MOVING FORWARD Our Lady of the Assumption, San Bernardino, holds an in-person youth ministry meeting. Parishes were given permission by Bishop Alberto Rojas to fully reopen Masses and ministries, although pastors may continue precautionary measures if they feel it is necessary to protect health and safety. While parishes, Catholic schools and the Diocesan Pastoral Center (DPC) are returning to pre-COVID operations, some impacts, such as parish and diocesan financial challenges, and increased use of technology, are still being felt.
By Anneliese Esparza
More than two years after the arrival of the pandemic, the Diocese of San Bernardino is largely returning back to “normal” while still acknowledging that some impacts of the virus will be long lasting.
The Diocese gave parishes permission to fully reopen starting April 1, meaning that they are allowed to return to pre-COVID operations with no capacity or duration restrictions or mandates for masks, sanitizing or distancing. However, parishes were told that they could continue with COVID-19 restrictions if they feel it is necessary to protect the health of their community.
Our Lady of Soledad, Coachella, is one parish that still has not fully reopened. Father Francisco Gómez, S.T., Pastor, said that one reason for this is that the Coachella Valley sees a lot of out-of-town visitors that could expose his parishioners to the virus, especially this month during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which draws visitors from around the world.
“As pastor, I have felt the stress and responsibility to care for the parishioners ... this is still a moment that requires care. The pandemic is not over,” said Fr. Gómez.
Now that most parishes are fully reopened, the hope is that the faithful who stopped going to church during the pandemic will be returning. Some parishes have indeed seen a good number of their parishioners back in the pews, such as Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Winchester.
“[Mass] attendance is close to pre-COVID, even though some people are leaving California, others have chosen a place of worship not in our Diocese and some are [watching Masses] online or becoming unchurched,” said Monsignor Tom Burdick, Pastor of St. Mother Teresa.
“We are happy to be back in person even though numbers are reduced ... Holy Week was a great source of joy and hope with so many people in attendance,” added Msgr. Burdick.
At Our Lady of Hope Parish in San Bernardino, Parish Life Coordinator Saundra “Sam” Kolendowicz says attendance at Spanish and Vietnamese language Masses is nearly at pre-pandemic levels while English language Masses are noticeably smaller. Phone calls and visits from the public at the parish office are already back to normal, she adds, while some parish ministries have been slow to resume in-person gatherings.
“We keep inviting the leaders,” said Kolendowicz. “But some are a little hesitant. They’re not ready yet.”
Low attendance levels at Mass is a cause for concern not only because of the spiritual wellbeing of the parishioners who are missing Mass, but also because less people attending Masses means reduced income, which is needed to fund parish and diocesan ministries.
Indeed, the Diocese is currently facing financial difficulty because of the reduced revenue from parish donations during the pandemic. In an April 19 letter to parishes, Bishop Alberto Rojas announced that the Diocese would be making some program and staffing cuts in order to save money.
“The recent two-year pandemic seriously affected the finances of our parishes; in turn, the finances of our diocesan offices were affected as well. Although there has been some improvement, we still have a long road to travel to a full and complete financial and economic recovery,” wrote Bishop Rojas in the letter.
At the start of the new fiscal year, on July 1, 13 full-time diocesan positions will be eliminated and 5 full-time diocesan positions will become part-time positions. Additionally, the Diocese instituted a hiring freeze for the Diocesan Pastoral Center (DPC) back in March, which means that hiring is on pause for many open positions.
“My hope is that these changes will provide better financial stability for the future and that our diocesan staff will still be able to respond to the important pastoral needs of your parish communities in new and creative ways,” added Bishop Rojas in the letter.
Some effects of the pandemic are cause for optimism, however, including the increased use of technology in parish and diocesan ministries that started during COVID-19 and has taken hold. Many parishes, including Our Lady of Hope, strengthened their promotion of online giving during the pandemic and it has stuck. “Many of our parishioners are still coming on board to our online giving platform,” said Kolendowicz. “They find that they really like it.”
Mass livestreams at both the parish and diocesan level continue, allowing a wider audience to participate in these liturgies. Additionally, the pandemic pushing many things online taught parishes and diocesan ministries to become more proficient in mediums like social media, e-newsletters and Zoom, which has helped them minister to people in a new and effective way.
Another cause for optimism – enrollment at the Diocese’s Catholic schools rebounded after the height of the pandemic. “We did not close any schools during the pandemic and our diocese experienced one of the largest percentage enrollment increases in the nation,” said Austin Conley, Director of Advancement for Catholic Schools.
In the 2021-2022 school year, the Diocese’s Catholic schools have an enrollment of 7,026, which is an 18.5 percent increase over last year’s number of 5,929. This year’s enrollment is just shy of what it was before the pandemic in the 2019-2020 school year, when there were 7,227 students enrolled.
In terms of moving forward, Fr. Gómez says that the Diocese needs to have a primary emphasis: mission.
“I would hope that the Diocese focus on what it now means to be church; a resurrected church after the death brought by the pandemic. To point this in the right direction, from my perspective, is to celebrate how God has constantly been in our midst, has recreated us and now is wanting to send us forth,” said Fr. Gómez.