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Doing Church in the Pandemic

The New Normal - Doing Church in the Age of the Coronavirus

Before re-opening his church, Mary Queen of Heaven in Elmhurst, Father Jason Stone experienced a first-hand look at the coronavirus by being part of the front lines at Elmhurst Hospital, visiting patients there for weeks.

Father Stone, as the hospital’s priest-chaplain, got permission to make the visits after first being fitted and trained in the use of N95 masks. He committed to being present three days a week, and on call 24/7, but for most of April and May, he was at the hospital every afternoon.

He visited as many Catholic patients as he could, anointing them, hearing confessions and giving Eucharist to those who were able. Over two months, Mary Kay Lightner, Elmhurst Hospital’s manager of Catholic Ministry/Department Coordinator, said he anointed around 150 patients. He said around 30 of them tested positive for the coronavirus. His coronavirus visits were limited to those where a request had been placed for an anointing, due to the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) shortages and the time involved to get ready and to take off the PPE — about five minutes per patient. One hospital chaplain, Anna Vacha, shared a story about his devotion to his ministry there. A Greek Orthodox family was unable to get their parish pastor due to visitor restrictions. They then requested that Father Stone, who had just left the hospital for the day, anoint their dying loved one. Vacha called him, hoping he was still in the hospital’s parking lot.

“Father Jason answered in his usual chipper voice and said he was about a half hour away already but would turn around,” she said. “For the family and the patient, the anointing of the  sick meant so much, as it has for all the patients Father Jason has cared for. I remember telling Father on the phone before I hung up, ‘God reward you,’ and his prompt response: ‘He always does!’ ” To not to spread the virus, once he started visiting the coronavirus patients, he did not visit others who did not have it, he said. The mood was tense.

“There was an unsettling quiet, broken only by the occasional chatter of nurses and whooshing of ventilators,” he said. “Many of the patients were unresponsive. The ones that were awake were often anxious. I did what I could to offer them peace, whether through reassurances or through prayer and sacrament. I prayed for the rest of the Catholic patients at their door, offering ab- solution and apostolic pardon for those who appeared more critical. Others in isolation who did not appear critical, I prayed with over the telephone. On several occasions, I was able to visit with nurses to reassure them and even offer them blessings.”

The roots of these visits were from Father Stone’s life before he became a priest. He worked as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and 911 dispatcher, and he said his calling to the priesthood “was born in the midst of tragedy and manifested in a desire to bring healing to those who are suffering.” As a result, ministering to the sick has always been a priority, which led to him ministering as priest-chaplain at Elmhurst Hospital for the past six years.

His hospital visits during the pandemic called him “to put everything on the line,” he said, and caused him to “lean” on God for strength and courage.

When he got home after a visit, sometimes coughing from allergies — but not knowing if the coughs were actually a symptom of the virus — he adopted a mindset of surrender. If he got sick, he would accept it as God’s will. As long as God wanted him to make the hospital visits, he would. He labeled all that as “real gritty prayer experiences.”

“If he got sick, he would accept it as God’s will. As long as God wanted him to make the hospital visits, he would. He labeled all that as “real gritty prayer experiences.”

In the meantime, what he learned was invaluable. He said he gained a greater appreciation for the sacramental and priestly ministry in the life of the Church. He cited    a powerful example with an elderly patient who was scared and suffering from the virus. He told her about the concept of redemptive suffering, where a person’s suffering can be joined to Christ’s suffering on the Cross, and, thus, the person participates in the saving work of Jesus to help alleviate other people’s sufferings.

“The light bulb went on” in that patient’s mind, and “suddenly, faith was part of it,” he said, which shifted the woman’s fear to one of grace and acceptance.

That kind of intense ministry taught Father Stone an important lesson: that the one- on-one stuff, which Jesus excelled at, is as important as the big-group stuff.

“It’s through the one-on-one encounters, helping people find God in situations, that helps them get to the big-group stuff,” he said.

Meanwhile, on the weekend of June 13-14, Father Stone’s parish finally re-opened. He described it as an “emotional experience.” “It was good to feel the dynamics of being a part of a group gathered as the Body of Christ for the first time in a while,” he said. “I was struck by the realizations that Mass has been a lonely place and the added grace of offering it for others who were actually present.”  

Meanwhile, across the diocese, as other churches also began to re-open, parishioners found that life was different than normal. Strict guidelines were in place. But all that didn’t matter to people.

The sacraments were back, in person. Tim Cora, a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Joliet, felt relief and happiness about going back to Mass.

“Finally,” he said.

Though he was annoyed that some businesses were open during the pandemic and churches were not, he viewed the time of waiting until churches were open again as a “reawakening.”

“I see it as God calling, shaking the tree  a little bit, saying, ‘Don’t forget about me,’  ” he said.

As a result, he’s been trying to keep a daily prayer practice going. He’s also going to try to attend adoration of the Blessed Sacrament more often and go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation more often, as well.

He wishes more people were at the Mass he attended on the first weekend Masses were held in months at St. Paul Church, but he sees the re-opening as a first step.

“It will get better and better until it goes back to normal,” he said.

Another parishioner from St. Paul, Mary Jane Wahl, felt “happy and grateful” for being back at Mass. There were some adjustments to be made. There were less people; the people in the pews were socially distant from each other; everyone wore masks; and the priest and deacon brought communion to her in the pew.

Change is never easy, but what made Wahl a little more at ease was sitting close to the spot in the pews she normally sat when she went to Mass before the pandemic struck. And, of course, just being with others in church, too.

“We were away for so long,” she said.  “It was so nice to see people gathered together.”

It made her emotional, grateful and smiley, she said – especially when she received the Eucharist for the first time in a long time.She said the biggest lesson she learned throughout the time not being able to attend Mass in person with other was “not to take this for granted,” she said.

Gratefulness was also rampant among other parishioners across the diocese.

At St. Pius X Church, in Lombard, for in- stance, Pat Incrocci teared up during the Mass. Her emotions ran particularly high when she received the Eucharist.

For weeks, she watched Masses online, but that only increased her hunger for the Eucharist.

“I felt empty and lost,” she said when an online Mass showed the time when people would normally receive the Eucharist in person. She, like all the parishioners interviewed for this article, said she did not feel fear about getting the coronavirus.

In fact, one reason could be is that she knows how much work goes into sanitizing the church for people to be safe. After she attended the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass on the first weekend the churches re-opened, she was part of the cleaning crew who wiped down the pews and kneelers to make sure the parishioners attending the next, 10 a.m. Mass, would not encounter any harmful germs.

Frank D. DiMatteo, another parishioner from St. Pius X Church, attended many online Masses when churches were not open. He saw Masses that were held in Singapore, Toronto, Kansas City, Fort Collins and watched Masses presided over by two nationally known priests, Bishop Robert Barron and Father Michael Schmitz.

But, nothing — nothing — compared to going to Mass in person, especially to receive the Eucharist. He felt elation and joy.

His faith is strong, he said, and so, when asked what was the biggest change he experienced as the result of the time-out from receiving the sacraments, he said he was going to have more of a missionary discipleship mindset from now on.

He plans to be more of a witness and tell others that he attends Mass every week, not because he’s obligated to, but because the Mass is where “heaven meets earth” and where he — and others — can encounter Jesus in the Eucharist.