The Rev. Carlos Medina blesses a parishioner as he gives absolution at the end of a confession in his church's parking lot.
The Rev. Carlos Medina of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church blesses a parishioner as he gives absolution at the end of a confession in the church’s parking lot. Photo by Chris Stone

Outside a nearly empty church, Elaine Power sat in her car Palm Sunday. She had just received palms and parish bulletins from a church worker.

How does she feel about not being able to attend a traditional Mass?

“Honestly, don’t ask. I will cry,” Power said, her voice cracking with emotion.

“The last Mass broke my heart because I knew it would be a long while before we could come back,” said the 74-year-old parishioner of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Chula Vista. “The blessing is I can watch it on EWTN and it gives some comfort, but it’s not the same. It’s not.”

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Since March 16, Catholic Masses have been suspended, but people are still allowed to enter a church individually to pray. That day, about eight people, spaced far apart, knelt inside the dark church.

What does Power miss the most? “All of it,” she said. “Just being with the church community and being able to receive (Holy Communion).”

Speaking through a white mask, Power said that other than for a serious illness, she can’t remember missing Mass.

“This is not me missing — this is Mass being literally being taken away from me, from all of us,” she said. “And that really breaks my heart. I never thought I would see that day.”

Palms were distributed at St. Rose of Lima by volunteers wearing gloves and masks on Palm Sunday. Photo by Chris Stone

Hospice worker Annebelle Vidrio, a fellow parishioner in a nearby car, said she felt lost without being able to come to church.

“Even though I pray at home, here is my home,” she said. “I don’t know how I am going to do it.”

Churches, synagogues and temples have struggled to transition in-person services to the internet, live streaming Masses, Seders and services amid the novel coronavirus pandemic that has brought much of life to a halt.

During Holy Week, the holiest time in the Christian faith, and Passover, deeply meaningful to Jewish congregations, religious leaders are struggling to stay connected. To help people keep the faith.

But what goes on in the hearts of the faithful and religious leaders? How do shepherds cope with being kept from their flocks?

Priests, ministers and a rabbi saw analogies to the times of the Jews escaping Egyptian bondage and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — from slavery to freedom, from suffering to new life.

The Challenges

“This was an oppressed people,” Rabbi/Cantor Arlene Bernstein said of the original Passover. But the day after finishing a virtual Seder at Congregation Beth Israel attended by 245 households, she noted how it is poignant to see that “we are oppressed — all of us, the world — by this virus, and our hope is to come out of this terrible situation healthy and well and being able to really be free.”

The virus is a different kind of slavery, she said in a phone interview.

Bernstein said the lack of contact during life-cycle events — wedding, funerals, Bar mitzvahs — affects her. “It can all be done virtually — almost — but it’s the person-to-person connection that I miss.”

While visiting with congregants at the Golden Triangle temple, it’s the subtle physical cues — expressions and demeanor — that aid her in helping people, the rabbi said.

Disinfecting wipe and gloves were on hand as palms, bulletins and the Southern Cross diocese newspaper were given to parishioners in their cars. Photo by Chris Stone

When Bernstein first moved here from the East Coast, she noticed that San Diegans tended to be more physical than their Atlantic counterparts and like to hug one another.

This physical sign of wanting to be close has grown on her, she said, and “people need that and I think it is very difficult now.”

The Rev. Carlos Medina of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in North Park said some parishioners are so fearful of coronavirus that they are seeking the sacrament of reconciliation in case there is a turn for the worse.

“They want to die in a state of grace,” he said.

Medina organized three “drive-by” confessions this week, attended by at least 65 people.

Drivers were directed to different areas of the parking lot where five priests from the diocese were stationed. People wearing masks rolled down their windows and spoke as priests in gloves and masks also listening intently and then gave absolution.

Confession lets people be honest with themselves and God, the pastor said, adding: “People make a resolution to change their lives and to ask for God’s help. A lot of times lately people are just worried and afraid with what is going on.”

Local priests and pastors told Times of San Diego about their concerns and how the separation from people has affected them.

Medina said one of his favorite times on Sundays used to be greeting parishioners after Mass.

The separation started when handshakes were disallowed, Medina said. “We still had Mass, but we couldn’t shake hands,” he said. “That’s when it was first kind of odd that we had to far-away greet each other and wave goodbye.”

Blessings at the end of services had to be done from a distance, something he called kind of odd.

“But now not having Mass at all … is a loss,” he said.

The Very Rev. Efrain Bustista agreed.

“We celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, through his suffering and his struggles,” said the pastor of Bonita’s Corpus Christi Parish and vicar of the South Bay deanery. “It’s something we can relate to right now. We’re all going through this suffering, through this pain — where we want to be with Jesus.”

Having to postpone weddings and baptisms — and hold funerals with fewer than 10 mourners — has been a challenge for priests, said Bautista, who also chairs the diocesan council of priests.

“What I miss the most is simply being there with people at each of these moments,” he said, “I always say to people: On any given Saturday, we can walk through the whole journey of life. We get to have a funeral early in the morning and have a baptism and have a wedding — being with people at these important moments of their lives.”

The Rev. Miguel Campos of St. Rosa of Lima said that as human beings, we need to relate to each other.

“Jesus found everything in community, not to be isolated,” Campos said. “For us as Catholics, it is fundamental. During Holy Week, all of those celebrations gave us identity.”

Campos said he never dreamed he would be listening to confessions outside, wearing a mask and gloves.

The Rev. Kurt Christenson of First Lutheran Church downtown recalled a parishioner driving her husband to the hospital, fearing he’d had a heart attack. She called Christenson, who met her at the hospital.

