As coronavirus challenges mount, Catholics respond  

| March 24, 2020 | 0 Comments

Parking lot confessions and eucharistic adoration, prayers for spiritual Communion as public Masses are suspended to help curb spread of a novel coronavirus that is dangerous and sometimes deadly.

These have become oddly familiar, strangely suited to Lent, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and around the world as more people become ill with COVID-19 or fear carrying the virus to others. Church leaders have responded by taking increasingly strict measures around public gatherings and public Masses.

Father John Paul Erickson, pastor of Transfiguration in Oakdale, carries a monstrance holding the Eucharist through the church’s parking lot March 22, the first Sunday that public Masses were suspended in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to help curb spread of the coronavirus. Father Erickson livestreamed a private Mass from the church’s chapel at 8 a.m. and invited parishioners to come to the parking lot at 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. for a blessing while abiding by appropriate social distancing. Many parishioners stayed in their cars, but some, including Maria Mann, in background, stepped out of their vehicles and knelt as Father Erickson processed near them. BARB UMBERGER | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

In the archdiocese, water was removed from holy water fonts, hymnals were stored in closets, people were encouraged to avoid physical contact during the sign of peace, and the obligation to attend Sunday Mass was suspended beginning March 12. On March 18, Archbishop Bernard Hebda suspended all Sunday and other public Masses for at least two weeks.

“I have encountered a wide variety of pastoral situations in more than 31 years of priestly ministry,” said Father John Ubel, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul. “However, this is an experience of the Lenten journey that is unlike any I have felt.

“The selection from the Office of Readings on Holy Saturday begins: ‘Something strange is happening — there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.’ Indeed, this Lent every day feels a bit like Holy Saturday.”

Father Ubel joined Archbishop Hebda for the 5:15 p.m. Mass March 21 in the all-but-empty cathedral to video stream for the faithful via the parish’s website and Facebook page.

“Looking out at the empty pews was both surreal and sad,” Father Ubel said, “and yet, despite the ‘strange silence,’ I also felt a closeness to the parishioners with whom I know we remain united in prayer.”

Priests across the archdiocese took similar steps, livestreaming Masses and holding confessions in parking lots, striving to do whatever they could to reach their parishioners.

At Transfiguration in Oakdale, Cindy and Carl Krieger watched their pastor, Father John Paul Erickson, celebrate the 8 a.m. Mass March 22 as it was livestreamed from the church’s chapel. Then, they drove to the church parking lot, where Father Erickson blessed people in about 100 cars as he processed through the lot, holding the Eucharist high in a monstrance.

More than a few people stepped out of their vehicles and knelt in adoration, touched by the simple but profound ceremony.

HOLY WEEK RETREATIn the event that the State of Minnesota’s request that residents refrain from large gatherings continues through the middle of April, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is planning a virtual Holy Week retreat and inviting all to participate. It will begin Palm Sunday and culminate with Easter Vigil Mass. Each day will include morning prayer and directed Lectio Divina on the day’s Gospel reading, and an evening talk. The retreat will also include the Triduum liturgies. All events will be livestreamed or recorded and available at

Palm Sunday, April 5
9 a.m. Mass from The St. Paul Seminary 7 p.m. Talk by Archbishop Bernard Hebda

Holy Monday, April 6
9 a.m. Morning prayer from the Pro Ecclesia Sancta Sisters 7 p.m. Talk by Father Charles Lachowitzer

Holy Tuesday, April 7
9 a.m. Morning prayer from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist
7 p.m. Talk by Father John Ubel

Spy Wednesday, April 8
9 a.m. Morning prayer from St. Paul’s Monastery 7 p.m. Talk by Bishop Andrew Cozzens

Holy Thursday, April 9
9 a.m. Morning prayer from The St. Paul Seminary
7 p.m. Mass of the Lord’s Supper with Archbishop Hebda

Good Friday, April 10
9 a.m. Morning prayer from the Cathedral of St. Paul
7 p.m. Celebration of the Lord’s Passion with Bishop Cozzens

Holy Saturday, April 11
9 a.m. Morning prayer from Cathedral of St. Paul 8:30 p.m. Easter Vigil Mass with Archbishop Hebda

“We missed being at church,” Cindy said. “This was wonderful.”

There’s just something about going to Mass and being with other people, she explained. “You feel so greatly uplifted in difficult times.”

Seeing so many people come for the blessing says a lot about the parishioners and Father Erickson, she said. “To have him walk through the lot with the monstrance, I feel the Lord was in our presence. This is exactly what people needed.”

Father Erickson and Deacon Dan Brewer slowly walked up and down every row of cars in the parking lot in 32-degree weather.

Sheryl Theno also went to the church parking lot after watching the Mass livestream.

In difficult times such as we face today, Theno said, we all need to trust in God. “He tells us over and over, ‘Trust me,’ and we don’t listen,” she said. “Can’t you just imagine God smiling down at all of us making these extra efforts?”

Another reason Theno went to the blessing was to support the parish monetarily. A parishioner walked with a basket to collect weekly contributions.

Father Erickson offered the same opportunity to parishioners at 11 a.m., and about 100 cars once again filled the parking lot. Afterward, he said the business administrator of the parish, Erin Ethier, first suggested a public prayer and blessing in the parking lot, to give parishioners some semblance of normalcy in these trying days.

“I readily agreed,” Father Erickson said, “but thought that an even more important blessing would come from the Lord himself. And so I decided to expose the Blessed Sacrament and process with him, so that his people could see him and receive from him the consolation only he can give. All of the staff present that morning pitched in and helped make it a beautiful and moving ceremony.”

“I, myself, was moved to tears as I processed through the crowds, thinking of the many times in the Lord’s public ministry when he walked among the poor, the lame and the weak and healed them and gave them strength. He still does so today,” Father Erickson said.

Father Dan Haugan, pastor of Holy Spirit in St. Paul, pulled a chair out of the rectory and set it in the church parking lot to hear confessions on the afternoon of March 21. Scheduled from 3 to 4 p.m., he stayed a bit longer as people in 18 cars drove through to receive the sacrament.

“As we’re worried about our physical health, we should also be just as worried about our spiritual health,” Father Haugan said. “God heals through the grace of the sacrament that I can offer.”

Sue Johnson said she was driving down Randolph Avenue in St. Paul when she saw a sign for Father Haugan’s drive-through confessions and decided to pull in and receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

“I absolutely love this opportunity to be able to go to confession — unbelievable,” said Johnson, a parishioner of Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, moments after receiving absolution. “I can feel the knot loosening in my stomach, being able to connect with my Church.”

She said the idea of drive-through confession “is brilliant, it gives grace, it’s brought me peace of soul.”

Father Haugan didn’t stop there. The next day, he placed the Eucharist outside for an afternoon of adoration. He said he plans to offer drive-through reconciliation every Saturday afternoon until churches are re-opened and public Mass is reinstated. He added that he will be praying for people who are fearful and anxious about the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the country.

“In the Bible — the Old Testament and the New Testament —365 times, God says, ‘Do not worry, be not afraid,’” Father Haugan said. “One time for every day out of the year, God has told us, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ So, each and every day, you can look up something in Scripture where God tells us, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Isn’t that great?”

— Dave Hrbacek and Barb Umberger contributed to this story

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