On February 24, 2020, a crowd of more than 2,000 people flocked to St. Paul the Apostle Church in Chino Hills for a joyous Mass welcoming then Coadjutor Bishop Alberto Rojas to the Diocese.
Less than a month later the doors to the Catholic churches of the Diocese were closed, and there would be no public Masses for the next three months.
This unprecedented disruption of the faith life of the Church of San Bernardino was the most glaring impact of the pandemic which, at press time, had claimed the lives of more than 6,600 people in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. But there have been many other changes that have tested the hope, faith and creativity of the people of God over the past 12 months.
“We haven’t been able to see each other and we have experienced a deep sense of fear at many levels,” Bishop Rojas said during his address to the parish staffs and leadership of the Riverside Pastoral Region on Feb. 10. “I am moved and very grateful to all of you. You have demonstrated that there is no fear in love. Many of you continue to risk it all to serve our brothers and sisters in need.”
The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 has required that nearly every kind of in-person public ministry was reduced or suspended entirely. Catholic schools in the Diocese closed campuses and provided online instruction only for 11 months. Likewise, religious education programs and adult faith formation all went digital. The Diocesan Pastoral Center closed to the public along with many parish offices. Signature Diocesan liturgies and events like the Chrism Mass, Priest Ordination and Combined Vicariate meetings were available only via live stream.
Technology has, indeed, been a key tool for the local Church in keeping the faithful connected and providing pastoral support in a time of fear and uncertainty. Parishes quickly began livestreaming daily or weekend Masses through social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Use of video conferencing systems like Zoom was ramped up so that parish ministry meetings, evening classes and bible studies could continue.
At the Diocesan level, Bishop Rojas and Bishop Barnes began to livestream Sunday Mass from the chapel of St. Junipero Serra House of Formation two weeks after the state’s stay-at-home order was issued and continued weekly until the churches were reopened. The two bishops also periodically issued video messages expressing support and encouragement to the faithful.
“Let us remember that God is with us even in the most perilous of times,” Bishop Barnes said in his first video message of the pandemic, issued March 17, 2020. “Our faith is the single most important thing that we need to weather this storm.”
As the course of the pandemic ebbed and flowed, parishes were permitted to hold indoor Masses again with limited capacity. Then, as winter approached and case numbers spiked in the two counties of the Diocese, parishes were limited to outdoor Mass, only.
The winter spike also saw many more clergy, religious and lay Catholics infected with COVID-19, particularly in the Low and High Desert vicariates of the Diocese. Father Francisco Valdovinos, ST, Pastor of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mecca, passionately advocated for the poor and vulnerable and urged his largely Spanish-speaking congregation to practice health and safety protocols, get tested and receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Tragically, he contracted the virus, himself, and was called to eternal rest on Jan. 17. Three days later, in neighboring Coachella, Deacon Baltazar Aguirre, newly ordained but already an active leader of his community, succumbed to COVID-19. We also learned that Sister Cathy White, S.P., a pioneering minister in Child and Youth Protection in the Diocese who had retired to the Midwest two years ago, died from complications of COVID-19.
The financial impact of the pandemic was also deeply felt as parishes and the Diocese saw a primary income stream, the Sunday Mass collection, largely cut off due to attendance restrictions. Parishes and Catholic schools have reduced hours, furloughed and laid off employees. The Diocese instituted a furlough program to reduce personnel expenses. Pastors and priests took a salary reduction.
All of those cost cutting measures helped the Diocese avoid more drastic financial consequences such as the closing of schools and parishes or the elimination of entire diocesan ministries. What’s more, parishes adapted quickly to setting up the means to receive online donations. The Diocesan Office of Mission Advancement launched a second kick-off campaign for the Diocesan Development Fund that ultimately led to all but two of the 92 parishes in the Diocese reaching their goal.
“I think the people have been a beacon of light,” said Julio Chavez, Operations Manager for the Office of Mission Advancement. “They have responded to the needs of the parishes. They keep giving.”
In early 2021 the coronavirus continues to alter the way our Catholic faith is lived and practiced. But with the recent reopening of Catholic elementary schools and the opening of churches for Mass there are signs of light. Many say the pandemic has forever changed their ministry.
The Diocesan Office of Charismatic Renewal, known previously for attracting thousands to its yearly Congresses, has somehow managed to engage even more people in its digital programs, including people from all over the world
“We will continue to offer this virtual service even if everything normalizes,” says Director Marina Carrion. “This medium opens doors and opportunities to reach the unevangelized… Everything is gained, nothing is lost and by these means we can now come with the advancement of technology to realize Jesus’ command when he said: To the ends of the earth!”
Bishop Rojas agrees that the pandemic has created an opportunity for Catholics to reach out to those who have drifted from the faith by showing God’s love in a time of crisis. It’s a mindset that he hopes is here to stay.
“I hope we don’t come back to normal,” he said recently during his recent keynote talk at the Combined Vicariate meetings. “I hope we come back to love.”