Look how far we've come
March 17, 2021
Think for a moment about what you were doing a year ago today.
The World Health Organization had declared a COVID-19 pandemic just days earlier. Schools closed. Sports ceased. Some businesses shuttered and others shifted online. The world stopped in its tracks.
With necessary restrictions on public gatherings in order to keep the most vulnerable safe, the Church had to find new ways to celebrate Christ’s light in the widening darkness.
And find the way it did. One year later, it’s plain to see how much the people of the Des Moines diocese have grown.
Missing Mass and each other
Bishop William Joensen suspended publicly celebrated Mass and sacraments while keeping churches open for prayer, small intimate religious gatherings such as weddings, baptisms, and reconciliation.
Parishioners realized going to Mass was more than a habit. It was something they loved.
Last spring, Bree Townsend, of St. Mary of Nazareth Parish in Des Moines, began the longest stretch she’s ever experienced without receiving the Eucharist.
When weekday Masses resumed for the public last summer, Townsend and her four boys went once a week. They found that they enjoyed the intimate setting.
“We got to know people in church better because it was a smaller group,” she said. She wants to continue taking her sons to a weekday Mass in the summertime.
The McGrath family, of Corpus Christi Parish in Council Bluffs, also missed their Sunday morning routine. So parents Neal and Kendall, and their children Tori, Karly and Daniel, created a new tradition.
“We actually would still get up on Sunday mornings and get ready, but then we’d go to my parents’ house and we’d go to a computer screen to watch Mass and have lunch afterwards,” said Kendall.
In the adjustments like these families made, Father Trevor Chicoine, diocesan director of the Worship Office, sees a “general appreciation of our faith more.”
“In many ways, prior to the pandemic, I think a lot of us were ‘box-punching’ Catholics. That is to say, we did what we needed to do to fulfill obligations,” he said. “Suddenly, we’ve been forced to choose — choose to engage with our faith, choose to practice. Nobody’s forcing us. Many folks have had to think about what will work for them, find what feeds them.
“There’s definitely a certain reflectiveness that permeates us, which perhaps didn’t penetrate so finely before.”
They say that as more people get vaccinated, they’re seeing more people appear at Mass. On a recent weekend, Monsignor Frank Chiodo saw more people at St. Anthony Church than the week prior. Deacon Randy Kiel, of Holy Trinity Parish in Des Moines, saw a larger crowd recently.
“It was wonderful!” he said.
Finding God in the silence
With choirs and congregations silenced and parishioners separated for their own safety, Catholics had to try harder to hear God speaking to them.
“One of the things I noticed was that gradual acceptance that we couldn’t escape or change the pandemic, so people had to gradually learn how to surrender and be in the midst of it,” said Kevin O’Donnell, spiritual director and co-director of Emmaus House.
We were “acknowledging our vulnerability and dependence on God. There was a deepening sense of trust in God,” he said.
In the silence and solitude people experienced, they could be “aware of God’s gentle voice guiding them,” O’Donnell said. “Gradually, people shifted from asking that the pandemic would end to listening to God and being present to how God is present to them right in the midst of it. Even in surprising ways — ways they might not have expected.”
Without the busyness of everyday life, people who visited with spiritual director Tom Green, of Holy Trinity Parish in Des Moines, struggled with a feeling that they should be praying more.
“I tried to help them see that there is not an increased expectation that we pray more during times like this, but that we pay attention in prayer to what’s stirring in us, whether it’s loss or confusion or doubt or even despair,” he said.
One question his own spiritual adviser recently asked: What will he miss about the pandemic?
“That’s a pretty powerful, insightful question,” Green said. “Most people are trying to get away from the pandemic, but there are some graces that we probably encountered.”
Prayer became more prominent in many homes.
With his four children, two nephews and a niece at his home, Joe Tallman, of St. Pius X Parish in Urbandale, suggested they say a rosary together when the pandemic began.
“Here they all are praying this rosary with a candle on the dining room table. I had to take a moment to appreciate the gift it was to pray with them,” he said. “They were so quiet and reverent. We started a family rosary. It was just beautiful, and it was something we continued.”
The pandemic afforded the faithful an opportunity to revive the practice of spiritual communion, “the act of asking, desiring and imploring our Lord to enter our soul as if we were receiving him sacramentally at Mass,” said Father Fabian Moncada, pastor of Our Lady of the Americas Parish in Des Moines.
“When I was offering streaming of the Holy Mass, I would hold the chalice and the Holy Host, convinced that my brothers and sisters as a virtual congregation were living with me through the spiritual communion,” he said.
Seeing blessings in the cloud
Technology became a saving grace during the pandemic, keeping people employed, connecting family and friends, and helping the faithful attend Mass virtually. It allowed parishes to reach people in new ways that are likely to stick around long after the pandemic ends.
Tech-savvy parishioners stepped up to help their pastors use smartphones or tablets to livestream Mass so people could worship via Facebook, YouTube and parish websites.
Kendall McGrath said her husband, Neal, is not in a faith tradition, but he’s now watching Mass online and has discovered some Bible study groups.
“It has been able to allow us to have those religious conversations,” she said. “We’re doing a Bible study right now that’s on the Gospel of Mark. That’s kind of cool that we were able to do that because of creating that tradition of finding things online.”
