The priest left the altar to bless the congregation with holy water and was surprised, and happy, to see a once-familiar face in the front pew.
The woman had been a fixture at the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass at St. Polycarp in Stanton.
That was until COVID-19 hit in mid-March 2020.
After that, everything changed.
“Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen you in so long,” Msgr. Stephen Doktorczyk, vicar general of the Diocese of Orange and celebrant of that Mass on May 22, 2021, whispered to her.
“I’m so happy to be back,” she told him.
With parishes in Orange County returning to back-to-normal-as-possible this weekend, June 12-13, as the pandemic’s once-terrifying death grip further weakens, diocesan leaders are reflecting on the past 15 months that have been like none other.
They are recounting the difficult decisions that had to be made and the hard work that was accomplished to keep Catholic schools running and churches from shuttering as revenues plummeted.
Through it all, they heeded the oft-repeated words of Bishop Kevin Vann:
We walk together in faith taking it one day at a time.
QUICK ACTION TO CUT EXPENSES
Tom Burnham, a seasoned human resources executive with extensive domestic and international experience, was five years into retirement when he returned to full-time employment as chief human resources officer for the diocese in June 2015.
On March 14 last year, Burnham was returning to Orange County with his wife from a vacation in her native New Zealand when, less than a week before the diocese ended up closing churches as the pandemic took hold, he realized time was of the essence.
“I’m on the plane thinking this through, and thought, ‘We have a problem,’” Burnham recalls.
Since the livelihood of the diocese is based on donations of the faithful, Burnham was worried about how the diocese would survive if people stopped going to church. Since labor makes up a high percent of diocese and parish expenses, Burnham was concerned that parishes would soon run out of money to pay their staffs.
Burnham kept that thought in his head, and by the time he returned to work the following Monday, the Coronavirus was the only thing on his mind and that of others in the diocese. Diocesan Bishop Kevin Vann wasted no time in putting a “COVID response leadership team” together. In the early weeks of the pandemic, this team, which consisted of the auxiliary bishops, vicar general, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Director of Communications, head of Hispanic Ministry and Youth and Young Adults, head of the Justice, Life and Peace office and two consultants would meet for one hour per day to discuss relevant issues. One of the early decisions reached was to furlough one third of the staff inside the diocesan pastoral center and to recommend to principals and pastors that they do the same, with the goal of preserving cash, which was seen as critical to maintain the solvency of the diocese.
“With a furlough, you’re basically asking people to give us some grace,” Burnham said. “The bishop and his team knew that if we got costs under control, we would have a fighting chance. And our employees understood that. Bishop Vann doesn’t treat people like a commodity. He showed tremendous courage in terms of difficult decision-making. We looked after the faithful, and I think we were good stewards.” These employees were eligible for unemployment benefits, and a number of those who were furloughed were earning more on a weekly basis than the employees who remained, due to the $600 per week federal subsidy to those who found themselves without work during that time.
After parish churches were closed, weekly collections fell an average of about 50% initially, with some parishes faring worse and lacking the standard 90 days of cash on hand to be able to continue operating. Seeing the disparity, pastors of more well-to-do parishes voluntarily financially assisted the struggling ones.
Some parishes were able to transition to livestream Masses quickly, creating a new ‘tele-ministry’ to reach the faithful.
At St. Boniface in Anaheim, members of Vietnamese youth leaders created a studio from scratch for high-quality livestreams. They helped other parishes create a permanent structure for livestreaming, too, working late into the nights to do so.
Thomas Saenz, who is going through formation with an eye to ordination to the permanent diaconate later this year, committed himself to providing technical assistance at St. Juliana Falconieri in Fullerton, arranging for the 6:30 a.m. Masses to be livestreamed before he went to work. Witnessing the dedication of pastor Father Michael Ponterelli, OSM, who offered the 6:30 daily Mass without fail from the beginning of the pandemic to this day, he was only too happy to help.
With parishioners limited to watching Masses online, the diocese launched a digital campaign to promote online giving since most churchgoers, pre-pandemic, used the envelope system. This strategy continued as Masses, at various stages of the pandemic, and reopened temporarily to a limited capacity of 25 percent before being moved to outside only.
Beyond finances, maintaining connections with parishioners became paramount. Diocese staff and volunteers made calls and sent emails to check in with the faithful, focusing on older parishioners who lived alone.
At times, pastors and their staff members had to deal with angry parishioners, some of whom had to cancel weddings during the early stages of the crisis. Some people would call the diocesan pastoral center with their complaints; staff members—working remotely—did their best to respond charitably.
As the pandemic worsened and news about safety protocols seemed to change daily, and the toll from COVID-19 continued its alarming and grim march upward, diocesan officials maintained weekly calls with pastors and their business managers.
“One of the things that stands out for me is the resilience of our priests and our people,” Bishop Freyer says. “Overwhelmingly, people just tried to do what they thought was their best with the information they had at the time, to practice their faith, to pray together as a family, to produce livestream Masses, and to adapt to the beautiful celebrations outdoors.
“There will always be naysayers,” he adds, “but overall, I think people were very resilient and tried to do the best they could and were very patient and understanding.”
Bishop Freyer believes prayer and the efforts of diocese leaders to communicate as clearly as they could what was happening and why it was happening helped parishioners remain resilient.
“Priests were still hearing confessions, they were still doing ministry — we just had to do things differently,” he says.
Bishop Freyer says he often reflected on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
“In Chapter 6, St. Paul talks about baptism – that death no longer has power over Christ or over us who are baptized,” he recalls. “Even if someone were to die of COVID, it’s not an eternal death. It’s sad, yes, but God willing, he or she is going to eternal life.”
