Audrey Poehler, 9, holds the hand of her father, Steve, as they pray the Lord’s Prayer March 29 at St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. Audrey is a fourth grader at the parish school. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Audrey Poehler, 9, holds the hand of her father, Steve, as they pray the Lord’s Prayer March 29 at St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. Audrey is a fourth grader at the parish school. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
" ‘It feels a lot more grace-filled than sitting in front of a computer.’ " Leilani Arellano a member of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard, on overcoming fear about attending Mass in person

TIGARD — It took courage for Leilani Arellano to return to Mass. Now there’s nothing sweeter.

Over the summer, Arellano caught COVID-19 at home from her firefighter husband. She still cannot breathe quite right. She can neither taste nor smell. An athlete, she is fighting to be able to run again. So the prospect of worshipping in a room full of people, even properly distanced and masked, sparked fear.

But Father John Henderson and the rest of the staff at St. Anthony Parish here remained so consistent and open-hearted in their outreach during the pandemic and so fastidious and firm on the rules for returning to Mass that Arellano felt both wanted and safe.

“The emails have been great,” she said. “The Facebook, social media — they keep everything up to date. The livestream worked. So I haven’t felt out of touch with anything.”

During each Mass at St. Anthony — and there are many in many different languages — Father Henderson and other priests thoroughly explain safety procedures. Father Henderson even demonstrates the safest technique for receiving Communion. No outbreaks of coronavirus have been traced to any Catholic church in Oregon.

“It was hard for me to come into Mass,” Arellano said. “But they have done a really good job for those who are panicked and scared as I was. It feels good to be in person, honestly. It feels a lot more grace-filled than sitting in front of a computer.”

 

‘A freshness’

Father Henderson opted to accept the pandemic, for all its horrors, as an opportunity for conversion. He started with himself, asking how he could grow closer to the Lord during a time of fear and isolation. Then he prayed about the entire 3,600-family parish and its three big language groups: English, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“I feel we have to come out of this with a kind of newness, a freshness,” Father Henderson said. The Easter season, he reasoned, is just right for a new beginning.

“It’s not just about sitting back and saying, ‘Where is everybody?’” said the priest. “My goal is to really evangelize, to really bring the Lord to people. We have to move away from this stagnant kind of living to become dynamic disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Father Henderson wants parishioners to grow in three areas: prayer, service and faith formation.

To bring the whole parish together and build new zeal for worship, he changed the Mass schedule so that different language communities brush against each other more. A Sunday evening Mass will include multiple languages. He is working to build intercultural relationships that foster both prayer and discipleship.

“Coming back to church is not just a day but it’s a longer path,” Father Henderson said.

While parishioners were quarantined, he began to think of the year-round homebound and their needs. Livestreamed liturgy will continue with a permanent multi-camera system.

But Father Henderson makes it clear that the healthy ought to attend Mass in person as soon as they can.

“We Catholics have the power of the Eucharist,” he said. “We need the body and blood of Christ to give us that strength and nourishment. It’s not just about being entertained or watching some television show. It’s about your involvement, your engagement, your connecting. Eucharist is a community effort.”

 

Not volunteers, but disciples

Father Henderson explained that nothing like Mass in person can reveal the reality that parishioners need each other and must serve one another and the wider community. At St. Anthony, “volunteer” is a dirty word.

“I am not here as the captain of the lido deck on a Carnival Cruise,” Father Henderson said. “I am a pastor of a community and I am not looking for volunteers to help me with something; I am looking for active, dynamic brother and sister disciples who are going to get engaged and take it as part of their family responsibility. This is not my church; this is our church.”

The parish has hired a coordinator of social justice to promote the common good in the district, cooperating with local aid agencies and applying the parish’s mighty person-power. Early in the pandemic, the parish offered rent assistance to parishioners in $500 increments.  

 

New tools of formation

While in-person attendance is essential for Mass and good for other meetings, St. Anthony will retain the Zoom option to make faith formation sessions more accessible, especially to those who work all day and would struggle to get to the parish for an evening class. Father Henderson calls Zoom “a new tool to help people come to know the Lord.”

Parishioners appreciate the innovation and say it increases the sense of belonging.

“There’s been a lot of staying in touch, a lot of programs that were presented online, and I found that really wonderful,” said parishioner Losia Radominski. “There were a lot of Zoom series with films and then with discussions. In fact, I grew closer to some people because of the discussions we had.”

Jeremy Seitz, who has several children at the parish school and who plays guitar at Mass[KH1] , said the parish reached out in almost every way possible. He found online faith formation especially fruitful during months that ended up being monastic in character.

“A blessing in the past year was that many people stepped out of the world a little bit,” Seitz said. “It was easier in a lot of ways to focus.” 

Both Radominski and Seitz say the pandemic period of formation could lead to spiritual fruit as more parishioners return to Mass.

For her part, Radominski is working on a few friends who say they are getting accustomed to the convenience of viewing liturgy from home. “I told them, ‘You know, you do have to go out to people. That is part of our Christianity.’”

 

Communication vital

Father Scott Baier, parochial vicar, serves the large Hispanic community in the Tualatin Valley. He said one of his chief challenges, and opportunities, is increasing communication during the pandemic. One of his first moves was to offer livestreamed Mass from his home chapel. Then he started calling Hispanic households to gauge their needs and inform them of parish activities.  

“A lot of people were really grateful we called,” Father Baier said.

When it comes to communications, he has learned that Spanish speakers tend to favor text messages over email. So he is creating a mobile phone strategy to get word out about new Mass times, faith formation and service. He also knows Facebook is a good platform for the community. But he also uses old-fashioned word-of-mouth.

“I have said to people, ‘Tell your friends, tell everyone you know who is Catholic that Mass is open,’” Father Baier said. “I think this pandemic has underscored for us that when we are isolated and we don’t have communication with one another, we really suffer.”

He does fear that some parishioners may not return to Mass because they are accustomed to doing other things on Sundays. 

“You can start to forget the blessing that God is in your life,” he said. “You can be fooled into thinking that the things of the world will satisfy you.”

Father Baier was celebrant at a funeral recently where 60 or 70 people could attend safely. The liturgy showed him the power of in-person worship. “I could just tell after the Mass that they had connected with God,” he said. “All of their anxiety was kind of gone.”

 

Coming home

Miriam Marston, director of faith formation at the parish, said a practical key to keeping parishioners engaged during the pandemic has been fostering small faith communities that can meet and pray online.

Marston recognizes how parishioners have been open, creative and collaborative over the past year. Now she wants them to imagine what all that innovation and energy could do when restraints are lifted from parish life.

“In a season when it feels like there is so much you can’t do, we asked people to rely that much more on the power of God’s work, leaving space for that work to come through,” said Marston.

“Home” is Marston’s theme as she helps parishioners return to full-time and in-person participation.

She asks children to call to mind the tabernacle in church with its candle always aglow. That light, they know, is a sign that Jesus is present.

“He is home here,” she tells them. “And this is your home, too. We want to be where he is. This is home for us.”

When it comes to identifying who is still missing from Mass, Marston and other staff at St. Anthony plan to rely on parishioners. The people in the pews know best who is no longer sitting next to them and may even be able to reach out in a non-threatening way.

“We don’t use the words ‘source and summit’ lightly when we talk about the Eucharist,” Marston said. “Everything is flowing to and from the Eucharist. We really need to be here if at all possible. It is just part of the Catholic life. There is no dodging that one.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org

SEE VIDEO


 [KH1]I made this change because I first thought he sent several children from the music group to the school