How does one be missionary in a pandemic, when we are being urged to stay home and not go out? It is a question that SVDs in the AUS Province have been asking and they’ve come up with some creative responses.
Firstly of course, the Divine Word Missionary priests have, like most other parish priests, been livestreaming their private Mass on social media, and they have also been ensuring community ties remain strong through various initiatives.
Fr Elmer Ibarra SVD, Parish Priest of Santa Teresa in Central Australia, said the parish ensured that the indigenous community could maintain their tradition of receiving Holy Water which was blessed at the Easter Vigil.
“They then use the Holy Water to bless their house when they return home,” he says.
“This Easter, the church was closed and public masses forbidden because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we still wanted to maintain the tradition of the Holy Water.
“So, on Holy Saturday morning, we filled up two big basins of water, then I blessed the water and the parishioners, maintaining their social distance came and filled up bottles with Holy Water.”
Fr Elmer, who is also the SVD AUS Province Bible Coordinator, says he joined online with a Bible group in Marsfield to continue their study on the Bible Timeline via the Zoom online meeting platform.
“We tried it out first to see if it would work and if all the members could manage the technology,” he says. “It worked well and during that meeting we decided to kick off the Bible Study again on April 22.”
Another SVD Bible study group at Glenwood, restarted its meetings via Facebook Messenger video.
“It worked perfectly for us, so, thanks to the pandemic, that’s how we’re going to do our Bible studies,” he says.
Fr Joseph Reddy SVD, assistant priest at Mary, Mother of the Church parish in Macquarie Fields on Sydney’s southern tip, says he reverted to the tried and true method of using the phone to keep in touch with parishioners, but with a modern twist.
“I miss them,” he says of his parishioners. “So I’ve been sending them a message asking them if I can Face-Time them and say hello.
“I’ve been Face-Timing three or four families every day.
“We just have a chat and I can check in and see how they’re going during this time of social isolation. It’s really been appreciated and it’s been good for me too, because we’re keeping in touch with each other and then I don’t miss them so much.”
The SVD senior confreres have also used their time in lockdown to reach out to people in a spiritual way, each writing or sharing a prayer during the pandemic.
A link to the prayers can be found on the SVD website.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, Fr Thien Nguyen SVD says that apart from live-streaming Mass every day, he has been hosting Lectio Divina and Bible study meetings via Zoom for both English-speaking and Vietnamese groups.
“The Vietnamese group is going well with about 40-50 people joining in live online daily for a Bible reflection,” he says. “The English groups have about 10-12 participants, and they are led by lay leaders.”
Fr Thien, who is Director of the Janssen Centre for Spirituality in Boronia, usually celebrates Mass in Vietnamese each week, and says his online Masses grew from a desire to continue serving his community.
“I felt there should be a Eucharistic celebration live-streamed for the Vietnamese Catholic community where I normally celebrate Mass,” he says.
Lay friends were calling to tell him they had tuned into various online Masses from cathedrals around the world, but they didn’t feel the same sense of connection that they normally felt in their local community.
“When I heard this, a Bible verse came to my mind, ‘My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me’. That’s when I felt a need to do it. That’s how it started.”
So, while he and his community are looking forward to returning to Mass in person and receiving the sacraments, for now, his online Masses in Vietnamese are attended by about 700 people from all over the world, including his elderly parents in Vietnam.
“Thank God for such a big blessing,” he says.
TOP RIGHT: Fr Elmer Ibarra SVD (top left of the photo) with members of the SVD Bible group, meeting online during the COVID-19 pandemic.
BOTTOM LEFT: Fr Thien Nguyen SVD leads an online Bible study for the Vietnamese community.