Meeting Each Challenge with Grace, Joy, Flexibility, and Unity, Even While 6 Feet Apart or Completely Virtual!
There is no doubt that 2020 will go down in history as one of the most difficult years in American History, and perhaps World History as well. A Pandemic has claimed the lives and health of millions of people. Civil unrest following racial, economic, and political firestorms. Contentious elections and financial upheaval, with businesses and employment upended. Anxiety and fear causing panic about everything from toilet paper to personal freedom. Schools, stores, and society literally closed down, including our church for a time. The worst is the personal toll that losing loved ones has had on those of us that have survived them, missing them while having to live through quarantining and being shut off from the rest of our family and friends. We are all looking forward with hope for next year.
However, we also saw incredible bravery and selflessness through these trials. Our healthcare workers, law enforcement and public safety officers, teachers, grocery store clerks, public transportation drivers, and countless other essential workers (including priests) put their lives on the line every single day to save, comfort, and serve our community. People sacrificed all they had to keep everyone safe and take care of the elderly and the infirmed. There were moments where Jesus’ words “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40), could not have been more real, and they showcased what is best in humankind.
If there is any point where faith can be our strength, our candle in the dark, this year was just that. It was a shining example of how the spirit of our Parish Family of Saint John the Evangelist rose to the challenge at every turn. Here are some highlights from this most challenging year:
Creating a Safe and Healthy Mass Environment: The Ultimate Expression of Respecting Life
We knew it was coming. For weeks, we had been watching the spread of some new virus throughout the world, eventually landing on our own shores. Its infection rate and transmission vectors unknown, we started to prepare as we would for any health-related event: pre-ordering supplies, testing our brand-new streaming capability, evaluating various scenarios in order to continue our Mission Essential Functions. It did not hurt that we have staff that worked for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in their previous lives. When it did hit, we were prepared to continue to serve the community in any way we could. Little did we know, however, just how drastic and long-lasting the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic Response would be.
From the moment Bishop Dewane closed public attendance at Mass, we began planning how to bring everyone back to the campus is a safe and healthy way. Countless options were discussed and tested, from RSVP’s to head counting to staff managing the entrances. At least a dozen cleaning processes and procedures were evaluated to ensure that the biologic agents would exterminate the virus but not harm people or the brand-new church facility. New processes were established to ensure each room would be sanitized between activities like Faith Formation classes, as well as the various Masses in multiple locations. There is so much effort going on under the surface at Saint John to ensure the wellbeing of all that attend in person, and hopefully it adds to your feeling of safety and allows you to focus on your faith and the Mass.
We know it is a hassle, but the requirement for all individuals to wear masks is truly essential to our efforts. Think of it as your outward expression of our faith and our core tenet to respect the life of all. As Catholics, we are called to protect all the vulnerable and at-risk, whether they be in the womb, a prison, across the border, or in hospice. A mask helps you protect the life right next to you, or the person just walking by.
Over 400 Youth Continue Weekly Faith Formation: In Person and Virtually
One of the primary missions of Saint John the Evangelist is to educate and engage youth and adults of our community on the Catholic Faith. Even before COVID, our Faith Formation was considered one of the most effective and effusive in the area, with multiple simultaneous Adult programs along with a weekly Youth Faith Formation that served pre-K through 12th Grade students. Unfortunately, the Pandemic unceremoniously canceled the 2020-2021 courses, suspending our Confirmation and First Communion youth from receiving their Sacraments. However, our dedicated Faith Formation staff and volunteer catechists continued to communicate with the families, ensuring they would not believe we had left them out in the cold. In fact, our Faith Formation program immediately began planning how to re-engage all ages of students, and even executing our brand-new virtual instruction solution. It has served our Parish so incredibly well that we now have over 400 youth who are attending (in person and virtually) weekly. The First Communions occurred in socially distanced Masses, quadrupling the amount of ceremonies so we could accommodate everyone safely (and streaming it for the family members that could not attend).
Modifying Our Programs to Provide Opportunities
If there is one area of our Parish Family most impacted by the COVID-19 Pandemic Response, it is our programs, namely our Catholic Adult Organization and our Catholic Youth Organization. The social events and activities had to be cancelled immediately. Camps and music lessons were cut short. A CYO musical was suspended indefinitely. No concerts, open mic nights, or happy hours. Food and beverages are not authorized to be distributed, so even our Hospitality after Mass was ended. However, we were able to work with the Diocese, along with CDC Guidance to provide activities safely, to obtain special approval to begin CYO and CAO activities again. Our strength and agility camps, socially distanced and maximum participation of 10 youth, have been a tremendous success. We are planning on our CYO Basketball season for the Winter. Adults have been taking advantage of our Life Center for personal fitness programs. You might even find a priest or 2 exercising if you time it just right!