Another reassuring Scripture for Bishop Freyer also comes from Romans 8:35, where St. Paul professes that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Msgr. Doktorczyk says he’s very grateful for the collaboration of a lot of people.
“It wasn’t compartmentalized,” he says. “We all tried to chip in and pay attention to what was going on in the news, and our pastors wanted to know the parameters so as to ensure safety of employees and parishioners while doing their best to take care of their spiritual needs.
A CHAMPION OF KEEPING SCHOOLS OPEN
Dr. Erin Barisano, who as superintendent oversees the diocese’s 31 elementary and five high schools, which together enroll some 16,500 students, has been praised for her efforts to get schools reopened for in-person instruction last fall, as well as for making sure that comprehensive health and safety protocols were in place and staff morale was as high as possible.
The timing of the beginning of the outbreak of the pandemic was somewhat fortuitous in that it happened near the end of the 2019-20 school year. Diocesan and parochial schools shut down briefly but reopened for distance learning. Barisano was keenly focused, along with her principals, in remaining connected to the students.
Small Business Administration-backed Paycheck Protection Program loans, designed to help businesses keep their workforces employed during the COVID-19 crisis, were critical in keeping a lot of people employed at schools.
“It really was miraculous,” Barisano recalls. “There was some trepidation but also a great deal of excitement when we saw what was happening around us.
“We knew that we could support our schools in core content areas. I was most concerned about our Catholic identity, and how we would ensure that our schools would continue to remain Catholic communities in an online platform.”
Principals stepped up, Barisano recalls.
“They started reaching out to us, saying, ‘We’re going to stream our morning assembly with prayer so we can start the day with prayer,” she recalls. ‘Or ‘We’re going to make sure our kids are connected to our weekly streaming Mass.’ Our schools thought about this without any direction from us. It was that important that they retain that Catholic identity and that fidelity to mission.
“That’s one of the things out of the gates that made me most proud, and I continue to be amazed at the level of creativity at innovation shown by the leaders at our schools.”
Catholic school administrators had to submit reams of paperwork and jump through massive hoops to receive waivers from the Orange County Health Care Agency to resume in-person learning on Tuesday, Sept. 8 – the day after Labor Day, and two weeks later than schools normally open in the fall (some resumed with a hybrid model of distant and in-person instruction).
“So many of our teachers look at their jobs as a vocation,” Dr. Barisano says. “A large majority was supportive of the idea of, ‘We’re going to give this a shot.’”
One problematic issue was having some teachers or school staff quarantine for 14 days if they had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. That presented some challenges, but the schools were able to work through it.
Enrollment in O.C.’s Catholic schools, which generate some $100 million in tuition each year, actually has gone up during the pandemic, as many parents of kids in shuttered public schools transferred them to diocese schools.
“The recognition by school leadership that on-site learning was critical to our mission cannot be underestimated, and I applaud Dr. Barisano and her team for stepping up and pushing hard over the past months to reopen our schools,” Burnham says.
“They envisioned a much different state with a multifaceted delivery system to meet the needs of the students and parent community,” he adds. “A lot of capital investment went into making our schools a safe environment for our kids.”
Barisano was on the phone each week with the state’s other 11 Catholic school superintendents to share best practices.
“We really just tried to get ahead of things as much as possible, which
was a challenge because things were changing so rapidly,” Barisano recalls. “I can’t say enough about the resilience of our teachers and principals. Our principals worked all summer on our re-opening plan.”
Barisano recalls looking down from her office in the Pastoral Center at the playground of Christ Cathedral Academy that Labor Day week and seeing little kids with their masks on and keeping socially distant.
“It melted my heart,” she says.
To alleviate stress during the pandemic, Barisano took up Pilates.
“That helped me tremendously,” she says. “So did prayer. I was really intentional about my prayer life and leaning on God and praying for guidance from the Holy Spirit.”
KEEPING IN COMMUNICATION WITH THE PEOPLE
All throughout the pandemic the Diocese of Orange Communication team was at work supporting the efforts of the clergy, the ministries, the schools and the parishes. The team ramped up its social media initiative, pushing out the schedule of outdoor and livestreamed Masses on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The video crew produced weekly content that included the praying of the rosary in Christ Cathedral as well as weekly reflections direct from the bishops and priests that kept viewers close to the weekly readings. And the staff at OC Catholic kept printing the news of the Catholic Church as well as the diocese throughout the pandemic. These initiatives continue to this day.
PEWS ARE FILLING UP
Today, weekly collections still are down an average of about 15 percent diocese wide, but pews continue to fill up.
“We are blessed that people are coming back and we need to continue to encourage people to come back,” Msgr. Doktorczyk says. He noted that studies during the pandemic reported a decline in the mental health of people except for those who regularly attended Mass.
Effective June 12, Bishop Vann formally will lift the dispensation that permitted people to refrain from attending Mass in person during COVID-19.
“To see people coming back to receive the Sacraments in person is what we were hoping and praying for,” Msgr. Doktorczyk says.
With people thirsting for personal engagement and social interaction as the pandemic eases, Burnham encourages parishes to look for ways to tap into this unmet need and opportunities to move their communities forward, revitalize parish life, and strengthen community engagement.
Peggy O’Donnell, a parishioner at St. Nicholas in Laguna Woods who coordinates the lector ministry there, calls 2020 her “Lentiest Lent yet,” with more focused prayer and in-depth Bible study sessions with three other parishioners.
“It feels great to be back in church,” she says. “I’m thrilled. I learned a lot of lessons. I felt like what I learned most was the importance of having hope. Every opportunity to go Mass is an opportunity for gratitude and to thank God first. If we do that, we will get through the challenges of the day.
“As long as we believe in God and trust in God,” O’Donnell adds, “there’s always hope for tomorrow.”