By Kenneth J. Souza
FALL RIVER, Mass. — As if this past Holy Week and Easter weren’t already strange enough, pastors everywhere now find themselves in the midst of the month of May — typically peak season for First Communion celebrations and preparing candidates to receive Confirmation — waiting to see when the Coronavirus restrictions are finally lifted and they can reschedule these eagerly-anticipated events.
“Our First Communion was scheduled for May 2,” said Father Jay Maddock, pastor of Holy Name Parish in Fall River. “We always have it that first Saturday in May. And then on Sunday we have the May procession, so the kids come back, dressed up in their dresses and suits. Sadly, that (date) has come and gone and our Confirmation had been scheduled for May 22.”
Like his fellow diocesan priests, Father Maddock said he is patiently waiting until May 18, which is when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is expected to announce whether the restrictions can be eased or extended.
“For me one of the keys is May 18 — the current restrictions go until then,” Father Maddock told The Anchor. “But as we know they can be extended, they can be amended, we don’t know what might happen. So, before we can make any definitive plans and dates, we have to find that information out.”
“We have been reaching out to everyone in the parish by phone, email and mail,” said Father David Frederici, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Dartmouth. “In addition, Beni Costa-Reedy, our director of Faith Formation, has been in contact with our First Communion families with some information to help continue the preparation of our young parishioners to receive the Eucharist for the first time. Our celebrations would have begun last weekend, but obviously that is not possible.”
When the quarantine began, Father Frederici said his parish was also in the midst of two adult Faith Formation programs.
“We were able to move them over to online platforms and continue the programs,” he said. “The Faith Formation programs for our children were almost over for the year, so we cancelled those with the exception of sending our First Communion families information to continue their formation.”
Even once the restrictions are lifted, Father Frederici thinks they will certainly have to adjust to post-pandemic life.
“The timing of our First Communions will depend on whether the resumption of public Masses is based on a percentage of occupancy of the church, or a specific number,” he said. “First Communions will happen, but they may have to be spread out over a period of time to keep the numbers down.”
Father Frederici also thinks multiple Confirmation ceremonies are likely unless “we base the numbers on a percentage of occupancy and then only allow the candidate, a sponsor and a parent” to attend.
“We have met with our Confirmation candidates, as well as our middle school students via Zoom,” he said. “I want to be sure that we are walking this journey with them in every way possible.”
Like everything else during life under COVID-19, pastors and Faith Formation coordinators have had to take advantage of computer technology to stay connected with students and parents.
“As Faith Formation classes were concluding at the April break, we suspended classes a few weeks earlier,” said Msgr. Stephen Avila, pastor of the Catholic Community of Falmouth. “Our director of Faith Formation, Jonathan Galo, produced several online videos for ongoing formation, including an explanation of Holy Week and a virtual retreat for First Communion students. On the weekend of what was to be First Communion, we asked the children to pray the Act of Spiritual Communion of St. Alphonsus de Liguori and produced a video of them praying it together.”
He agreed with Father Frederici that “if numbers of congregants are (still) restricted, perhaps communicants will receive First Holy Communion in smaller groups over the summer.”
Msgr. Avila added that the 30 Confirmation candidates at his parish this year were on the verge of receiving the Sacrament from the bishop the weekend Masses were suspended.
“As we are unsure how things are going to look after the restrictions are relaxed, no plans have been discussed as of yet,” Msgr. Avila said. “We will await to hear from the bishop’s office whether he will reschedule or delegate pastors to confer the Sacrament.”
In a May 4 video message addressed to all candidates hoping to receive First Communion and Confirmation this year, Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., said he’s been praying for them all and thinking of them “as we face these difficult times of the Coronavirus pandemic.”
“We all have been waiting and preparing for the day when we can reopen our churches to be able to celebrate Mass in public, be able to gather people and to receive the Sacraments,” Bishop da Cunha said. “We are waiting for the guidance of the civil authorities and the medical experts to let us know when restrictions can be lifted and when we can safely return to church. I know that you are also waiting for that day.”
To this year’s First Communion class, the bishop said: “I want you and your families to work with the director of Faith Formation and with the pastor of your parish to coordinate the date when you can receive Holy Communion.”
And to the Confirmation class, he suggested they “continue preparing for that day” and “work with the Faith Formation director of your parish and with the pastor of your parish and then coordinate with my office so that we can schedule the date of your Confirmation.”
“We will continue praying for each other and we look forward to the day when we can be together again and celebrate our faith,” the bishop said.
For Father Tom Washburn, pastor of the Catholic Community of Central Fall River, his collective three parishes “moved our Faith Formation into the virtual environment” online, once the COVID-19 pandemic effectively closed churches.
“We use an email service to send content for parents to use with their children each week,” Father Washburn told The Anchor. “This includes readings from their textbooks, worksheets, videos, projects and other ways to receive input from them. This has included, of course, our First Holy Communion young people.”
Earlier this month, Father Washburn also sent out a personal video message to those who would have been celebrating their First Holy Communions at this time.
“I sent a recorded video specifically to those families offering support and prayer for them,” he said. “And, yes, we will reschedule these events as soon as it is safe and possible. We await direction from the bishop.”
Additionally, the students in school who are of age to receive Confirmation have “also been a part of our online offerings.”
“We have held online Masses specifically for our school community (and) we will continue with these new strategies in the fall if we are still under restrictions,” Father Washburn said.
The pastors all agreed that the best option while waiting to see when these celebrations can be held is to stay in contact and pray for these young people about to receive the Sacraments of Initiation.
“We’ve been trying to keep them in the forefront so that, despite the fact they can’t receive the Sacrament right now, that they will keep their mind and heart on it, and we’ll rearrange it for them,” Father Maddock said. “My goal for both groups is to have them receive the Sacraments as soon as possible, because they were right at the end of the preparation when all this hit.”
“There are more questions than answers right now, but we will do our best to keep the youth engaged,” Msgr. Avila agreed. “Along with my director of Faith Formation, we are exploring Religious Education programs available that use both books as well as online learning. This could be very helpful to engage the parents, who are after all, the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith.”
Despite the present uncertainty, Father Frederici is certain of one thing once we all adjust to life in the “new normal.”
“Parish ministry will be forever changed from what it was like before,” he said.