A year like no other.
In meetings, public remarks, homilies and video messages, Bishop Gerald Barnes has often referenced the surreal and stressful reality of the global pandemic this way.
The rhythm of the local Church has, indeed, been upended by COVID-19, most fundamentally in the ability of the people to attend Mass together – the bedrock of faith practice for most. Churches in the Diocese were closed entirely for three months following a March state order from Governor Gavin Newsom. Masses resumed with limited attendance for a month in mid-June before a post Memorial Day spike eventually led to another shutdown. At press time, the Diocese is following state and county guidelines that allow for indoor Masses in Riverside County and outdoor Masses only in San Bernardino County, with no more than 100 attendees allowed at either.
Bishop Barnes has been clear in public statements that his decisions related to Mass and other public Sacraments is driven first by his concern for the lives of the faithful who could be put at risk.
“I have taken these actions out of reverence for life,” he said in an August video message. “The threat that COVID-19 poses to the lives of some of our brothers and sisters is real. So, we are called to observe these health and safety precautions out of love and care for each other…God asks us to trust the wisdom of those he has chosen in the fields of science and medicine. He works through them to protect us and heal us.”
Despite the limitations, the local Church commenced with Confirmation Masses, First Holy Communions, weddings and baptisms, mostly after the outdoor stipulations were put in place. While some have chosen to wait for the return of the church building setting for their Sacrament, many families said they were grateful that their parish held outdoor Sacramental liturgies. Some even liked the new setting.
“It was very personal having the smaller size and that focus on each person,” said Marie Cantwell, whose son, Ryan, was confirmed at The Holy Name of Jesus parish on Aug. 4.
Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocesan Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC), has been a key figure in the Diocesan response to the pandemic. She is a link between public officials and guidelines regarding the virus and the Diocese; she monitors the latest COVID-19 statistics for San Bernardino and Riverside counties and works with parishes and schools to help them comply.
“There’s been a major shift in the focus of the EOC,” says Gallant. “[The pandemic] is not an incident that starts and ends. It has been a continuous 24/7 response.”
Gallant, who brings years of working in the public sector to her ministry, praised parish leadership and staff for their responsiveness in serving their faith communities under difficult restrictions.
“They have adapted and responded in the most creative way,” she said. “It has forced all of us as a society and as a Church to think outside of the box.”
At a Virtual Town Hall meeting of Diocesan Pastoral Center staff on Sept. 9 Gallant explained where the counties of the Diocese are in the State’s tiered system designed to track the severity of COVID-19 in different areas of California. At the time of the meeting, both San Bernardino and Riverside counties were in the purple tier, which denotes “Widespread” presence of the virus and limits church services to outdoors. Gallant told the Pastoral Center employees she hoped San Bernardino and Riverside counties would move into the more favorable red tier, which denotes “Substantial” presence of the virus by October. That would mean indoor Masses with up to 100 attendees would again be allowed. At press time in late September, Riverside County had, in fact, moved into the red tier and San Bernardino County was expexcted to follow shortly. Gallant also announced at the Virtual Town Hall plans to increase the workforce at the Pastoral Center beginning in mid-September, with the goal of having the full DPC staff back by the end of October. All of these objectives are contingent on the levels of COVID-19 continuing to decline, she added.
In his remarks at that same Townhall Meeting, Bishop Barnes pointed out the seismic changes that the pandemic has brought to the practice of faith in the Diocese.
“I’m not sure we will ever get back to the way we were before,” he said. “We have to change our mindset.”