Natalie (6), Tyler (11), Ted and Brandon (9) Rask take part in Easter Mass on television in April. The Rasks are members of St. Pius X Parish in Portland. (Courtesy Michele Rask)
Natalie (6), Tyler (11), Ted and Brandon (9) Rask take part in Easter Mass on television in April. The Rasks are members of St. Pius X Parish in Portland. (Courtesy Michele Rask)
The domestic church may be in a heyday.

With pandemic rules keeping Mass attendance low, Catholics across western Oregon have increased prayer and worship in their homes, from daily rosaries to familial foot washing ceremonies.

“My youngest would literally wash the feet of the entire Catholic Church if we’d let her,” said Michele Rask, a mother of three and a member of St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland.

Like many families, the Rasks were forced to adjust quickly as Holy Week and Easter approached. Michele and husband Ted knew their kids loved Holy Thursday and its foot washing rite and so got out pitchers of water, shallow dishes and let the family do as Jesus did. That night set the tone for months of at-home devotion.

On Easter, everyone put on their best clothes to view Mass on television. Now, the Rasks are regulars watching livestreamed Mass from St. Pius X — while attending Mass in person as often as they can. They pray family rosaries at home, with relatives from all over joining in online.

“We decided we wanted to bring the church inside our home as best we could,” said Michele.

The pandemic presented challenges that actually have kept the family spiritually fit. “It has created a situation where we have to grow,” Michele explained. “The structure we were used to was shaken, but that has given us an opportunity to explore our faith in different ways. It has taken a different level of discipline.”

As a busy mom who had to help her children continue studies through St. Pius X School, Michele has been sustained by her personal prayer.

“There is so much noise right now in the world,” she said. Before the pandemic, she would drop her children at school then slip into St. Pius X Church. Now, she must create her prayer time anew, which can be a struggle in a busy house.

Family rhythm of prayer

In Estacada, surrounded by woodland, Nikki and Neil Gehred have created a rhythm of worship for themselves and six daughters, ages 15 to seven months. Members of St. Aloysius Parish, the Gehreds each Sunday convene in the living room for a videotaped litany of saints, a rosary and a round of intercessory prayer.

“That has been pretty powerful,” said Nikki. It gets everyone’s mind focused for Mass recorded from the campus of the University of Notre Dame, Neil’s alma mater.

Neil, a dentist, has a tough job during the pandemic. Diligent about his family’s health, he wears a mask in the house to prevent infection and sleeps in a borrowed motor home outside. Many of the family’s prayers focus on his safety and the health of his patients.

Personal prayer at home is easily interrupted, said Nikki, who relies on early morning sessions with the Lord. If it works out, she is on her own. Often, she has her infant daughter in her arms.

“I center myself every morning,” she explained. “I feel connected to a bigger purpose. I focus on what I am grateful for.” Nikki uses a smart phone app called Pray As You Go. It includes Scripture, music and a reflection.

In the evenings, she and Neil sit on the porch and listen to a recorded examination of conscience.

Devotion amid chaos

“What a crazy year,” said Angela Stout, a member of St. Alice Parish in Springfield.

A mother of three, including a 7-month-old, Stout and her husband give each other moments of solitude to pray at home. They also pray as a couple in the morning and evening. On occasion, the couple will sit for spontaneous prayer if life throws them a curveball.

The children miss their friends, struggle with wearing masks and don’t feel as safe as usual. Nightly family rosaries can be chaotic but fruitful.

“The kids are not wonderfully chanting the prayers,” said Stout. “But they are there. Sometimes they just fall asleep.”

She gives the older children books on the rosary and helps them pray about what matters to them. Sometimes, she helps the youngsters pray against spirits of anxiety and fear.

Stout has set up a home prayer table that includes wooden dolls of biblical figures and saints. Being able to hold something is a big help to the kids, she explained. The family sings hymns and lights a candle to signify that a sacred moment is at hand.

“It does not go perfectly, but it’s setting a foundation,” Stout said. “It’s teaching kids that we can be with God in everything.”

Seniors’ spirituality deepened

Not only young families have increased prayer at home. Geneane Stahl, a 63-year-old member of St. John Fisher Parish in Southwest Portland, watches her parish Sunday Mass on YouTube. And though Stahl had not been a daily Mass attendee, in the pandemic era she listens to a Mass podcast first thing every morning while she is still in bed. At the end of the day, she listens to the “Touched by Heaven” podcast, which explores encounters with angels, divine interventions, visions and near-death experiences.

During the day, she attends group online rosaries. Each Friday night, she watches Archbishop Alexander Sample’s “Chapel Chat,” in which he explores faith and liturgy and looks at world events through a Gospel frame. Stahl said her relationship with God has gotten stronger.

Julia Brennan, a 79-year-old member of Shepherd of the Valley Parish in Central Point, would love to be going to church regularly. But asthma and scarred lungs cause her to be careful about COVID-19.

“My doctor told me: ‘You get this, your children bury you,’” Brennan said.

In their living room, she and her husband watch Mass on television daily, pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet and say the rosary. They have taken part in parish faith formation videos, including Father Stephen Kenyon’s talks on C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia.” Julia keeps a thick book of prayer intentions, things she has promised to pray for.

“This is a time of a lot of acceptance,” Brennan said.

For her, prayer and charity cannot be separated. So she continued to teach catechism online through May. When Shepherd of the Valley became a distribution hub for federal coronavirus food aid, she and her husband volunteered, dropping off heavy boxes at low-income homes. They also collect boots and socks that go to homeless veterans via the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Prayer aids at home

Aware that Catholics are looking to improve prayer at home, Portland-based Oregon Catholic Press is offering ideas. OCP publishes worship aids as well as the Catholic Sentinel.

Joyce Campbell, an OCP staffer who serves parishes in the Pacific Northwest, hears that many Catholics are praying the rosary at home, sometimes with others online. “They want to keep a connection with people,” Campbell said.

Meanwhile, many are watching and taking part in a Chaplet of Divine Mercy livestreamed each day at noon West Coast time by OCP singer-songwriter Steve Angrisano. In the evenings, Pedro Rubalcava of OCP, a member of St. Henry Parish in Gresham, leads an evening prayer.

Campbell said families can use the OCP playlist to listen on Spotify and sing along. Singing together can put a family into a whole new zone of worship, she explained.

Campbell has particular hope that families will take real care with home prayer during Advent and Christmas. It could be a deeply spiritual time this year, as shopping and parties should be at a minimum.

Mary DiCamillo, an OCP staffer who serves parishes in the American Southwest, said she has learned from her own family that when kids have books in their hands during livestreamed worship, the participation rate “improves by about 300%.” OCP is urging parishes to send missals and songbooks home with parishioners.

“We want to engage and ignite the youth,” DiCamillo said. “We don’t want people to just say, ‘I’m going to cook dinner and watch Mass at the same time.’”

Learn more

For OCP’s ideas for home worship, go here.