Green, the Holy Trinity spiritual advisor, and his wife, Char, did a rotation of watching Mass at five different parishes they have attended in the past: two local, one in California, one in Chicago and one in New York.
“That’s a real joy,” Green said. “It created not only a desire to return to Mass but to return to Mass at our home parish.”
Leaders realized the importance of staying connected digitally for maintaining community and prayer. Digital connections facilitated the building of new relationships, too.
Diocese-wide retreats were offered on Zoom, religious education and youth ministry sessions were held online, faith-sharing groups gathered while participants sat at their own kitchen tables, and training continued for pastoral leaders.
“What has been wonderful for these opportunities has been the cross-section of ages and participants from many different areas of the diocese,” said John Gaffney, diocesan director of Evangelization and Catechesis. “It’s been fun to see people make new connections and build relationships with those they would have never made contact with normally.”
Parishes now see a future ministry in livestreaming. They’re installing permanent streaming equipment and envisioning digital communication as a way to reach beyond parish boundaries.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish in West Des Moines was not streaming at all before the pandemic. Now, the parish can’t imagine not streaming.
Fathers Ray McHenry and Mark McGeary call it both a challenge and a benefit.
“It has enabled us to extend the Church’s reach beyond the building for parishioners who have not felt safe to return to Mass, for those in care facilities or in remote locations. That has translated to all our liturgical practices including weddings and funerals.”
By making streaming more a permanent part of outreach, “we will not only survive post-pandemic, but thrive, by sharing God’s love and mercy to those who would never darken the doorstep of a church building,” Gaffney said.
Staying strong in schools
Catholic schools in the Diocese of Des Moines paved the way for continuing education throughout the pandemic.
“The Catholic schools were, hands down, the leaders when the pandemic started. They knew what they were doing,” said Joe Tallman, a parent and teacher at St. Pius X Catholic School in Urbandale.
“The pandemic has challenged all of us in new ways,” said Schools Superintendent Donna Bishop. “We are grateful for the partnership that has been strengthened with faculty and parents in the efforts to work together in providing continuous learning for our students.”
Sacred Heart Catholic School parents Laurie and Steve told the school, “I will never forget that gray Sunday when we could hardly believe this was all happening and there you were with smiles and hope and faith.”
A parent of three children at St. Patrick Catholic School in Perry said, “St. Patrick School has been extraordinary with this difficult and confusing time ... The workload not only keeps my middle schoolers busy but motivated.”
And parent Desiri Wilwerding, who has a child at Shelby County Catholic School in Harlan, was impressed with the school maintaining a connection with her family.
“My SCCS child’s teacher continues to connect with me, as do other personnel, to see how our family is doing.”
Rediscovering family time
When most schools and after-school activities closed, families found they had more time on their hands. Some re-evaluated how they were spending their time and decided to make changes.
Bree Townsend, the St. Mary of Nazareth parishioner, and her husband, Brad, decided to homeschool their four boys, ages 7 to 11, through the pandemic. “We never would have done this otherwise,” she said.
The Townsend family even used their newfound time to start their own book club.
“I think that’s something we might carry on into adulthood,” Bree said. “We’ve had fun reading and discussing books as a family. It’s been a highlight of the day.”
When activities stopped last spring, Tallman and his wife, Jen, found they had time to reflect on what was important in life.
“We had fallen into the trap prior to the pandemic of dividing and conquering: I’ll take the kids to this and you take the kids to that. We were split as a family. Along the way, the sacrifice was that family time,” he said.
“That has changed. That will be the new normal: us doing things together. There’s an appreciation for time together as a family and time together as a married couple.”
Gathering to grieve
Throughout all the cancellations, the changes, and the improvisations, one sobering truth stands out: More than 530,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Millions have suffered due to the loss of a loved one, but because of restrictions and distancing, their grief is incomplete.
Although no members of the Tallman family died from COVID, they saw friends’ families suffer a loss.
“We’ve had five teachers who lost parents,” Tallman said. “They’re still grieving. That process is going to be really long.” He hopes to soon support his coworkers in person. “I’ve had friends suffer and haven’t been able to walk that walk with them.”
Helping people cope with stress and sadness, regardless of whether they lost someone, will be paramount.
“We see people dealing with the pandemic in many different ways,” said Scott Caldwell, Catholic Charities director of programs and a licensed independent social worker. “Many people are feeling isolated and disconnected. As we see positive progress with vaccines, taking some proactive steps like taking a break from watching the news and social media, getting out in nature, or doing a long-delayed project can help regain perspective.”
The Catholic Charities Counseling Program offers therapy for those trying to sort through a calendar year’s worth of upheaval (515-237-5045 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
“We have all had a collective loss. We have all suffered in some way — some much more than others,” said Gaffney. He and Becky Eldredge, a spiritual director and author, are creating a program, to be shared nationwide, that teaches how to help people recover from pandemic-related trauma.
“Some experienced the loss of a loved one. Some lost their livelihood,” Gaffney said. “Some employees carried the weight for many of us: those in health care, education, meat processing plants, grocery stores; those who protect us like police, firefighters, and EMTs.
“Some had to parent and work in the same place. Children lost access to friends and the love of learning. This is what we will try and help clergy and lay leaders with: how the Church can accompany others out of this trauma.
“Our faith has the answer.”