Kansas priests, lay minister describe challenges of ministering amid pandemic

CONCORDIA, Kan. (CNS) — When the Kansas bishops closed Mass to the public March 17, Father David Metz, like many clergy around the country, moved to streaming Mass online.

In addition to celebrating two Masses online, he took a fellow priest’s advice and celebrated one weekend Mass privately.

“I found the private Mass was probably the best Mass I celebrated,” he said. “I could take my time, do the readings and listen to them, have a lot more silence than I normally would.

A priest for 23 years, he said it’s possible for Mass to feel like one more item on his daily “to do” list.

“But during this time, especially the private Mass, I found myself falling in love again with the Mass. It affirmed why I say Mass,” Father Metz told The Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Salina. “The aspect of it, being part of the job, faded away. I think it helped me spiritually to get back to the main focus of the Mass.”

Salina Bishop Jerry L. Vincke permitted a gradual reopening of Mass with a congregation May 5.

“Just as Jesus desires to be one with us sacramentally, I know many parishioners desire to be united with Christ sacramentally, too,” Bishop Vincke said.

“Our goal is to make all the sacraments as available as possible, while still being prudent” he said. “Since our diocese is so large territorially, I have asked my priests to work with the local county health commissions and to adhere to local guidelines for their community.”

The Salina Diocese comprises 31 counties, with more than 26,000 square miles, in the northwest quadrant of the state.

As of Dec. 16, there have been 194,569 cases of COVID-19 in the state in 2020, with 2,253 deaths, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s website.

Father Metz, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Concordia and St. Peter in Aurora, Kansas, was quarantined twice this year, prompting a return to online-only Mass. Both times, he was in proximity to someone who was being tested for COVID-19.

His first quarantine was short-lived — just a few days — when the test result turned out to be negative. The second quarantine involved no public Mass for nine days.

“It’s hard to shut down my schedule and the church,” Father Metz said. “I watch myself and keep distance and have my mask on. With the county mask mandate, thankfully, everyone has been wearing a mask in church.”

The Salina Diocese has 51 priests to cover 86 parishes: There are 37 active diocesan priests, as well as 11 international priests and three religious order priests serving in the diocese. There are 16 retired diocesan priests who serve when needed.

Bishop Vincke said a struggle in his rural diocese is the availability of priests to offer the sacraments.

“The problem that we faced in our diocese is that while a few priests contracted COVID, many others had to be quarantined because they were in contact with someone who had COVID,” he said. “On one weekend, we had seven priests unavailable to cover the Masses. We were able to get coverage for many of the parishes, but not all of them.”

Activities at a parish are not limited to daily or weekend Masses, though. Many provide ongoing religious education and formation, which also have adjusted to the pandemic.

When the local school district went to remote learning for grades 7-12 for a few weeks, “we ended up canceling religious education for all of the grades because there had been quite a few grade school students quarantined, as well,” Father Metz said.

Enrollment in the program is down to about 112 students, compared to 194 last year.

Some parents “out of an abundance of caution have decided to do something at home with them,” the priest said.

For those who attend on-site religious education, temperatures are taken upon arrival, and students are masked and given plenty of space.

At St. Isidore Catholic Student Center in Manhattan, Kansas, campus minister Rachel Francis said sacramental preparation is different this year.

“We’ve met every week, but we livestream it,” she said. Many participants physically attend, but “if someone has symptoms or had to travel, they can still tune in, no matter where they are. There’s no reason for them not to be there in some way, shape or form.”

The Catholic student center typically has several dozen individuals who are welcomed into the church at Easter, at the conclusion of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes. The number of participants decreased slightly but not significantly this year.

“(Returning to school) was bumpy for people at first, but our staff has been very flexible in doing what we need to do for our parishioners,” Francis told The Register.

“It’s a cool time to work here. The leadership of our priests is wonderful. They’ve been so gentle with everyone. It’s such a hard time,” she said. “They know that now, more than ever, people need the sacraments. We need to do whatever we can do to get people the sacraments.”

The ability to continue to serve and administer to the faithful is important, especially during a pandemic.

“We need community right now, and COVID has naturally isolated people,” Francis said. “Through the sacraments, it’s one way we are still allowed to gather. It’s encouraging to me to see students flocking to the sacraments and desiring to be there. It’s beautiful that people still want to receive the sacraments.”

Father Joseph Kieffer has been a priest for 16 years and is pastor of three small parishes are nestled in Washington County on the Kansas-Nebraska border.

“Parishioners, especially those in the nursing home, have felt the loss” of no public Masses, he said. “I couldn’t go to the hospital or nursing home to visit parishioners. I’ve been cautious not to go to homebound people.”

He livestreams Mass daily and Sunday Mass on his Facebook page. This became a necessity when Father Kieffer tested positive for COVID-19 Oct. 30. In Washington County, there have been fewer than 350 cases of COVID-19.

“I have no idea where I got it,” he said. “Nobody I was around was showing symptoms. It could have been someone who didn’t realize they had it.”

Besides Mass and other elements of ministry, funerals also have changed significantly in 2020.

“I think the biggest disappointment for families is that they can’t have more people from the public there to support them,” he said. “People are calling or sending cards, but they can’t come and greet them and give them a hug. I think it’s making it a little harder in the grieving process.”

When his mother died Oct. 10, the funeral differed greatly from his father’s eight years ago.

“When my dad died, many of my brother priests were there for that funeral,” Father Kieffer said. “For Mom’s, probably six or seven priests plus the bishop attended. I understood, but it’s hard that we don’t have that priestly fraternity like we had in times when we’re going through our own grief of loss of parents.”

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Bonar is editor of The Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Salina.

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