Parishes may see increased engagement as churches move online in response to COVID-19

A sign on the door at Saint Gerard Majella, in Port Jefferson Station, NY, informs parishioners of new hours during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Nicholas Wurm and Sabrina Liguori

The chapel inside Port Jefferson Station’s Saint Gerard Majella Roman Catholic Church is much smaller than the space formerly reserved for worship. A red book with the instructions for mass lies open on the altar. Reverend Gregory Rannazzisi, the pastor at Saint Gerard’s, stands tall in his Sunday best, preparing to lead another Lenten Mass – but for the second week in a row, all of the pews are empty and most of the parishioners are home.

With in-person services suspended through April 15 due to COVID-19, Saint Gerard Majella moved its worship online.

At a time when Americans try to maintain social distancing, most religious groups are coming together through their screens. On Long Island, the Archdiocese of Rockville Center already broadcasts services on the Catholic Faith Network, a cable and online streaming station. However, the latest efforts to reach congregations are being undertaken by local parishes, like Saint Gerard Majella, on an individual basis. Just under half of the Archdiocese’s 133 parishes have started posting some form of live-streamed or pre-recorded mass for their congregations to watch, and experts say these efforts may lead to increased engagement with religion.

“When this all started happening, I mentioned our diocese had its own television network and they have mass every day, along with a lot of other programming,” Reverend Gregory Rannazzisi, pastor at Saint Gerard Majella, said. “But… people said they want to see their own pastor in their own parish, saying there’s a comfort there, so we’ve been trying to accommodate that as best as possible.”

Saint Gerard Majella has also started putting together care packages to be distributed through a drive-up food pantry. Bags filled with canned goods and other non-perishable supplies, with lunch and dinner variants, await families who may need help from the community to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s still the case that local congregations are important players in the local social safety net in communities,” Nancy Ammerman, a Sociologist of Religion at Boston University, said.

Many groups are also seeing more viewers tuned in to their online meetings than those who usually attend in person, she said. While this could be attributed to the convenience of the internet, sociologists believe that people seek a sense of belonging in times of crisis.

“I do think there will be some young people who turn to faith as a source of comfort,” Melinda Denton, a Sociology Professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said. “One way we could see religion playing out in a pandemic like this is that people become more aware of their fragility, of their humanity and their mortality.”

In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, nearly all U.S. states have restricted gatherings of 10 or more people. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initial order to limit all gatherings in the state, including worship services, the Archdiocese of Rockville Center was quick to comply by suspending in-person church activities.

“I think that the protocols that Governor Cuomo and others have put into place…social distancing…and the CDC guidelines, I think they’re reasonable,” Reverend Rannazzisi said. “…Once people really follow them, they’ll realize how important it is to stop the spread. And we do so, unfortunately, by limiting our interactions in person with other people.”

Not all religious groups agree. Christian ministers in Florida and Louisiana have flouted their states’ bans on gatherings of 10 or more people. Revival Ministries International (RMI), a Florida based Pentecostal Christian organization, said in a March 18 press release that churches are as essential as police, firefighters and hospitals and would remain open as usual.

“In a time of national crisis, we expect certain institutions to be open and certain people to be on duty,” RMI said in the press release. “The Church is another one of those essential services… therefore, we feel that it would be wrong for us to close our doors on them at this time, or any time.”

The reluctance of some churches to follow social distancing recommendations and limits on gatherings does not come without public disapproval.

“I think there’s sort of a negative backlash against the way some religious people are treating this,” Dan Olson, a Professor of Religious Sociology at Purdue University, said. “Like, [they think], ‘we’re just going to trust God,’ and, you know, ‘we don’t need to do all this social distancing…’ and so they end up doing things that really can make the situation worse.”

For the most part, religious institutions are embracing the restrictions and bolstering their connectedness through the internet. And some groups are already familiar with this mode of communication.

Auburn Seminary provides training and support for religious leaders of various faiths as well as leaders of social justice movements.

“It’s pretty common for us to meet by Zoom, but that has usually been for planning sessions,” Courtney Weber Hoover, the Seminary’s Director of Program Operations, said. “This is the first time that we’ve really held the similar retreat-style convenings – that we would normally do in person – electronically.”

Since the pandemic arose, Weber Hoover said the seminary’s environmental footprint has greatly decreased. While this is a concern of theirs, in-person gatherings are a valuable part of the organization, she said.

“I don’t think [online alternatives] will replace everything,” Weber Hoover said, “but I think [they] will give us the opportunity to do more electronically and remotely — and to cut down on carbon costs and also individuals’ time and resources.”

Parishioners at Saint Gerard Majella are adapting well to the transition online. Reverend Rannazzisi said he’s received several dozen emails in the past week expressing thanks for recording his Sunday services.

“It’s more like a gift,” Rosemary Harris, a parishioner and volunteer at the church’s soup kitchen and annual Christmas Fair, said. “There’s parishioners who go every single week and there’s parishioners who go every single day and are lost without that.”

Despite the ease of the transition, Reverend Rannazzisi said he looks forward to returning to in-person worship.

“Yes, God can work through distances, but we also really enjoy being in each other’s company,” he said. “So I’d say that we’re all accepting this as a Lenten sacrifice together, but we can’t wait for this to be over and to be back together again.”

About Nicholas Wurm 6 Articles
I am a junior Journalism major at Stony Brook University, with a concentration in science and the environment. My interests in reporting are focused on culture, science and technology. I am also the lead copyeditor for the Stony Brook Press, the university's on-campus feature magazine.