Local church adjusts to digitized religious practices amid coronavirus pandemic

Congregants at St. Vincent de Paul’s Catholic Church sat for their last mass on March 18, a bittersweet departure for the 350 daily parishioners, as nonessential businesses and practices were officially closed in Pennsylvania and nationwide in light of growing domestic cases of COVID-19. The shutdown comes after Archbishop Nelson Perez of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia suspended all public mass indefinitely in the 214 parishes as of March 17.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, 4,087 cases of the disease have been reported in PA, with 246 incidents and four deaths in Bucks County alone, making it the fifth most viral region in the state. St. Vincent’s, which resides in Richboro, Bucks County, typically holds five services every weekend, in addition to auxiliary prayer groups throughout the week, all of which are now cancelled.

Deacon Rich Napoli, 64, has been an ordained minister at the church for three years, originally involved as a parishioner for twenty years before his ordainment in 2011. Napoli, who oversees the consecration during masses and is responsible for baptisms and weddings, said he believes postponing religious observances will aid in the public health crisis.

“As Catholics, we’re so drilled [with] ‘we gotta to Mass, gotta to Mass,’ that if there was mass being held, you know that people would still come,” Napoli said in an interview. “Diehards and probably the ones at the most risk catching the virus, they’d be the ones going.”

The CDC issued a Community and Faith-Based Organizations (CFBO) plan in response to the coronavirus outbreak, advising religious leaders to severely modify their scheduled gatherings and stating that attendees often belong to demographics vulnerable to the illness based on their age and pre-existing health conditions.

Napoli explained that priests are obligated to practice mass every day, regardless of observers present, but because of available technology and freetime in isolation, he finds that churchgoers can draw closer to their faith through live streamed services and online resources.

“Fortunately, with this digital age, there’s so much we can do that’s online now,” Napoli said. “The general rule, I believe, is that if you watch a mass live, you get the blessings of that mass, whereas if it was pre-recorded, it’s still good to watch for your spiritual enrichment, but the blessings don’t apply.”

One such blessing was conducted by Pope Francis last Friday, when he held mass from the Vatican and live broadcasted the service online. The performed Urbi et Orbi blessing, which translates to “to the city [Rome] and to the world,” is usually only offered on Catholic holy days, including Easter and Christmas, making the event unusual in the current Church calendar.

The COVID-19 epidemic comes during the reflective season of Lent, a six week Catholic observance before Easter Sunday, which is April 9 this year. Notable processions, including Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday, preceded the church-wide shutdown.

With the absence of religious assembly, St. Vincent members are finding alternative ways to express their faith. Marie Innocenzi, 65, belongs to the Adult Faith Formation, a group in the parish devoted to Scripture study, and is a frequent Bible reader at daily mass. Innocenzi said that without a face-to-face congregation, she is struggling to stay connected to her community through recorded mass alone.

“I mean, it’s not the same, watching mass on TV, as it is participating,. . . it’s different [from] being in church itself,” Innocenzi said in an interview. “And then you miss the camaraderie of your fellow congregants, not only on a social level, but also on the spiritual level.”

Social isolation has posed a challenge for older parishioners like Innocenzi to be active online — as a worshipper in her 60’s, Innocenzi said that while communication on the Internet does not come naturally to her and her peers, various digital platforms, including Zoom and Vimeo, have provided basic clerical functions, like daily religious affirmations and preachings.

“We’re not technically savvy,” Innocenzi explained. “So what I’ve been doing is, besides my normal, daily prayers, I’ve been saying the rosary, and I’ve been going to different websites, Ascension Press [a paid Catholic Scripture program], to get different materials and to watch mass.”

Parishes nationwide have begun to hold Sunday services and scheduled addresses to communicants through streaming websites, posting through Facebook to aggregate followers and inform interested parties. One local church, St. Andrew’s in Newtown, uploaded a Sunday mass recording via YouTube, celebrating the fifth week of Lent.

While St. Vincent’s remains closed for the time being, priests and deacons have directed congregants to receive the sacrament of confession in the parish’s chapel of St. Louise de Marillac, and instructed those awaiting baptisms to proceed with limited attendance and increased social distancing. Additionally, students enrolled in religious education, a requirement for young and new members of Catholicism, have moved assignments and activities online.

Susan Dobtogloski, 70, leads many of the Bible studies in the parish, including Innocenzi’s Adult Faith Formation group. Since 2007, Dobtogloski has attended mass on a near daily basis, but she explained that despite the abrupt interruption to her routine, she is finding the religious transition to be somewhat fluid.

“I’m just shocked to be able to look at mass in Ireland and all, it’s very nice,” Dobtogloski said in an interview. “I mean, it’s not [like] being there at daily mass, because we have a very nice community of people that come every day, but I found a lot of resources out there on the Internet.”

Despite the given adjustments that digitization presents, Deacon Napoli said that during the crisis, believers and non-believers alike can ruminate on their allegiances, what he feels to be a guiding principle in such uncertain times.

“Oftentimes, in great times of challenge, there are also great opportunities, and the Lord is always calling us to [have] a deeper relationship with Him,” Napoli said. “And it’s an opportunity to deepen our faith, if we allow it.”

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Reporter @ The Lowell Sun. Covering local government, breaking news, interesting people and issues impacting our community.

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Cameron Morsberger

Reporter @ The Lowell Sun. Covering local government, breaking news, interesting people and issues impacting our community.