Just like St. Therese of Lisieux, who defied her illness to practice her faith, the Diocese of Buffalo is finding a way to break free of COVID-19 restraints to carry out the sacraments of the Catholic faith. Parishes across the diocese have found new methods to prepare students for confirmation.
Confirmation is one of the sacraments of initiation, that usually follows baptism and Communion. A person who has received all three of those sacraments is considered a "fully initiated Catholic," and can then participate in all aspects of the Church and Catholic life. Usually around 10th grade, students take a series of classes in preparation to understand the background of the sacrament and the graces that it brings. Due to COVID restrictions, having a class of students gather together in person was not possible. So, faith formation coordinators came up with alternate ideas.
One popular method that has been used in classrooms and boardrooms everywhere is Zoom. The video conferencing program allows up to 1,000 people to communicate safely from their homes while still seeing the faces of those they speak with.
"It's a nice way to touch base visually, seeing everyone," said Sue Horst, who used Zoom with her students from St. John Neumann Parish in Strykersville. "We enjoyed it quite a bit and got to know the candidates a little better, more so than a formal setting."
One of the benefits of Zoom is the use of multimedia. Horst likes to pull information from different online sources. The digital classes allowed her to use videos and graphics in her presentation, while the parish equipment is limited to DVDs and VHS tapes.
Another clever benefit is a chat box, where people could ask questions anonymously, rather than raising a hand and asking in front of the class. "It kept everything briskly moving," Horst said.
Horst kept the learning process fun and entertaining by switching her Zoom backdrop for each class. One day she taught from a beach, the next day from outer space.
"It was great. I enjoyed it. They enjoyed it," she said. "I know when it came time to write their letters, they were very explicit that had it not been for thinking outside the box and having a Zoom format to continue on, they would have been delayed in making their sacrament."
The only drawback, Horst can find was that, by teaching in a room by herself, she didn't have the tasty treats she usually brings in for the whole class.
"Well, Paula's Donuts was socially distanced as well," she said woefully.
Denise York, director of Youth Ministry for Immaculate Conception, East Aurora, also took advantage of Zoom. She had become familiar with the program in her role as a leader for one of the parish ministry networks for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry.
As soon as York heard word of shut downs back in March, she took everything to Zoom. She was able to conduct the last three of 10 sessions online. Rather than max out on conference members, York, with the help of her daughter Jessica, taught each of the lessons four times with 10 kids in each session.
The one-hour classes mixed discussion, video and writing assignments and covered topics such as "Living Like Christ," "We are the Church," and "Rite of Confirmation." They also took the opportunity to bring current events into a faith perspective.
"We were also talking about prayerfully walking through this pandemic. One of our best discussions was about this pandemic," York explained. "Did God cause it or is it free will and what is free will? What do we believe about all those things. I think our discussions and our learning was much richer because we are walking through this time of uncertainty together."
One young candidate took some time during the lockdown to teach himself to play the keyboard. "He was playing this beautiful Christian song as part of his interview with (my daughter). It became some of the graced moments for us going through that stay-at-home time," York said.
Although she feels the Zoom sessions were a success, York doesn't think she would use it again if it wasn't necessary.
"I think in preparing for the sacrament, there is a great value to being able to talk about the faith together," she said. "I think it's the responsibility of the Church to prepare people well for sacraments. Sacramental theology is that the sacrament is only as fruitful as the openness or the disposition of the person, and if I want to achieve that, we need to have them gathered. It doesn't work the same online."
St. Mary of the Assumption Parish tried something different. Sister M. Therese Chmura, CSSF, taped eight different presentations and posted them on a private Facebook page. The students would watch one video a week, then fill out the accompanying worksheets related to their journals. After four sessions, they held two meetings outdoors, each with half the class, to discuss what their experience was like and share from their journals. After the final four sessions, they repeated the process.
"It went very well because they had the time to get into themselves and get in touch with themselves. The results were very positive," Sister Therese said. "When they came together, they said they really felt they got in touch with their faith and in touch with God. And the times we finally did come together in person; they loved that opportunity. And they really shared what was going on inside of them."
St. Mary's staff considered using Zoom, but had plenty of experience with people unable to make sessions in the past, and then having to hold makeup classes. Having the students to watch the videos on their schedules would be easier.
"They really had accountability, because they then journaled what they heard and what we wrote to them. So, I felt that they could watch it on their own at their leisure," Sister Therese explained. "We always gave deadlines - by this date watch this video and do this in your journals. So, it gave them flexibility to do their work at a time and day when it was convenient for them. We felt it worked here."
As lockdowns and social distancing prevented many from performing the required community service hours, Father Paul Steller, pastor of St. Mary's, opened a discussion on the importance of contributing to the common good. He pointed out that at Mass that we say, "Our Father" and "give Us Our daily bread" and how members of a community of faith are responsible for one another.
"When we got together, they did say something that they have done for others, some service they have given. Also, we had them name an adult that they know who volunteers some place, whether as a coach or in the church or in the community. Then we had a nice conversation about how as a people our world is better when people offer themselves to others on a volunteer basis," Sister Therese said.
Sister Therese guesses those who are extroverts would prefer the in-person format, while introverts would prefer the stay-at-home videos.
"I wouldn't say it was better or worse. It probably appealed to students where the other way would not appeal to. I would say it was of equal value, but appealed to some students less and other students more," she said, adding the parish might incorporate some videos and journaling into the process next year.
Usually conducted in the spring and the fall, the spring confirmations finally took place in August after Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger gave a special dispensation to local priests to confirm the candidates in their own parish, a role usually reserved for the bishop. Bishop Scharfenberger did come to town on Aug. 30 to confirm 27 teens from six differ parishes across the diocese at St. Joseph Cathedral.
Just before Father Robert Wardenski confirmed his candidates at Immaculate Conception, some of the young Catholics reflected on the preparation process.
"I think it would have been more realistic if we, as a class, had gotten to practice together and rehearse," said Lily Young, 16. "So, it's been a little different, but I think Mrs. York has been doing a good job at communicating with us, and she's been writing a lot of stuff down for us and sending information to us through emails. I think she had to be a little creative, but I definitely still feel prepared."
"I thought it was a little bit challenging at first, because it was so new," said Patrick Regan, also 16. "We didn't expect this to happen because nobody thought everything would shut down. So, it was a big shock, but eventually everybody got accustomed to it."
Jack Moffat, 16, received confirmation during the first of Immaculate Conceptions two special Masses. He looks forward to becoming more involved and being considered an adult in the Church.
"When I got confirmed, it was a feeling of refreshment. My mom would always tell me, 'You'll feel refreshed after you get confirmed. You'll feel new.' And I feel that was all in your head. But when it came time, it was like a feeling of relief, a feeling of being new. It was truly something different."