Archdiocese Local Ministries Parishes Religious life

Priests use creativity, technology to adapt to pandemic

Father Kent O’Connor, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, grants absolution to a penitent whose confession he heard from his car. The coronavirus pandemic has forced priests to get creative in ministering to their flock. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Joe Bollig

SHAWNEE — About a year ago, Father Kent O’Connor decided to create a personal YouTube channel for his own show, “Tuesday Night Live.”

He had no idea at the time how important this would be.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought nations to a standstill and created a new way of life: social distancing.

People have been advised to keep at least six feet apart, and some governments have ordered citizens to “shelter in place” — or stay home and only go out for basic necessities.

Many public events, schools and businesses have closed.

Even Catholic churches have ceased public Masses, weddings and funerals.

Now, more than ever, people are turning to social media platforms via the internet. The church, too, is learning to adapt through technology.

“We’re not doing church as normal, but we are still doing church,” said Father O’Connor, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee.

“We are doing a lot of learning about what it means to livestream,” he added, “and . . .  about technology like Zoom — all these things I didn’t know before.

“I had some interest in learning. I have a YouTube show I’ve been doing for a year now, and I’m very grateful that I’ve had a year to practice live- streaming, because now it’s necessary.

“I had a little head start on that and worked some of the kinks out over the year and learned how to do livestreaming better.”

Father O’Connor and associate pastor Father Nicholas Ashmore have had to scramble to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances and “think outside the box” for creative solutions.

Father Kent O’Connor and Father Nicholas Ashmore offered the sacrament of confession in the parking lot of Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Shawnee last week. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

To maintain parish life, the priests have maintained a schedule of happenings and offer them to parishioners via social media — most notably, livestreaming on the parish Facebook page.

They livestream Sunday Mass and daily Mass (times vary, in English and Spanish), have a “Fireside Chat” daily at 10 a.m., a daily rosary at varying times and the Stations of the Cross every Friday (English at 5:30 p.m.; Spanish at 6:30 p.m.).

“The basic premise is to keep things as normal as possible as far as a schedule goes,” said Father O’Connor.

All this activity has forced Father O’Connor to upgrade his internet and platforms to premium service.

“By the time the article is published, we hope to be on all platforms,” said Father O’Connor.

“Currently, most of our activities are on Facebook Live,” he said, “and that will continue. But we hope to be on YouTube, Twitch, Periscope and others through a simulcast capability.”

He’s also been keeping in touch with parishioners personally through email and telephone.

But even technology will only take you so far, and administering the sacraments requires an actual presence, like confession.

On March 20, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas issued new directives that included the need for social distancing during the sacrament.

Father Andrew Strobl, pastor of St. John Paul II Parish in Olathe, is in a particularly difficult situation because his church hasn’t been built yet. The only property the parish owns is the rectory/parish office.

 He hit upon the idea of hearing confessions through a storm door that leads into the converted former garage, now the parish office. He called it “Storm of Mercy.”

“People are hungry for the sacraments,” said Father Strobl.

Even here, technology assists. Parishioners sign up anonymously for a time slot using a website called Sign UpGenius. He heard confessions on March 18, March 22 and March 23.

Father O’Connor and Father Ashmore also hit upon a creative way of offering confession.

They brainstormed various ideas for inside the church, then thought of setting something up outside, in the parking lots, where people could confess from their cars or standing before a screen. The seal of confession and sacramental proximity would be preserved.

Father Nicholas Ashmore grants absolution to a woman in the parking lot at Good Shepherd last week. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

“We had a few hours to figure out what to do, because the order went into effect immediately,” said Father O’Connor.

“So, we said, ‘Why don’t we do it outside?’ It was a little bit cold outside, so we thought, ‘Why not have people stay in their cars?’ We decided both of us would sit in separate parking lots, one on the east side and one on the west side, and allow people to drive up, maintain their distance and stay in their cars.

Or, they could come out as families, and the rest of the family stay in the car while one person comes up to the screen — our screens are portable enough to carry outside. If it’s raining, if we can see the person, you can do it by cellphone.”

Their trial run was late Saturday afternoon, and it seemed that more people went to confession than usual, he said.

“It worked out really smoothly,” said Father O’Connor. “We got a positive response. People love the idea.”

This adaptation worked, but maybe not for long.

The various city governments of the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area — including Wyandotte and Johnson counties — have issued a stay-at-home order. As of March 24, people will only be allowed to leave their homes to perform “essential activities.” These do not include “weddings, funerals, wakes, memorial services or similar gatherings.”

Going to confession is not on the list.

“At the moment, we are planning on doing this until the crisis ends — doing it in this way, as long as we are permitted,” said Father O’Connor. “If not, we are brainstorming other possibilities how we can hear confessions and obey the law.”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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