It’s Sunday morning at St. Michael the Archangel Church in downtown Portland. Tall buildings loom above the red brick house of worship. A streetcar squeals around a corner. Inside, Deacon Chuck Amsberry leads a rosary before Mass. About 60% of those in the socially distanced chairs are young families. Later, the Sunday evening Mass will be packed with young adults.

Attendance is brisk and relatively young at St. Michael in part because the parish stayed in touch with worshippers and continued to offer frequent spiritual and faith formation opportunities during the pandemic.

A boy keeps an eye out as his parents pray after Communion at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland March 7. Vigorous digital spiritual offerings get credit for keeping young families and young adults engaged at the parish during the pandemic. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

“There has been a lot of great virtual content in addition to the Masses,” said parishioner Dan Pierson, who works in health care business operations. “There are also theology nights that have been great way to come together to learn and deepen our faith.”

Pierson was glad the parish found a way to hold in-person and safe retreats, saying such opportunities have been rare during the pandemic. “It has been amazing,” Pierson said, adding that he also attended online reflections for Advent and Lent.

“Those have been meaningful ways we have been able to stay connected,” he said.

Pierson said a foundation built during the pandemic is likely to mean a speedier return to full parish life as soon as health officials give the all-clear.

Deacon Chuck Amsberry blesses children during Communion March 7 at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in downtown Portland. Vigorous digital spiritual offerings get some of the credit for keeping young families and young adults engaged at the parish during the pandemic.  (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Communications the key

When the pandemic hit and Masses were canceled, the first thing parish staff did was update the website and let parishioners know that it would be the locus of communication. The site is cutting edge, with large photos and text on top of photos. A popup ad asks users if they’d like to get the parish weekly newsletter.

The parish then quickly subscribed to FORMED, a reputable online faith formation website. Third, staff started livestreaming Masses, beginning with an iPad and graduating to better cameras and microphones over time. Once, the camera batteries died mid-Mass.

“It was a work in progress,” Father Llorente admitted. “People were very patient.”

St. Michael the Archangel Church stands amid buildings in downtown Portland. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

But the parish was ahead of the game since before the pandemic Father Llorente had formed a team of staff and volunteers to handle communications via web and social media. Communications, he knows, is the key to evangelizing.

“We had some things in place, but the pandemic made us speed up and increase everything,” Father Llorente said.

The parish soon began livestreaming and recording its own faith formation sessions, including theology nights, evenings of exploration of faith topics. Also offered were the online “Quarantine Lectures” in which Father Llorente and others analyzed the pandemic via church wisdom and philosophical insight. During the summer, the parish streamed talks in which parishioners discussed history, literature and spirituality. All along Father Llorente has videotaped messages of hope and faith for parishioners.

“It has been a great blessing to have more things online, not only connecting people to the parish, but also connecting people among themselves,” he said.

Peter eats food donated from St. Michael the Archangel Parish and chats with Natalia Badger, a young adult missionary based at the parish. The parish kept works of mercy going during the pandemic. (Courtesy St. Michael Parish)

Knowing what people need

The St. John Society, which focuses on evangelization, tends to point to higher realties while also being rooted in human experience. That combination was helpful during a time of human distress, Father Llorente said.

“We want to combine objectivity and subjectivity,” he explained. “The objectivity of the truth of Christ and the beauty of Christ and the goodness of Christ, but also transmitted in ways that are relevant to the human heart and to the human person today and the human person in Portland, or wherever we are.”

Longtime parishioners are impressed with the zeal of the priests. That translated well into digital offering, said Andrea Baffaro.

She and husband Jeff were married at St. Michael in 1978. When their children were young, they moved to a parish with a school but soon came back to their spiritual home. Andrea and Jeff, both grandchildren of early St. Michael parishioners, gave an online talk this summer about the Italian roots of the parish. The talk is still available on parish YouTube channel, which had only 50 subscribers pre-pandemic but now has almost 550.

“Those kind of things really keep people involved,” said Andrea, adding that St. Michael was one of the first parishes to have livestreamed Masses and then to return to in-person Mass.

Sophia Waldron, age 2, patrols the center aisle at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland before Mass March 7. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

“They were right on top of it,” she said of the priests and the parish staff. “They’re pretty committed.”

That attention has inspired parishioners to embrace the sense of mission, inviting others to come back to Mass as soon as they feel able.

“I know people who are really cautious,” Andrea said. “Once they get vaccinated they will be back.”

Father Llorente observed that, during the pandemic, Catholics fell into three groups: the resolute who worked to come back to Mass as soon as possible, the cautious but digitally involved who are waiting for the vaccine but kept their faith alive, and the disappeared. He worries most about the third group and would tell them that the door is always open, it’s never too late and life in Christ is supremely beautiful.

He recalls with joy the first public Mass after two months without.

He was moved by parishioners’ perseverance and the hunger they had for the Eucharist.

When it came to signing up for Mass, amiable parish staffer Danielle Wheeler advised that in addition to online forms there be a human being available to help. She stepped forward. That human touch made a big difference in keeping parishioners feeling connected, Father Llorente said.

 

Ginnie Paterson prays the rosary March 7 before Mass at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Continuing outreach

Amazingly, the parish started a residential volunteer program during the pandemic. Five young adult Catholics, called missionaries of mercy, live in community nearby and carry out a vibrant ministry to homeless people downtown. The missionaries — male and female — go out three times per week, walking under bridges and onto hidden pathways to meet Portlanders on the peripheries. They have become friends with homeless people, offering meals, contacts for help and even a sense of the love of Jesus. Recently, Father Llorente accompanied the missionaries on a trek and blessed the tents of those who wanted it.

The presence of the young missionaries has inspired the entire parish, the priest said. Parishioners have donated water bottles, socks and other items in high need on the streets.

During the months of heavy protest downtown, St. Michael began eucharistic adoration to pray for peace. The 24-hour vigils, held weekly, have continued even as protests subsided.

Connor Hennessey, a young adult missionary serving people who are homeless, prays before a staff meeting March 10 at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Southwest Portland. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Another pandemic innovation will stay: livestreamed meetings. Pastoral council and adult faith formation are likely to remain on Zoom and in person. Some digitally broadcast events will happen in cooperation with St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, another community led by the St. John Society.

During the pandemic, life has been more monastic for Father Llorente. He cherished going to homes and sharing meals with parishioners, pleasures stripped away in 2020. But, he explained, the year made him more flexible and more open to how God works through crises. “God remains faithful, and God remains God,” he said. “It helped me recenter my life in him and realize that he is the only rock that will not change.”