May 8, 2020

Catechetical leaders keep parishioners connected during pandemic

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

Anita Bardo’s world came screeching to a halt on March 17. The Archdiocese of Indianapolis announced that all public liturgies would be suspended as a response to the spread of the coronavirus. All group gatherings in parishes were also cancelled.

Bardo is the director of faith formation and youth director at St. Rita Parish in Indianapolis. She relied on in-person meetings to help the children and adults of her parish grow spiritually.

“It just made me feel like my hands were tied. I didn’t know what to do,” Bardo admitted.

With prayer and consultation, she began to navigate the new waters of long-distance catechesis. Like her, parish staff members across central and southern Indiana are going above and beyond to keep Catholics connected and growing in the faith during the crisis.

“Parish catechetical leaders [PCL], they’re heroic on an average day. I think they’re going above and beyond the call of duty throughout these challenging times,” said Ken Ogorek, the archdiocesan director of catechesis.

“In a lot of our parishes, it’s the PCL who is the main point of contact between a lot of the families and the parish, whether it’s about catechesis in general, or sacramental preparation,” Ogorek described during a phone interview on April 24.

When the doors of the churches closed, these leaders had to keep the parishioners informed of cancellations to previously scheduled sacraments. They also had to navigate the more pressing need of continuing catechesis in spite of the closures.

Bardo bridged the gap using technology. Since the children could not come to religious education classes, she began sending out all Sunday school resources via e-mail. Every week, she also holds a video conference call with the teenagers of the parish and tries to re-create their youth group meetings digitally.

“It’s the face to face and the interaction that they miss. The activities, because our parish is pretty active with youth ministry; I keep them busy. They miss that action with each other every Sunday,” she told The Criterion in a phone interview on April 27.

Bardo also started weekly conference calls with those preparing to enter into full communion with the Church through her parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program. That group was especially hard hit by the news that they would not be able to be receiving the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil Mass.

“They are waiting, but they have a great attitude. Their attitude is, you know, we’re in this together and we are staying connected and going to class every week just like we were still preparing,” Bardo said.

In the New Albany Deanery, Francine Gettelfinger also dove into technology for the sake of her community. Gettelfinger is the coordinator of religious education at St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish in Floyd County.

“I’ve had to sit down and research what I can do,” she described in a phone interview on April 28.

“There’s so much information out there, and all the publishing companies are releasing their information for free, their videos and all-digital books and things, so it’s a blessing,” Gettelfinger said.

St. Mary-of-the-Knobs Parish had recently began using a digital communication platform, Flocknote, to send updates to members. Gettelfinger capitalized on that connection to send catechetical resources to parishioners and families. She also set up video conferencing for group meetings like RCIA, confirmation preparation for teens, and parishioner-led virtual studies.

“I’ve met with our first Eucharist children,” she said, “I just met with them and prayed with them and told them how they have to wait, and that it’s OK to wait, and how we anticipate our birthdays and Christmas and how it makes us hunger more the closer we get and they feel that for the Eucharist as well.”

In addition to missing the sacraments, Gettelfinger said, parishioners are “missing community … especially our older people, our retired people of the parish.”

So she and a small group of parish members called every single household to check in and offer help should it be needed.

As if by instinct, Bardo described that the members of St. Rita Parish took the same action: calling each parish family to check in. It is an action that she hopes continues even when the crisis has ended.

“When you just reach out, give a call or send cards in the mail, did we do that before? Probably not as much, but we’re doing it more now,” Bardo said.

“If we can do it this way, we can do it this way even if we’re back to normal,” she said.

Archdiocesan leaders have not yet indicated when the public celebration of the Mass and other sacraments will resume. However, a priority for Ogorek is to prepare these parish catechetical leaders for that moment so that, once restrictions are lifted, the leaders are ready to guide their communities through the transition.

“A big priority for me is to continue to communicate with them and work with them so we’re supporting them in the service they’re providing right now, and we’re helping them be prepared in every way for the ministry that they will be called to on the other side of this,” he noted.

Ogorek’s team, the staff of the Office of Catechesis, personally reached out to the leaders and hosted virtual group conversations for mutual encouragement and support.

The office also sends out regular e-mails to the leaders with information on both the practical and spiritual sides of ministry. Topics include weekly reflections on the Sunday Scriptures, mental health tips, and “Ways God Speaks” or suggestions on how to help parishioners grow in faith.

“We’re trying to encourage the faithful to not only acknowledge their hunger for the sacraments,” Ogorek said, “but enhance their understanding of what’s really happening to them personally and directly in their relationship with Jesus when they celebrate sacraments.”

Gettelfinger believes that the efforts are making a difference. She said that more parishioners are opening and reading the e-mails from the parish, and some have reached out to thank her for her ministry.

“They’re hungry, they’re seeing that there is a void, something that we’ve always had, whether it be Mass or a Bible study, it’s gone,” she said.

“My prayer is that they hunger for it and our first time that we get together, we will be at capacity in our 1,000-seat church at all the Masses. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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