Matthew Salyer marvels that the tabernacle holding the Blessed Sacrament is radiantly displayed behind the glass doors of St. Barnabas Church, his parish in the Bronx situated just two blocks from his family’s home.
“It’s not that the Church is closed off from you; it’s that it’s reaching toward you,” said Salyer, 41, a husband and father of three children. “It’s like you’re kind of stuck in this holding pattern with covid, of being in this really long Holy Saturday where you’re waiting.
“So it’s really beautiful,” he said of the Eucharist that the faithful can adore from the top of the church steps or from the sidewalk or street.
“What I love is that I’ll go out, socially distancing, and I’ll be doing everyday things I have to do—going to the butcher or to the laundromat—so I’ll walk by St. Barnabas, which could just be a closed church, but instead, you’ve got candles, you’ve got the Blessed Sacrament, right up against the glass window in the front. And there is always somebody, or a lot of times there will be multiple people who are keeping their distance and waiting, who will be genuflecting in front of it or who will be saying a prayer in front of it.”
Salyer, a captain in the U.S. Army who is an associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, concluded, “In some ways, it almost becomes just a part of your everyday quarantine life, of doing the things you have to do.”
Salyer spoke with CNY in a phone interview last week, as did three pastors across the archdiocese, about how the Church remains open despite churches being closed to the public during the celebration of Mass and other liturgies as a safety precaution in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Father Fredy Patino Montoya, pastor of St. Joseph and St. Mary Immaculate parish on Staten Island, said his parish “has been hit really, really hard” by the coronavirus.
“Many families, many members of the parish, got the virus. Some people are out of it, some other people are still going through it and, unfortunately, we have lost a lot of people. There was one week that I went to the cemetery every day, and there was one day I did one burial after the other.”
To console his parishioners, Father Patino reminds them, “We believe that God will bring an end to this virus, and bring a renewal within us. Our faith teaches that the greatest tragedy that humanity has ever seen, the crucifixion of Christ” was not the end but the beginning, a reminder that “on the third day we saw the Lord triumphant, we witnessed the most beautiful and spectacular story that the world has ever seen, which is the resurrection of Christ.”
Facebook has helped Father Patino reach his people, through livestreaming the Sunday 11 a.m. Mass in English and the 1 p.m. Mass in Spanish. He cited a compelling statistic: before the coronavirus restrictions stopped Mass attendance in churches, between 1,200 and 1,300 combined attended the six weekend Masses. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the two Sunday livestreamed liturgies have drawn a combined virtual congregation of 2,800.
A recent burial livestreamed by a funeral home representative brought consolation for members of the deceased person’s family who were unable to attend the graveside rite, the pastor said. A bilingual Rosary, which includes Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, is livestreamed Wednesdays at 3 p.m.
Mindful of the number of parishioners with financial hardships because of jobs lost and incomes reduced, St. Joseph and St. Mary Immaculate, in collaboration with archdiocesan Catholic Charities, has expanded its food distribution program on the parish grounds.
“Families are in need and the struggle is very real,” Father Patino said.
Yet, Father Patino sees hope on the horizon. “I have great faith and hope that we went through the worst already, that we have better knowledge now than before” about the coronavirus. “I believe also that when the day we’re able to come back, that all of us will be better human beings. We will be more aware of how blessed we are. In the midst of this tragedy, most homes have become again a place where families pray together.”
Father Christopher Berean, pastor of St. Mary of the Snow and St. Joseph parish, Saugerties, administrator of St. John the Evangelist, Saugerties, and co-administrator of St. Frances de Sales, Phoenicia, seeks out parishioners from a safe social distance as he walks around Saugerties two to three times a week. “We stay far apart,” he said. “I circulate that way.”
And he patronizes their local businesses. “One of my favorite places to go to is an old-fashioned German butcher. They have really good meat there.” From time to time he’ll administer a blessing to the parishioner proprietors.
A police chaplain with the rank of captain, Father Berean also encourages police he encounters en route.
Through his rounds, the pastor reminds parishioners “that God is still in their lives” and “is caring for them. You can’t stop God.”
“It gives them hope because this is all very scary,” Father Berean said of the coronavirus. “It’s a very frightening thing, to think that you could be here today and then in a week or so you could be gone.”
The chapel at St. Mary of the Snow is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for private prayer. “The chapel is quiet and it’s pretty. It’s there for the people’s comfort,” Father Berean said. “And they use it all the time.” Even at 2 a.m. Although the chapel holds 40, typically no more than four or five faithful are present at a time, and they practice social distancing guidelines. Some pray the Rosary. One man sings hymns, all by himself, a capella. “He has a very good voice.”
Father Berean continues to administer the sacrament of reconciliation, by appointment, from a safe social distance, with both the penitent and the confessor wearing masks. The day Father Berean spoke with CNY he said he had heard the confession of a 92-year-old World War II veteran in the chapel.
Father Brendan Fitzgerald, dean of the Northeast Bronx and pastor of St. Barnabas, the Bronx, said “the coronavirus has not shut down the Church or the people of God. In fact, what I have witnessed is the people of God becoming, in a sense, even more alive.”
For nearly three years, he has livestreamed via Facebook St. Barnabas’ Vigil Mass Saturday at 5 p.m. and the Sunday Mass at 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m., a schedule maintained despite the absence of people in the pews during the coronavirus “because I believe there’s a power in each Mass,” said Father Fitzgerald, noting each person watching the livestream is prayerfully present at that liturgy.
Combined, the Vigil and Sunday Masses receive an average virtual congregation of 12,000. The sole 8:30 a.m. St. Patrick’s Day livestreamed Mass March 17 received a virtual attendance of 8,500.
A social media aficionado, Father Fitzgerald continues the monthly Holy Hour he leads in the church through Facebook Live, followed by the young adult group gathering now through Zoom. He also assists a parishioner who leads an hour-long boot camp exercise class, now through Zoom, in the parish’s elementary school gym, Tuesday and Thursday at 6:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8:30 a.m. The coronavirus “didn’t even close down boot camp—we added an extra class,” all virtually, Father Fitzgerald said.
He credits coronavirus restrictions for helping build up “holy homes,” the beauty of charity among people and a total dependence upon God. “There’s more prayer at home. That’s what makes the parish, that’s what makes the people of God, the Church.”
For those growing anxious about being confined inside, Father Fitzgerald challenges them to look at their four walls not “as a prison” but “as a cloister.”