Priests Talk of Isolation During Crisis

Father Astor Rodriguez, (center) pastor of St. John the Baptist Church, said he calls parishioners on the phone to stay in touch. (Photo: Ed Wilkinson)

By Paula Katinas

BENSONHURST — It was the strangest Holy Week in recent memory throughout the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Cut off from parishioners because of social distancing, priests who would normally be busy with activities like the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday services, the Easter Vigil, and the Easter Mass, refrained from public celebrations.

“I would be in denial if I said I did not have a sense of isolation. It doesn’t feel like Holy Week,” said Father Peter Penton, administrator of St. Finbar Church in Bath Beach.

“You don’t have your parishioners in front of you. You want to have them there for the ministry, the liturgy, all of the things that make up the life of the parish,” he added.

Father Astor Rodriguez, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, feels a nagging sense of separation.

“It is difficult because of the times we are living through. It’s especially hard for priests who live alone in the rectory,” he said, adding he is especially troubled by the fact he can’t visit the sick or spend time with the elderly.

Father Rodriguez now livestreams his Masses on Facebook.

“I have also been calling people up to let them know that I am here for them, especially our seniors. But it’s not the same,” he said.

“The parishioners would love to come to church so that we can all be together during Holy Week.”

He has never seen anything like this. “Even during 9/11 … we as a community were able to be together. What we are experiencing now is very different,” he said.

Father Penton overcomes the separation from parishioners by livestreaming his Masses and offering a daily reflection … “and I pray. It might sound cliché to talk about prayer, but prayer is the answer,” he said.

When asked if it’s hard to not be with parishioners, Father Manuel de Jesus Rodriguez, the pastor of Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Jamaica, said, “You bet it is.”

Still, he finds ways to stay in touch. “As soon as we heard that public Masses were canceled, we immediately set up WhatsApp. We communicate that way and give each other updates,” he said.

The pandemic is also taking an emotional toll on some.

“This is very sad. To say it’s difficult is an understatement,” said Father Kevin Sweeney, pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Sunset Park. “But our faith gives us the strength to carry on.”

Father Sweeney, who shares the rectory with two other priests, said wryly, “We’ve been spending a lot of time together.”

He has found ways to carry on; livestreaming Masses twice a day on the church’s Facebook page and holding a parish retreat online. “I think technology is a blessing at a time like this,” he said.

Father Christopher Heanue, administrator of Holy Child Jesus and St. Benedict Joseph Labre parishes in Richmond Hill, said he is coping as best as he can “but there is a lot of downtime and I don’t like that,” he admitted.

Father Christopher Heanue Father Christopher Heanue, here pictured with Sydney McLoughlin, speaks with the student body of Holy Child Jesus Catholic Academy via Zoom. (Photo: Theresa McLoughlin)

He speaks regularly to parishioners and students at Holy Child Jesus Catholic Academy via Zoom. He wonders if the coronavirus crisis will leave a lasting mark.

“One of the things I have been wondering is what our parishioners will think about the church’s response to this pandemic,” Father Heanue said. “Our faith would certainly dictate that we are not alone.

“The question is: ‘How do we use restricted guidelines to serve our parishioners?’ It’s nice that we can use technology.”

By contrast, Monsignor Jonas Achacoso, parochial vicar of Queen of Angels Church in Sunnyside, does not feel isolated.

“All priests know we are living in very different times. Our faith is still there,” he said.

He still feels close to parishioners: “Isolation is when you are cut off from communication with them. We unite with them in prayer.”

Monsignor Achacoso admitted, however, that things are not quite the same. “It is life in the new normal,” he concluded.

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