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Coronavirus hits diocese on heals of Chapter 11 filing

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The Diocese of Buffalo has been hit with a one-two punch. Just after filing Chapter 11 reorganization, the Coronavirus hit the country. Already the St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been cancelled. The University at Buffalo has moved classes online. Non-medical personal will not be allowed to visit nursing homes. Shea’s has shut down productions. The NHL season has been suspended. Even the Shrine Circus has left town. As of this printing, 137 people in Western New York have been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus. The diocese began taking precautions Friday, March 13, when the Chancery released new guidelines for Mass during the pandemic in association with guidelines and directives of New York state and Erie County.

“We all must be vigilant in doing all that is possible to participate in efforts to minimize and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, especially among older adults and those most vulnerable,” said the statement.

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger temporarily dispensed the Catholic faithful from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days during the coronavirus threat. Days later, suspended all regularly scheduled Masses in the Diocese of Buffalo. Parish events and celebrations, including confirmations and Lenten penance services, will be postponed.

This, along with a general advisory to stay home and avoid meetings in groups of more than 10, have thrown Western New York into a spin not seen since the Blizzard of ’77.

The last weekend of regular Masses, March 14-15, saw people heeding the warnings and practicing social distance.

“We have seven weekend Masses, I’d say four of them (usually) come around to 1,000 people a piece. The others are a little smaller, maybe 500, 700,” said Father Leon Biernat, pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, the largest parish in the diocese of Buffalo. “On average, we probably had anywhere between 175 to 250 people at each Mass (over the weekend).”

Parishes have been instructing parishioners to follow the diocesan guidelines that ask people to not shake hands at the sign of peace, suspended the chalice for everyone, and advise people to receive Body of Christ by hand.

“We did have hand sanitizer out. For the church itself, we had a routine cleaning. We did bring in a company to sanitize the school over the weekend,” said Father Biernat. “At the end of the Masses I celebrate, I reminded the people ‘Follow what you learned in kindergarten. Wash your hands.’ Basic hygiene things. Sometimes we don’t follow these basic things, and we really got to be cautious.”

Father Dennis J.J. Mancuso, pastor of three Allegany County parishes, had been taking precautions before hearing from the Chancery. He had hand sanitizers at the door and in the sanctuary, and had all priests and eucharistic ministers sanitize their hands before distributing Communion. Even greetings at the front door took place without physical contact. These precautions are designed to keep the parishioners healthy, but what effect will it have on the parishes? Fewer people in church means fewer envelopes in the collection basket.

“At all of the liturgies it was a diminished attendance. In fact, a parish that usually did about $1,700 only brought in $500 this week. So, there is a loss in collection. And it’s going to get worse during the time that we’re closed. The longer that goes on the more constraints that are going to be put on parishes to keep functioning,” said Father Mancuso. Father Mancuso sent out a letter to his parishioners asking to please continue to send in donations to help pay the bills. The parishes will rely on savings, and will look at other avenues to make up for lost collections.

St. John the Baptist Parish in Alden has taken a three-pronged approach to dealing with the everchanging social norms in the age of pandemic. First, the parish keeps in touch with its flock by mailing out the parish bulletin. It is an added expense, but it helps keep the 1,500 parishioners connected.

“We felt we needed to give everybody an opportunity to know what’s going on,” explained Deborah Brown, pastoral administrator. “It’s on the website, but people like their bulletins. In it we will be very clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and that your parish continues to be your parish, so please support us with your prayers and continued financial contributions and know that we’re praying and working for you.”

Secondly, the parish is using Facebook to feed people spiritually.

“We’re going to have Words of Wisdom and we’re going to encourage people every day to participate in a blog. We’ll put the daily Gospel reading up. We’ll invite the parish to reflect on the Gospel and how they’re living it to have a spiritual connection,” said Brown.

Thirdly, the staff is in talks about how to celebrate Easter. They hope to livestream Masses during the Paschal Triduum. The parish doesn’t stream Masses yet, but are beginning to set up the necessary devices.

“We’re gearing up to make Easter the high holy day that it is and still honor the fact that people need to stay home,” Brown said.

With all diocesan schools closed until April 20, St. John’s School is using technology already in place to assign and collect work for students, so they can keep up with their education and spirituality every day. Where the coronavirus has created a truly unique situation in the Buffalo Diocese, the Chapter 11 announcement on Feb. 28 seems to have had little effect.

“I think that was a non-issue because of the fact that Bishop Scharfenberger has been saying that this is necessary and this had been in the press for so long. Everybody was waiting for the shoe to fall. So, it was a non-issue by the time it happened,” said Father Mancuso, who is on the College of Consultors, the diocesan body that voted on the decision to file Chapter 11.

Father Biernat agrees that it hasn’t changed Mass attendance in his parish. “I can’t say that it did. I only received one note of displeasure. I’m wording it very politely,” he laughed.

St. John’s underwent some struggles two years ago when Brown began serving as pastoral administrator, and the parish stopped having a full-time priest available. The same month that Brown was on the cover of the Western New York Catholic, the parish made the cover of The Buffalo News with a story of clergy abuse.

“A lot of angst and disappointment with the diocese really happened then. We’ve healed and we’re trying to move on as a parish,” Brown said. “I don’t think that (Chapter 11) was an impact on our parish like those two other things were.”

Thinking of the effects of Coronavirus, Brown said, “It’s a financial impact. It’s a spiritual impact. This is real. This is going to change a lot of things. To some extent, maybe it will help us in making us recognize what is important to us. Chapter 11 can do the same thing. I’m not saying they’re good things, but they’re helping us reorder our thinking. That is exactly what Lent is about. How ironic that we are spending Lent giving up things, living simpler, doing all the Lenten disciplines. This can spiritually help us grow if we let it.”

Questions still arise about contributions to the parish collection and Catholic Charities.

See http://www.buffalodiocese.org for more information on Chapter 11, or call the toll-free diocesan question line at 1-833-302-0061.

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