Warsaw pastor fight distancing with digital connection

by Patrick J. Buechi
Tue, May 26th 2020 10:00 am

The coronavirus has created a new normal for people all over the globe. The term social distancing has entered our vocabulary as people everywhere are advised to stay six feet apart from each other. Even traffic signs are saying "Save a Life - Stay at Home."

Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." But with public Masses canceled due to the coronavirus, area churches may only have one person inside to participate in worship. Thanks to modern technology, namely Facebook, people can still participate in their faith through the internet. 

Father Michael LaMarca, who served as honorary chairman for last year's Catholic Communication Campaign, stays connected to his parishioners at St. Michael Church in Warsaw through his parish Facebook page. He still celebrates Mass, although earlier than usual, and uses the digital interaction to educate and entertain his flock. 

"I offer Mass Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday morning at 7:30," Father LaMarca said. "I do it at 7:30, which is not a normal Mass time for us, because everyone is thrown off their schedule. So, I thought I'd give an opportunity for people who are up in the morning who are looking for something to start their day with Mass."
Through the use of an iPhone and Facebook Live, Father LaMarca can broadcast his Masses live to anyone visiting the St. Michael's page. The Mass remains on the site all day, so people can watch anytime.
In the first few weeks, he has received compliments, prayer requests, and even a shout out from viewer in Arizona. 
"Once that was all set to go, parishioners were calling other parishioners to let them know, 'Hey, we know you don't have Facebook, but tune in on the radio and you can at least hear Father Mike,'" Father LaMarca said.
To avoid the feeling of distance and isolation, Father LaMarca tries new things to maintain a two-way communication with the faithful.  
"I did an 'Ask the Pastor' segment, which I will probably do a few more times during all this, where people can ask me questions through Facebook Live," he said, adding he did a livestreamed tour of St. Michael's, where he explained the meaning and purpose of different items in a Catholic church. Viewers could also ask questions in real time during the tour.
Every day, he calls a few parishioners to see how they're doing. He also calls friends instead of texting to keep that verbal communication open.
On March 29, he started a partnership with radio station WCJW - CJ Country, to air Sunday Mass around 8:30 a.m. throughout Wyoming, Genesee, Orleans and Livingston counties. 
The St. Michael's website lists resources including St. Gregory the Great's livestream, Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire, and a Stations of the Cross video for children.
"This is a reminder that we are a universal church. One church doesn't have to do everything," Father LaMarca said. "I'm telling parishioners search out other Catholic churches on the internet and watch their priest say Mass. See what their church space looks like. This is an opportunity to visit all these churches and you don't have to go anywhere."
Even with social distancing, Father LaMarca does what he can to continue his priestly ministry of visiting the sick. In the early days of coronavirus when hospitals and nursing homes were forming restrictions, Father LaMarca had to go to a nursing home for different end of life situations. 
"In those situations, I took the proper protocol," he said. "I went because the hospital or nursing home itself called me. If the family calls me, I tell them the hospital has to call me. I can't just go because they ask me. The hospital has to make that decision. So, when I've gone I follow the protocol that they put in place. And they've been great in my couple of visits there."
He did find himself making one home visit in a dire situation. He knew it was necessary for him to be there, so we went to reassure the family.
"We took the protocols as best we could with washing our hands and keeping a safe distance when I visited," he explained.
Looking into the empty pews during Mass is lonely for the man who was named pastor of the Wyoming County parish a little over a year ago. The people he does communicate with also feel a sense of isolation from their church.
"They want to be back in community. They miss the sacraments. They want the Eucharist," Father LaMarca said. "This is definitely a desert that we have been thrown into during this season if Lent. We're not going to be together on Easter Sunday, where we're able to gather and participate in the Easter sacraments together, but I think the people are growing into the appreciation of the sacraments. I know, personally as a priest, I miss the people. I miss the people at the daily Mass. I miss the people on the weekends. I miss the crying baby in church. I miss the cellphone going off during Mass. Things like that I miss because there is no one in the Church with me. I have a couple people who come on Sunday to help enhance the liturgy that we put out over Facebook, but you miss those real interactions with people."
Although, he enjoys using the internet to connect with people, he tries to be strategic about his posts and not over do it.
"My philosophy is a post in the morning, and that's it. People should be out. If it's a nice day, go for a walk. On Sunday, just watch Mass on your computer then spend the rest of your time doing something else - physical activity, reading. We don't want to become glued to social media. We have to remember to interact with people."