By Cathi Douglas     9/14/2020

As Orange County Catholics self-isolate in the COVID-19 pandemic, many are turning to virtual Bible study groups and online ministries to nurture their faith and sustain their parish communities. 

A number of the Diocese of Orange’s 60-plus parishes offer virtual classes, small group discussions, religious training and Bible studies to ensure that their faith communities continue to grow together. 

“Pivot is one of my favorite words for 2020,” notes Katie Dawson, the Diocese of Orange’s director of Parish Evangelization and Faith Formation. “I’m so pleased with the response from our parish leaders and the initiative they’ve taken to keep going, keep ministering, keep studying Scripture together online. We have reaped real benefits from it.” 

While the coronavirus pandemic forced pastors to close churches and, eventually, bring services outdoors and online, lay parish leaders took the initiative to harness technology and teach it to others to foster learning, training, and faith formation efforts. 

 “We’re actually seeing in some settings that people who couldn’t make it to evening events at their church can attend a Zoom meeting,” Dawson says. “In some small study groups, we’re seeing people we haven’t seen in years – it’s been really great.” 

In addition to Bible study groups, Dawson says, parishes are offering an online version of Alpha, an 11-week experience where people can meet to have conversations about Jesus. 

“When Alpha is offered in thousands of churches across the country, the content is free but usually a meal is provided,” she explains. “So there are considerable parish resources to run the program and that presents hurdles. “Now all of a sudden running it is completely free.” As a result, she says some parishes like St. Joachim Church in Costa Mesa are offering Alpha several times annually. 

“Technology has made these programs more accessible,” Dawson says. “It creates a safe space for people to ask all the big questions about God, Jesus, and ourselves.” 

Deacon Russ Millspaugh says more than 100 women regularly attend Walking With Purpose and between 75 and 100 men participate in the TMIY Program (That Man Is You) at Anaheim Hills’s San Antonio de Padua Church.  

The pandemic forced San Antonio parishioners to realize how much we need each other, Millspaugh notes. “It’s been important for us to have a virtual platform to help us grow the domestic church at our homes.  

“People are starving for what was left behind when all the churches closed,” he adds. “We need virtual get-togethers to know that we are not in this all by ourselves.” 

Summer Pongetti, director of the adult faith formation program at Placentia’s St. Joseph Church, notes that a parishioner is partnering with Cal State Fullerton to offer parishioners training in technology as a direct result of the parish’s many participants in its Zoom programming, which includes two Bible studies, the RCIA program, and an outreach to non-practicing Catholics. 

“In the future I think we’ll be open to the option of continuing to offer virtual ministry,” Pongetti says. “As with any new technology, there is a learning curve to master Zoom or other platforms. But people who were initially resistant are signing up for new ministries.” 

Mary Mack, director of evangelization at St. Kilian Church in Mission Viejo, notes that a number of programs are offered virtually, including Alpha a small group study using Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscover Jesus” book. 

“To me, the silver lining in virtual Bible study is that we can see each other without our masks on,” says Cathy Bordages, director of the Cornerstone Bible Study offered by the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano. “It didn’t seem intimate when we started talking about a Zoom class, but those of us using it can have an intimate faith journey.” 

At St. Timothy Church in Laguna Niguel, Matt Zemanek, director of the adult and youth faith formation programs, notes that the parish offers a Monday evening Bible study, a women’s book club, and a youth ministry program online during the week and is gearing up for a family and adult faith formation program and an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise class. 

Based on the parishioners’ enthusiastic response to Zoom offerings, Zemanek predicts that informational programs about the Catholic Church will explode once the pandemic ends.  

“People are realizing how much they need the Lord and they appreciate the opportunity to connect more than ever before,” he says. “With technology, we have whole different means of connecting with each other.” 

Many church leaders expect to continue to offer online options even after gathering in person is possible, Dawson notes.  

“We hear some comments about Zoom fatigue, but there’s been an unanticipated benefit to online Bible study in that many people are more relaxed and willing to share more deeply than they would in real life.”