Fr. Mike Walker
Fr. Mike Walker
EUGENE — “We had to change many things, with no lead time to prepare,” recalls Father Mike Walker, pastor of St. James Church, McMinnville, regarding the great pandemic shock of spring 2020.

That shock resonates with many pastors throughout the Archdiocese of Portland.

The experience is “like the Twilight Zone,” notes Father Gary Zerr, pastor of St. Edward Church, Keizer. Working for an airline in earlier days, “I rarely had a Sunday off. Now in my 25 years in pastoral ministry I never dreamed I’d have Sundays off.”

Or evenings. He misses his people. “And they miss being here. I want them back.”

This pastoral longing resonates with Father John Henderson, pastor of St. Anthony Church, Tigard. Finally, with limited reopening, he notes that at Communion “people were crying. It was so emotional. … It moved me no end.”

Father Luan Nguyen, pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Stayton and St. Catherine of Siena Church in Mill City, also has felt the COVID constraints: “One parishioner had surgery as the virus broke out. I couldn’t go into the hospital. They were locked down. The parishioner is now at home.” He notes that not even the patient’s spouse could visit during the ordeal.

The pandemic’s constraints have called out pastoral resilience. “I went through stages of grief,” says Father Zerr. But quick thinking and teamwork moved him “from grief to action.” He notes, “We have to keep our mental health going, eating right. I’m keeping my spiritual reading up.”

Resilience is the ability to bounce back to center in difficult times. For priests, as for all Catholics, this center is Jesus, a shared sacramental life, prayer, and the foundations of belief that provide interior stability in the midst of the storm. Father Zerr notes, “I think (this time) will be purifying for priests and people. There’s new zeal, and a greater appreciation.”

Father Zerr adds, “In situations like this you find out who you really are. God placed me in this place in this moment. You stand up and God provides with mighty forces. God expects us to take a first step, and gives us great freedom. I prefer to empower people to step up and act.”

St. Edward’s staff “got going right away,” Father Zerr notes. “It takes years of experience to realize what you have to do. With a crisis, I want to get right on the line. I felt like an orchestra leader.”

Father Walker also shows resilience: “I told the staff that we need to be the calm in (the) storm. … Let’s problem solve so that parishioners can get what they need and have some options.” He adds, “We call it our Corona Special.” His team is thinking ahead to “adjust our ministry and programs so that we can respond with foresight.”

Regarding St. James School, Father Walker adds: “We couldn’t do our large fundraiser, the McMinnville Wine and Food Classic, and that cost us about $150,000 and put our school survival in jeopardy.” In addition, parishioners rely on classes, teaching, and other group meetings. “In short,” he notes, “We have a very quick and steep learning curve with very little time to prepare.”

To stay connected with his people, Father Nguyen offers an online daily hour of adoration and benediction, and leads the Divine Mercy Chaplet each afternoon at 3:00 p.m. “I prayed the rosary before,” he notes, “but now it’s more of a commitment, and I have time for that. Plus, being with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”

Due to the pandemic, Father Henderson foresees a heightened interest in Catholic social teaching, and has hired a minister of social justice. “There’s a cleansing, a purifying. How do we continue this respect for creation, for life, feed the hungry? We’re stepping out of the boat, like Peter.” He also notes a predicted spike in divorces because of the pandemic. “How can I help our couples, our families? … What are the needs of the people?”

Father Walker works on honing his online presence. He is “able to reach more people in some ways with teachings and Masses, for shut-ins and those unable to make it to scheduled meetings.” Yet he notes that these efforts are a poor substitute “for the communal and interpersonal sharing of faith which is an essential aspect of the church.”

Father Zerr is grateful that his church and two additional buildings were already wired for live-streaming. He will use Zoom “for certain groups, especially for the elderly who don’t want to drive at night. Plus more media, FaceBook, YouTube, to keeping it going.”

Courage guides these priests. Donning what was akin to a “Darth Vader suit,” Father Zerr was the first pastor to anoint a coronavirus patient at Salem Hospital. “I did the full anointing. I wasn’t afraid of catching anything,” he says. “I broke the wall open for others to come in after that. That’s what priesthood is about—taking risks for others.”

Father Nguyen has had to summon courage with livestreaming. “I do it for the sake of my parishioners,” he says. “I want them to stay connected. But I’m not a celebrity. We celebrate, but we are not celebrities. We are just normal priests.”

Father Nguyen adds: “I pray for people in the Archdiocese of Portland. We need unity. It’s hard for everyone. People have a good faith. They listen to the pastor, and they follow.”

Jesus, the great Pastor, offers the ultimate encouragement: “Know that I am with you always,” which means, “heaven is here,” especially in the midst of pandemic.

Moore is a Eugene-based evangelizer, author of books and articles, and an active member of St. Thomas More University Parish. She blogs at marysharonmoore.com.