by Marc and Julie Anderson
MARYSVILLE — Mass cancellations. Suspensions of public gatherings. “Stay at home” orders. How does a Catholic priest make himself available to his congregation? And how can he unite the parish family despite social distancing guidelines?
While many parish priests are turning to streaming Masses on a daily or weekly basis, Father Nathan Haverland, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Marysville and St. Malachy in nearby Beattie, took it one step further.
He discovered a way to celebrate Mass and still “see his parishioners” in the pews.
He asked parishioners to send him a digital photo of their families. He then printed the pictures, one per piece of paper. Then, he taped them to the pews in St. Gregory Church.
That way, he could still see the pews “full of people,” united in prayer. Mass is then aired on television and streamed on the parish’s Facebook page.
About 500 photos of various families from St. Gregory and St. Malachy, wider community members and more poured in through social media, leading the priest to admit he used a lot of ink and paper.
And he regrets not a bit of it.
“It is such a beautiful testament to all of humanity coming together in this moment where we all want to be together and have some hope,” he said.
Father Haverland is quick to admit, however, that he cannot claim credit for the idea.
“I got this idea from a post I saw on social media about a priest in the hard-hit area of Italy who asked his parishioners to send in pictures for him to print and put in the pews,” he said. “When I saw that post, I knew that was what I needed to do!”
It might seem a little bit unusual, but the pastor said it’s important for everyone to stay connected with their parish families.
“There is such a sadness among everyone about not being able to gather with our friends and family, but even more so that we can’t gather together as faith families,” he said. “We take it for granted that we can gather together each Sunday and now with that not a possibility, we begin to long and desire it more than we ever would have otherwise.
“I can’t take away that pain of not being able to gather together, but I wanted to do something to help make people feel like we were all still in this together.”
As he celebrates Mass each week, Father Haverland said he finds it edifying to him to be able to see his parishioners and know they are united in prayer as if it were a normal Sunday, even though they are not physically present.
“Nothing really prepares you for a moment like this,” he said. “I’ve had some unusual moments in my priesthood, but this one tops them all.
“Everything about Sunday Mass without the people felt incredibly awkward. At the same time, it was really touching to know that in countless homes, families were gathered together in prayer with me.”
“As tragic as this is,” he continued, “I can’t help but think of all the amazing fruit that’s coming from this situation. Families are spending more time together than they ever have, and people are longing to go to church more than they ever have.”
The creative approach, said Father Haverland, reminds him of saints and their fearlessness in ministering to all those under their care. Citing such examples as St. Gregory the Great, who reigned as a pope when a plague afflicted Rome, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, who ministered during the Holocaust, the priest said their lives provide witness to the hope of Christ.
“I can’t help but think of the many saints that have come before us who have lived during some really tragic times like this,” he said. “Instead of shying away in fear, they rose to the occasion with their talents and creativity to somehow make humanity better and get through those challenging times. “I have always looked up to them in admiration. And now I realize that we have the opportunity to do the same.”