“It is so good to see your faces, to hear your voices”
-Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, vicar general
Adapt, adapt, adapt! That is the mantra of 2020 as people throughout the world make adjustments due to the pandemic. Liturgies and ceremonies are livestreamed, classes are online, and even family gatherings have moved to Zoom. On November 17, the US Province held its first virtual assembly with SCJs in active ministry. Joining them was Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, vicar general.
“This is such a treat for me,” he told the group. “It is so good to see your faces, to hear your voices.” Originally from the United States, Fr. Steve had hoped to return for the scheduled General Visitation in the summer. But, like many things, it was postponed due to COVID-19.
Approximately 40 people took part in the virtual assembly. SCJs talked about the impact of the pandemic on themselves personally, their communities and ministries. Although no SCJ in the US Province has yet tested positive for COVID-19, some have had to quarantine following direct exposures. Many are dealing with staffing issues in ministries, making adjustments when an employee tests positive, or a student.
“It is a challenge, everything we do is colored by COVID,” said Br. Duane Lemke, SCJ.
Fr. Vien Nguyen, SCJ, vice rector at Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, talked about the seminary’s unusually quiet halls. Classes moved online and most staff are working from home. Yet there are still seminarians on campus, busy in their rooms, continuing their studies in front of a computer screen. Prayer is one of the few times when they come together. He is grateful to the Sacred Heart Monastery Community for their hospitality to the resident seminarians who are not a part of the SCJ formation program.
Many SCJs spoke of COVID fatigue. Frater Long Nguyen, SCJ, said that he credits his spiritual life, grounded in the Dehonian charism, as an invaluable tool.
Pastors talked of food pantries that have had greater demands during the pandemic. Others asked for prayers for family members who are battling COVID-19.
Fr. Quang Nguyen, SCJ, vocation director, spoke of the challenge of doing a ministry that is often centered on personal visits. Vocational discernment is now done though Zoom visits and phone calls. Even the admissions process has gone virtual. This month – for the first time – an applicant to candidacy will do all of his interviews via Zoom.
In northern Mississippi, parishes are not only livestreaming liturgies in Spanish and English, but also starting a YouTube channel to share Advent talks and other materials. “Social media has been a very helpful tool in ministry,” said Fr. David Szatkowski, SCJ.
Fr. Praveen Kumar Richard, SCJ, spoke about the many adaptations made to keep children and staff safe at St. Joseph’s Indian School. All have been issued Chomebooks to facilitate at-home learning as needed. Only one group at a time is present for Mass in the chapel while the rest watch online. Communion is then distributed in the homes. In December, students will go home for an extended break and then quarantine upon return.
Before concluding their assembly, SCJs expanded their discussion beyond the borders of the US Province, noting how the pandemic has impacted SCJs throughout the world. Some provinces have seen members hospitalized by COVID-19; some have died. Many SCJs have family members who have been sick, others have lost work due to the pandemic.
“We need to continue to support each other, to keep each other in prayer,” said Fr. Ed.
It was an assembly that had no significant agenda, no planning committee. It lasted less than two hours. “But it was so important for us to see each other, to connect with each other, it has been so long,” said one SCJ.
“Being present” ended up being the theme of the November 17 assembly; being present when we can’t be present together.