Building a Fraternal World via Virtual Mass Experience
When we were planning the repairs and renovation of the church after Hurricane Irma, it became clear that the walls of the church, soaked with rainwater, would need to be replaced. This challenge gave us several new opportunities for enhancing the building in ways that would be far too expensive to accomplish otherwise. One of those opportunities was to deploy a state-of-the-art video streaming solution, tied into the brand-new sound system. Never in our wildest brainstorming did we ever believe this solution would become the primary way we would provide the healing power of the Mass to our Parish Family, much less to the entire world!
We were blessed to have planned and tested our advanced streaming solution before the closure of the Church, so we seamlessly transitioned from public attendance to our full schedule of Masses available online immediately, without missing a single Mass. This solution has connected us to so many people, our locals, our Parish Family members in other locations, and it even opened the (virtual) doors of Saint John to individuals, families, and religious orders around the world. Father Tom still receives letters of gratitude on a weekly basis from people that should not or cannot return to Mass in person. Our favorite virtual moment was our collaboration with the Sisters of Christian Charity in New Jersey. Their chapel was closed, and they were confined due to the significant spread of the Virus locally. They joined us daily for Mass, and even provided a virtual retreat for the young women of our Parish as a thank you for our service.
Dedication and Devotion of Liturgical Ministers Serving During Crisis
Even during our “normal” time, the amount of effort expended by the dedicated Ministers of Saint John to provide a warm, welcoming, and spiritually fulfilling Mass experience is extraordinary. From the Ushers welcoming people into our Church and the Sacristans and Altar Servers preparing the Altar to the Lectors proclaiming the Word of God and Eucharistic Ministers distributing the Body of Christ to the faithful, it takes an army to serve our Parish Family. Most of these efforts are almost invisible to a majority of people in the Church, but these Ministers deserve accolades for all they do in the name of serving God and Our Parish.
Now, imagine the additional stress that the COVID-19 Response has added to these individuals. From their own personal health concerns, to the constantly evolving safety protocols needed to ensure we can provide the best possible environment for the Mass, there has been Herculean feats of patience, flexibility, and service throughout our Church. For some, like our Altar Servers and our Choir, have needed to take the difficult step back and suspend their Ministry. From enforcing the mask requirement in a kind but firm way, to learning new ways to safely provide the Eucharist, our Ministries have stepped up to the plate and hit it out of the park. If you see one of these dedicated Ministers, please take a moment to thank them for their service.
Going Out into the Community Even More in Need
One facet of our Mission: To Know, To Love, and To Serve God in His Church and Our Community has become even more critical during this crisis: our active service to those in need around us. From the moment closures impacted the community, Saint John stepped in, to feed, clothe, and support anyone and the local community. From the Saint Vincent DePaul Society assisting with financial support, to the Ladies of Charity making Christmas special for the youth of Immokalee with hundreds of Christmas Presents, to the constant delivery of food for the pantries of the area, everyone in our Parish Family desires to serve those in need.
One example that stands out includes our Knights of Columbus. When the local schools closed due to the Pandemic Response, including Naples Park Elementary right next door to us, the school system began to distribute breakfasts and lunches to the youth that were learning virtually. However, that required the families to drive to the school to pick up the food, something that many families in the various far-away neighborhoods were not able to do. Their children ride the bus each day, and their parents work from sunrise to late-night in the packing plants and picking in the fields. We took it upon ourselves, along with many of the teachers and youth of Naples Park Elementary, to bring the food directly to those families. Our Knights of Columbus Council led the effort to pick up the food from both the school and the Judy Sullivan Catholic Charities Center on a daily basis and deliver it to the doors of the families. We helped feed dozens of families for over 3 months. If you were not aware of this extraordinary effort, please visit our website to see the local coverage on our efforts: https://saintjohntheevangelist.com/news/sje-continues-mission-even-with-suspended-masses
In the face of this extremely challenging year, the Parish Family of Saint John the Evangelist did not shutter our doors. We did not close the office for a single day. We did not stop serving the poor or the community. We did not stop providing the healing balm of the Mass or the Sacraments. Instead, we steeled our resolve and pushed forward with our Mission with love, respect, joy, and fraternity. There are few chances in this world for radical and complete transformation, and I believe we are on the precipice of one of those moments. We can all look inside ourselves right now, see how we used to behave towards one another, and improve ourselves for the betterment of the entire culture and world around us, ensuring we make the world a better place than before this Pandemic began. If you feel called to assist our Parish Family in any one of the above efforts, please reach out to our clergy and our staff and we can get you engaged.
God Bless You and All You Love as we enter 2021!