Fr. Rico Passero celebrates Mass at his parish in Grimsby, ON, with photos of his parishioners, which he has attached to the pews where each would normally sit on Sunday.

Priests finding ways to connect

By 
  • March 28, 2020

When Fr. Rico Passero celebrates Mass in these days of crisis, he does so with a full congregation joining him.

They may not be present physically, but he still sees their warm faces staring back at him from their regular places in the pews at his Grimsby, Ont., parish. Those faces are there as photos, which he has attached to where each of his parishioners would normally sit on Sunday (see The Register’s cover photo).

It’s an idea Passero adopted from Fr. Giuseppe Corbari of Milan, Italy, who asked his parishioners to send him a photo to be placed in the pews so he could feel that connection with them as Italy went into lockdown to combat the COVID-19 virus that has shut down the nation, and since, much of the world.

“I thought, ‘What a fantastic idea,’ ” said Passero, pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in the Diocese of St. Catharines.

So each day that he streams Mass on his Facebook page and on the parish’s new YouTube channel — offering the Mass for all those suffering through the crisis and for the health care workers risking their own lives — he knows those viewing at home can feel the connection (see the

“The impact of the photos on the pews is really showing our people that, even though they are watching it alone at home, they’re connected,” said the 37-year-old Passero. “While they’re not here with me physically in the pews, they’re with me spiritually.”

Staying connected is a common theme among local parishes, all of which have been forced to suspend Sunday and daily Masses in the face of COVID-19. Now churches are being closed even for parishioners to  enter for individual prayer. Without a communal gathering of all the people, parishes are seeking ways to retain a connection.

Fr. Keith Wallace is pastor at St. Bernadette’s Parish in Ajax, Ont. He has also been streaming the daily Mass for his parishioners and trying other things to maintain the parish connection and maintain that “beautiful sense of community.”

“You know it was always there, but at times like this, how many e-mails, even people standing outside the door, (saying) ‘I miss you.’ We’ve really missed each other,” he said.

“That has been very, very striking, so that’s why we’ve reached out in so many different ways to the community.”

One way St. Bernadette’s is staying connected is by focusing on children. 

“We know how important routine is to the children and so forth and their connection to the community,” he said.

Wallace had heard from a few parents that children preparing for First Communion were upset they wouldn’t be able to attend preparation classes, so Wallace decided to address this online. Now each day at 11 a.m., he is live-streaming a 30-minute religion class.

Also for children, arts and crafts are available, material that was already on hand for a Lenten Bible camp that had to be cancelled.

“Big time we’re supporting Catholic education and supporting parents that don’t have the same resources that I do,” he said.

St. Bernadette’s has also stayed connected with seniors in a local care facility that has been locked down. Parishioners have created Easter and spring cards to share with the shut-ins, and word has spread through the local Facebook users’ group. 

“We’re doing outside-the-box ministry in this way,” said Wallace.

Online ministry has become a go-to for many parishes. Fr. Neiman D’Souza, associate pastor at St. Joseph’s Parish in Mississauga, Ont., has taken to social media, mainly Twitter (@IteAdStJoseph) and YouTube (search Fr. Neiman D’Souza), “to facilitate a virtual connection between parishioners and local clergy,” he told The Catholic Register in an email.

“I am posting daily reflections on YouTube,” said D’Souza. “Basically they are homilies of the day, filmed in the private chapel located in the rectory. I film, edit and upload them myself so that parishioners can still see that their local priest is praying and working for them.”

D’Souza suggests parishioners stay connected with the Lord via personal prayer, the reading of Scripture or other devotions, staying in touch with neighbours and family and viewing Mass online or on television. He also reminds parishioners he and pastor Fr. Paul Dobson continue celebrating Mass privately for them and the intentions of the day.

While Passero and Wallace appreciate that the Daily TV Mass is available, much of the feedback they’ve heard is parishioners are happy for the familiarity of seeing their own priest celebrating the Mass. 

“They wanted their altar,” said Passero. 

Each has seen large numbers tune in — 1,500 on the first day for Passero at St. Joseph’s, 800 on other days; for Wallace, there were 100 appreciative comments following his first Mass, and he also does ministry with the deaf and one online Mass was shared with 1,500 people.

“When I gather parish kids and it’s Fr. Keith on the screen, it takes on a completely different meaning,” said Wallace. “Community. This is our community leader, our pastor.”

Likewise, by seeing his people’s faces in the pews, Passero said “it reminds me of the face of Christ and how it is a privilege to serve these families as their pastor.”

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