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Priests say Church will continue adapting to changes

‘God is in control,’ Father Friend says reflecting on year of COVID-19 pandemic

Published: March 12, 2021   
Belinda Ortner, file photo
Father Alejandro Puello, pastor of St. Anne Church in North Little Rock, distributes Communion May 17 during a drive-in Mass he celebrated in the rainy church parking lot. Bill Ortner holds an umbrella to protect his pastor.

Thanks to the COVID-19 virus, 2020 became the year of “winging it,” assuming with each passing month things would get better and we’d get back to “normal.” 

A year later and more than 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, 500,000 of those in the United States, the idea of normal is still a long way off, even with the hope brought by vaccines. 

“God is in control and that we are very vulnerable as people” is the spiritual lesson this year, said Father Joseph Friend, associate pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Morrilton. “It’s just been wild to see how the world has been brought to its knees by this virus. In many ways, it shows we are dependent on him.” 

The Catholic Church in Arkansas has evolved during the pandemic and its priests are looking toward the future. 


Priestly ministry 

Father Friend was ordained last August, three months later than originally planned because of COVID cancellations. Despite all the precautions, he said the role of the priest is the same. 

“His love isn’t going to stop even though it looks different; he’s still present with us ... I can be just as much as a priest now than I will be in 10 years. We are called to bring Christ to people right now,” he said. 

He contracted COVID-19 and while his symptoms were mild, he felt the loneliness of quarantine. He is most concerned about the elderly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is a 50 percent increase in risk for dementia and other serious conditions because of social isolation. 

“I was talking to a student the other day, and she was talking about Christmas … She saw her grandmother through a screen door. She could tell her grandma was crying and she was so devastated to have to witness that and to want to embrace her,” he said, adding that while those moments are sad, “that just encourages me for the future that we have to take advantage of every opportunity.” 


Technology and parking lots 

Parishes that might have been hesitant to try any virtual or online offerings in the past quickly realized that reaching the faithful with livestream Masses, Zoom Bible studies and online, distanced or take-home religious education was no longer optional. Almost daily, after Masses were canceled and Lent began, Father Jason Tyler, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville, recorded devotional videos on Facebook.

“I don’t think having Mass available livestream is going to keep anyone away,” Father Tyler said. “They might have gotten out of the habit of getting up and going or watching onscreen. Do they become too comfortable with that habit, so to speak, and don’t come back for that reason? I think it will be something that we’ll have to talk up the importance of the Eucharist.”

Even when public Masses resumed with 25 percent capacity, smaller churches had to get creative. St. Anne Church in North Little Rock can ordinarily seat about 160 people, but only about 40 with coronavirus restrictions. Pastor Father Alejandro Puello moved Masses to the parking lot and discontinued streaming Masses. 

“For a parish our size, there was always something going on pre-COVID,” Father Puello said. “... For us, the parking lot Mass has been a blessing in terms of that because it’s allowed people to still physically see each other.”


What’s next? 

With yet another volatile election cycle, the pandemic became a political lightning rod instead of a public health crisis. Father Puello said this will have far-reaching consequences.

“The average Catholic is far more invested in preaching their political beliefs than their religious beliefs or their own experiences with Christ,” he said. “... The minute the truth doesn’t matter, then the One who is the truth stops mattering.” 

In order to combat this, the Church beyond this pandemic needs to be one of encounter. 

“We make a difference spending time with people, having conversations one-on-one, forming friendships, stopping and helping someone on the side of the road,” he said. 

Father Friend said this should be a time of preparation for priests, parishes and lay leaders. 

“When we come out of this thing, we have to be ready. We have to be ready to have ministries, to physically come together. And that’s going to take effort,” he said. 

Emphasizing God’s presence with humanity and what that means for every person is something to focus and contemplate on as the Church moves forward, Father Tyler said. 

“Hopefully as people have been more physically distanced from one another, they turn toward God and find his strength a source of consolation along the way,” he said. 

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