“Peace be with you.”
Usually, that declaration would be followed by a joyful response from the congregation, “And with your spirit.” The reply would be followed by turning to one another, shaking hands and wishing each other peace.
However, Seaford’s St. William the Abbot has no live congregations during Mass now. Peace is a commodity that is harder and harder to come by, and forget about shaking hands these days. That might as well be a sin in and of itself.
The Rev. Joe Fitzgerald, St. William’s priest, still officiates, but with the recent coronavirus pandemic, it's a bit … different. St. William has made the decision to record and broadcast its services across Facebook and Instagram. That means that socially distancing parishioners, who are barred from physically attending Mass, can still worship and pray without distancing themselves from their faith.
“Everyone these days is either near or around a screen,” Fitzgerald said. “We are blessed to still be able to give that gift of communion and community. Some are entering into the Mass and praying for 30 minutes or so. Some come in for a few minutes and comment on the Mass.”
Luckily for churchgoers, Fitzgerald and parish worker Iris Gomez both have extensive media backgrounds.
Fitzgerald, a former Olympic handball player, competed in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Before that, he attended Ithaca College, which has produced many established members of the media, including David Brody, Bob Kur, David Muir, Sal Paolantonio and Karl Ravech.
“In school, we were taught about media training and what the right thing and wrong things to say in front of the camera were,” Fitzgerald said. “Throughout my athletic career, I was in front of many cameras, so I became comfortable with it. I would say I have a pretty good presence in front of the camera now.”
This is beneficial, because for the past week, Fitzgerald has often been the only face on camera.
Fitzgerald met Gomez two years ago while working in the Bishop’s office in the Diocese of Rockville Centre. “She didn’t want to travel for Yahoo! Travel, Disney and Oprah anymore,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s like a social media personality. She knows a lot. So when I moved to Seaford and St. William, I made sure I had to have her with me.”
Gomez recorded the first few Masses that were broadcast live. Now, with social distancing guidelines becoming stricter, Fitzgerald said that Gomez would probably have to take a break from entering the church to record the services. Members of the clergy are taking turns recording them. The church even invested in a smartphone tripod.
The challenge for Fitzgerald and Gomez, though, was to get as many parishioners to join the live-stream as possible.
“One of the great gifts of St. William is our longstanding parishioners, who are getting a little bit older,” Fitzgerald said. Some, he added, have taken great comfort in accessing the Masses and other information on social media, while others are still catching on.
Fitzgerald said that Nassau County Legislator Steve Rhoads reached out to him last week and asked him if he could remind the parishioners during his live-streams how important it is to distance themselves from one another to prevent the further spread of the virus.
The priests at St. William have been doing Rhoads one better. They have been practicing something Fitzgerald calls “radical hospitality.”
“We went through the records in our parish directory that breaks down and categorizes things into names and ages,” Fitzgerald explained. “We had a secretary create a folder to separate all parishioners over 80, and although I can’t bring groceries or communion to them physically right now, I can listen. I can ask them, ‘How can we support you?’”
He noted that the parish had collected a list of 63 parishioners who were homebound for medical reasons even before the spread of the virus, and he has called all of them personally to listen to their concerns.
Asked what he would tell a parishioner whose faith may waiver in a time of such uncertainty, Fitzgerald said, “When you walk into every single Catholic church, you see an altar. Above the altar, we see a cross. The cross makes no sense without faith, and faith makes no sense without the cross, where our Heavenly Father would send his only Son for us. And that’s not the end of the story. Everything leads to Good Friday. There is the hope of the Resurrection.”
Easter, this year on April 12 and also known to Catholics as “Resurrection Sunday,” brings hope of the resurrection of their savior, Fitzgerald said. He acknowledged that the pandemic happened to fall within Lent, the penitential period that is Catholics’ natural “countdown calendar” to Easter Sunday.
Until then, St. William and its priests will continue to bring Masses into people’s homes via technology. They will also be lending an ear to anyone who needs it.
“If we are not holier and healthier at the end of this, then there's a problem,” Fitzgerald said. “For our parishioners, we are praying that God is with them, because we can’t be right now.”