As weeks pass with isolation measures in place, parishes continue to adapt their outreach and online faith formation activities beyond simply providing online Mass.
While the last six weeks has been a challenging journey for many, parishes are embracing new tools to foster connection. Video conferencing program Zoom has been a key tool for parishes to nourish relationships and spiritual connection between parishioners and replicate that sense of community.
The simple act of gathering for a cuppa after Mass has been missed, and with many people in isolation, the parish of Greater Box Hill is taking the experience online, inviting parishioners to join in for a daily afternoon cuppa over Zoom.
‘About four weeks ago, I said if people who are familiar with Zoom want to have a chat, bring a drink and log on at 5pm,’ says parish priest Fr Tony Kerin.
‘An important thing after Mass is that cup of tea, and that was missing so I thought I’d add that,’ he says.
And so far, it’s been successful.
‘An after-work cuppa every afternoon gives people a chance to catch up with each other and chat about what’s happening in their world.’
The idea has caught on so well amongst parishioners at the Greater Box Hill parish that Fr Tony has adapted it for the parish Singles Group. ‘The parish has a singles group for widows and singles that catch up every two months. I’m hosting that on Zoom so we’ll wait and see what will happen.’
The parish of South Yarra has also been using Zoom to encourage relationship-building among parishioners.
‘I’ve been preparing prayers and reflections weekly for the local nursing home I visit and from next week, I’m going to do a prayer service with them via Zoom,’ says pastoral worker Kelly Coosnapa.
’I’m about to start my sacramental program online as well,’ she adds.
‘Now the families and all the kids are very happy that we are continuing it online and when we’re back to normal, we will go back to doing the celebration in the church,’ Kelly says.
‘We are aware that we can’t offer the church as a place of prayer but we still give them reflection and prayers. It’s a trial we are starting next week. We don’t know how it’s going to go, but the parents gave us the greenlight.’
Similarly, pastoral workers and parishioners in Greensborough are also creating new ways of connecting with community-members both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
‘We’re doing different things to reach out,’ says Spiritual Director at Greensborough Parish of St Mary’s, Jacinta Bright.
‘We are putting podcasts up, and we’ve done a letter drop to people in the community, whether they are Catholic or not – unless they have a “no junk mail” sign,’ she laughs.
‘Just reaching out in a time of isolation, to see if there is there anything we can do the support people, is really important.’
St Mary’s is also reaching out to their parishioners by conducting their first online retreat, called ‘With Jesus in the desert: A retreat for a time of isolation.’
The factors to keep in mind, Jacinta explains, have much to do with ensuring participants are familiar with how to pray during time in retreat and practice runs with Zoom.
‘Organizational factors like making sure people know how to pray with the retreat are important,’ she says.
‘It’s all pretty self-explanatory, it’s just that some people might not have prayed in a retreat or for a long time, so just talking that through with them and then making sure they have what they need, and picking a day and time just to meet with them via Zoom as a practice run is also key,’ Jacinta explains.
Creating such a new and innovative space for parishioners is not without its challenges. ‘The challenge is not to be disappointed if the response isn’t huge,’ says Jacinta.
‘Some years ago, we were holding a retreat that attracted a large number of people and we needed to get extra people to help.’
Being able to accept that we are in a different time at present is key, she explains, in terms of confronting those feelings of discouragement and doubt when drumming up new and out-of-the-box ways to engage with parishioners. ‘Having said this, the parish have put in a lot of effort, using Facebook, emails, snail mail, the parish website to reach parishioners, and Schoolbag to reach school parents to welcome them into this new online retreat space.’
‘It’s a different time now, and I suspect people are adjusting into the quiet. Some will be feeling isolated and looking for connection and there will be some moving into a retired solitude without a lot of disturbance,’ she says.
And her hopes for the retreat?
‘I hope that it is a nurturing experience for them, that the opportunity for them to reflect on what’s happening in their own lives and scripture speaks to where is God calling them in this time,’ she says.
‘I also hope that they know that we care about them and that reaching out to them is one way of holding them in community. We’re acknowledging that it’s tough, but this is providing a way for them to connect socially, as well,’ Jacinta explains.
‘I hope that it will be a lovely gentle experience, a consoling experience for them.’