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Though at home, priests busy with prayer, virtual outreach and fellowship

Father John “Jack” Ward, pastor, left, and Father Jaime Garcia-Vasquez, associate pastor of St. Francis de Sales and Abingdon and Prince of Peace in Edgewood, are shown in March at a “drive-through confession.” With state-ordered shelter-in-place policies in effect, events such as drive-through confessions have been suspended. Priests are looking at other ways of reaching parishioners. (Kevin J. Parks/CR Staff)

With social distancing rules in effect and in-person interactions with parishioners suspended, priests of the Archdiocese of Baltimore are filling their time in a variety of ways, some expected and others less so.

“I’ve been spending more time in prayer,” said Monsignor James M. Barker, pastor of St. Ignatius in Hickory. “It’s been refreshing and renewing.”

He’s been praying the standard Liturgy of the Hours, but “spending more time on it” and “meditating on it,” he said.

As a pastor, he prays for his parishioners, and he also interacts with them in any way he can, often phoning them in response to their notes and emails.

“It means so much to them when they hear from their priests,” he said.

At St. Francis de Sales Church in Abingdon and Prince of Peace Church in Edgewood, it’s a similar story.

“We are busier than ever,” said Father Jaime Garcia-Vasquez, associate pastor. “We are answering phones and answering emails.”

Whereas pre-pandemic priestly life included a lot of “checking boxes,” he acknowledged, the forced slowdown has given him and the pastor, Father John “Jack” Ward, the opportunity to grow in understanding and appreciation for their parishioners, even if from afar.

“We have had more time to look around,” Father Garcia said. “Seeing the people who write us emails, text us, message us on Facebook, and send personal notes fills us with gratitude – we are grateful for their gratitude.”

In addition to daily Mass, he and Father Ward also post shorter spiritual reflection videos on the pastorate’s YouTube channel.

A recent short, “Is It I Lord?” is shot in the St. Francis rectory. Dressed casually, the two discuss the human tendency toward sin and failure. The exchange is punctuated with references to Father Ward’s technical abilities.

“Father Jack has no idea how to operate a computer,” Father Garcia told the Review, “but he does know he can ask anyone for help.”

The lack of in-person interaction with parishioners has given the pair more time to interact with each other.

“We were used to doing 9 a.m. and noon daily Mass,” Father Garcia said. “Breakfast was just to catch up, to see what each other were doing. Now we are discussing, ‘What are you going to preach on? How can we make the homily more effective together?’”

Father Brian Nolan, pastor of St. Isaac Jogues in Carney, gives a “virtual parish mission” online. (YouTube screenshot)

Some priests have used the extra time to work on new spiritual resources for their parishioners.

Father Brian Nolan, pastor of St. Isaac Jogues in Carney, created a multi-part online “virtual parish mission” airing on YouTube that features an in-depth look at ways of living the Beatitudes. In introducing the series, Father Nolan encouraged online participants to set some time aside to reflect deeply on the message of the series. He suggested they might even take notes.

Mealtime for priests has been a time for fellowship during the pandemic.

At St. Ignatius, where Monsignor Barker is joined by associate pastors Father Marc Lanoue and Father Stephen Sutton, Upper Chesapeake Medical Center chaplain Father Roque Lim, and seminarian Scott Kady, the clergy say they have been eating well.

“I made Swiss steak and rice one night,” Monsignor Barker said. “Scott Kady made stuffed chicken breasts with peppers and mushrooms. Tonight we’re having eggplant lasagna.”

Some are rediscovering old hobbies.

“Father Marc has brushed up on his piano,” Monsignor Barker said.

At St. Joan of Arc Church in Aberdeen, Father William Franken has picked up his guitar.

“I started guitar in college,” Father Franken said. “I used to play a lot more than I do now.”

Like the other priests, he stays grounded with daily Mass and prayer.

“You try to stick to a routine,” he said.

And there are always creature comforts.

“I have a cat named James J who has been great company for me,” said Monsignor Kevin Schenning, pastor of St. Margaret in Bel Air.

George Matysek Jr. contributed to this story.