No longer considered “hospital staff,” the pastor had to remain in the parking lot — as did the patient’s wife. Visitors are no longer allowed in hospitals. In-house chaplains serve patients.

The Very Rev. Penny Bridges, dean of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral downtown, highlighted other challenges.

Among the biggest spiritual issues is not being able to share communion, which she called central to the Christian faith.

“It means as much to me as it does to anyone, but my feeling was this is Lent,” said the pastor, a native of Northern Ireland. “This is a time when we are called to give things up. And perhaps giving up communion, making that sacrifice, might be what God is calling us to do right now.”

Bridges misses people’s physical presence, of being able to go into the office and shake their hands, touch a shoulder, give a hug.

“And of course to give them communion,” she said. “I miss seeing those hands held out at the communion rail.”

But the most profound pain is not being able to be with the very frail and sick, and those who are dying.

“We’ve lost two parishioners — neither of them directly connected to the epidemic — but I wasn’t able to go and pray with them and anoint them,” she said, aware of her duty not to infect people. “And I can’t be with their families. I’m trying to do pastoral care through email and text. And that’s not what I would want to do.” 

However, she commended a national effort called Dial-a-Priest, staffed by Episcopal priests, some retired, who offer last rites and prayers by phone. 

The Adaptations

While some clergy confessed to not being tech-savvy, places of worship have transitioned to online services, and spiritual leaders are reaching out by phone and email, some striving to check up on each member.

Rock Church has no room for idle hands.

Staying in motion with the help of Zoom, FaceTime and Skype, church members are partnering with the county Office of Emergency Services to retrofit 300,000 N95 masks (replacing straps), hosting Red Cross blood banks, providing meals for hospital staff in the ER room, feeding police officers and distributing masks to them, said Assistant Pastor Mickey Stonier.

“Jesus was a servant, and the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all,” said Stonier, who also is a chaplain for local police and fire departments. “And so we want to establish hope in San Diego. We’re all about serving the needs of the community.”

Interested volunteers should Text INFO to 52525 for opportunities to volunteer, he said.

While normally 20,000 log onto Rock Church’s online services, on Palm Sunday 80,000 people viewed them.

Other churches are seeing a silver lining in the number of online participants.

Bridges of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral reported: “Our viewership numbers have leapt. We were already live-streaming our services on Facebook. Now we have a whole lot more people that we don’t know yet. So it’s an exciting time for us in terms of evangelism.”

She is excited about what happens when the pandemic is over — hoping to see new members of the flock.

“As inadequate as it seems to have a virtual service on Zoom with ‘The Brady Bunch’ squares, we are able to create sacred space in that virtual place, and it feels like church,” Bridges said.

“And that’s being a comfort and a grace — that we can be church outside of our buildings,” she said.

In North Park, Medina says viewership of virtual Masses is increasing and may eventually reach the levels of when parishioners were in the pews.

“Of course, nothing can replace receiving the Eucharist,” he said, “and maybe God can use that to renew their sense of hunger for receiving the sacrament when it is possible again.”

Palms were distribute at several parishes throughout the diocese in church parking lots. Photo by Chris Stone

Rabbi Bernstein reported 245 households logged onto Wednesday night’s virtual Seder, when normally 200 people gather in the hall for the dinner ceremony.

Medina spoke of his online experience: “I actually am getting more feedback from people…. They are actually commenting on the homily, things that they were not doing before.”

Bridges said: “We’re learning how to be church in new and very old ways. The first Easter didn’t happen in a crowded church. The first Easter was a very solitary experience.”

She recounted how just one woman — Mary Magdalene — went to the grave and met the risen Christ.

“He appeared initially to people in ones and twos,” Bridges said. “So it’s very fitting in a way for us to celebrate Easter alone. And to meet the risen Christ on our own — without that buffer of celebration all around us. Each of us has that individual opportunity to encounter Christ.” 

What could be lonelier than his journey to the cross? the pastor asks. “And for us to share in some of that loneliness is deeply meaningful.”

Christenson said he lives his faith in the homeless his Lutheran church serves. The First Lutheran Church makes 150 to 200 meals Mondays and Fridays as part of Third Avenue Charitable Organization, offering free meals, medical, dental and acupuncture clinics as well as mental heath counseling.

“I go and be present and give cheerful blessings that are amazingly received,” the pastor said.

Mindful of the current pandemic, Christenson also made a reference to a 1527 Martin Luther passage called “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague”:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above.”

Medina recently displayed the Blessed Sacrament — a host in a holder — in the parking lot, a scene reminiscent of drive-in movies. People pulled up and played religious music in their cars, he recalls with joy.

The Hopes

In North Park, Medina said it’s time for inner growth.

“Like the people of God, when they were lost in the desert, it was time to learn,” he said. “If we really believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, it is a time to learn how we are living our personal relationship with him.”

A parishioner prays inside St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Chula Vista, where individuals are allowed to pray but not gather together. Photo by Chris Stone

Rabbi Bernstein relates: “The most important thing is that people continue to celebrate life, and that is what Passover is all about. It’s about springtime; it’s about the rebirth of a people. It’s about reawakening.”

She continued: “We always say at the end of the Seder: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ So we hope that we will have that freedom to be able to be in Jerusalem, to be able to travel, to be able to celebrate with family and friends as we wish, but not to lose the hope and stay involved.”

And Bautista summed up what he’s heard from fellow clerics: “After every Good Friday there’s always an Easter Sunday.”

So now, he said, society is living its Good Friday — “and … the reality is that we all have a longing to be close to Jesus and, like Jesus, be able to rise again.”

This Easter Sunday might not be the one in which America rises, he said, but “it gives us a glimpse of hope … of what we have to look forward to when this is all over. … this Easter resurrection, this Easter joy.”