married in their parish and they take ownership of that.”

Deacon Joe Gassman who directs the diaconate formation program agrees. Fifteen men were scheduled to be ordained in June prior to the pandemic. Their last two meetings went online, enabling continuation, demonstrating the intellectual or academic aspect of formation is possible digitally. “This has also shown that some of the spiritual elements can be done online – Mass, devotionals, prayer sessions – and still establish some sense of community and community prayer,” Deacon Gassman said. “The challenges are the human and pastoral dimensions. A true formative program requires face-to-face interaction where you’re sitting across from someone and that person becomes your mirror… When we’re bringing enculturated leaders into the diaconate, this setting can be challenging. Conference gatherings are not always a choice vehicle. It takes people a while to warm up because it’s awkward. There is no free flow of connectivity.” His team will assess outcomes once this crisis is over to determine what will stay and what will go. Observing what is happening, he said, “We are reaching people who have been away a long time.” He added the task now is to figure out how to get them to stay.

“This is life. This is the essence of what God wants of us,” Guevara said, emphasizing the global face-to-face connection that is occurring, beyond our neighborhoods and parish campuses. I’ve seen Bishop Noonan talking to Father Martin (Nguyen) via Zoom and how easy and awesome their jovial, entertaining, knowledgeable, inspiring conversation has transpired (on the weekly Hope in Turmoil program on the diocese Facebook page). To see Bishop Noonan in that light… there’s something to be said about that.”

He says the outcome is, we are communicating to a wider audience. “It’s like what Pope Francis said, ‘Go out and smell like the sheep.’ This is virtually or electronically ‘smelling’ like and reaching those sheep’,” Guevara said. “This is just the beginning. I am the eternal optimist.” He added, “This is Church, you and me. Church is more outside, than inside. This (pandemic) has actually proven it to us.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic May 6, 2020