STILLWATER, Minn. — Father John Powers of St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s Catholic Churches in Stillwater donned layers of warm clothing on Monday night, March 24, before heading out to hear confession — in the church parking lot.
After the COVID-19 outbreak shuttered confession inside the church, Powers and other Catholic priests across the country began offering drive-thru confession.
On Monday night, each person wanting to confess stayed in their car while Powers, sitting in a chair, stayed the recommended 6 feet from the driver’s side window. Each confession took about two to three minutes, and penitents were asked to maintain “an appropriate distance” between cars to respect the seal of the confessional, he said.
Although Mass can be broadcast online or live streamed, confession must be done in person, Powers said. “The penitent and the priest have to be physically present to one another,” he said.
In Minnesota, that means priests must dress for the weather.
“Layers, lots of layers,” Powers said, when asked how he stays warm.
The number of people going to confession has remained steady, he said. “We’re giving people a chance to maintain their normal rhythm of life as much as possible,” he said.
People — no more than 10 at a time — are allowed to worship inside the church during the day; 10 separate pews have been designated for that purpose. “It’s set up so they don’t have to touch anything on their way in, and we’re encouraging people to sanitize after themselves,” Power said. “And then we’re doing a deep cleaning at the end of each day.”
Missing weekend in-person Mass has been difficult; Mass is now broadcast online and live streamed, he said. “For a lot of people, Mass is what they do on Sunday,” Powers said. “It’s not just a chance to gather together to worship, it’s part of our lives. It’s that loss of that social connection. We’re trying to maintain that atmosphere and attitude of prayer, even in these times.”
Social distancing is “actually dovetailing well with the whole season of Lent,” a period of prayer and penance leading up to Easter, Powers said. “Lent is all about withdrawing from the world and trying to grow closer to Christ. The idea of drawing closer to Christ in this time is something that has really been speaking to me.”
‘Together with God's song’
Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker of Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul said he has been relying on technology — group chats, video conferencing, Facebook — to help the members of his synagogue perform the vital functions of their tight-knit community. That included, on Monday night, support for the grieving.
The Jewish mourning ritual of sitting shiva, where family members of the deceased receive condolence calls from family and friends, was planned over Zoom, a video conferencing app. Up to 300 households could participate, he said.
“We’ll do the prayer book through shared screen, and we will unmute the mourner at the right time to share stories,” Spilker said. “Mostly, they will be able to see on the screen, everyone in support together as one community.”
One “value-added” benefit to using Zoom is that family members who live across the country will get to participate, he said.
For the first time in Mount Zion’s history, two Shabbat services were held on Friday night “to satisfy people’s needs for different service times,” Spilker said. The services, which were streamed online, were held at 6 and 7:30 p.m. “That actually meant something new for us, which was good,” he said.
Mount Zion officials are also finding other ways to engage with members virtually: A cantor did a bedtime reading and sang evening prayer; Torah study groups are being held over Zoom, and there was a “virtual” cooking lesson, Spilker said.
On Saturday night, Spilker and his family shared their havdalah service, which marks the end of Shabbat, from their living room in Mendota Heights via Facebook Live. Spilker and Rachel Stock Spilker, who is a cantor at Mount Zion, were joined by their three children, Eiden, 23; Mirit, 21; and Liam, 16; and their dog Molly. “This was just wonderful,” a member of Mount Zion wrote in a comment posted on Facebook. “Because you were seated in a half-circle, you invited us to virtually ‘complete the circle’ with our seated presence. Very powerful.”
One of the songs sung in Hebrew during the service described how a person’s strength “together with God’s song” will bring salvation, Spilker said.
‘Reach out to neighbors’
For members of the Baha’is of St. Paul, the coronavirus outbreak meant a major change last week in marking the end of a 19-day period of daytime fasting to celebrate the Baha’i new year, said Mary Jo Sterling, who serves on the spiritual assembly of the Baha’is of St. Paul, which has about 200 people.
Instead of gathering together at night to break the fast, pray and feast in celebration, groups met virtually over Zoom, Sterling said.
“We are encouraging the community to reach out to neighbors to be of service and not to be afraid,” Sterling said. “This is something we will pass through. We are assured of that. We pray for that confidence to always be with us.”
Sterling said she has been connecting online with Baha’is friends from Italy, Iran, South Africa and Yemen over the past few weeks. “They are all suffering a lot,” she said, “So much more than we are.”
“We as a community are praying for one another and for all of humanity,” she said. “We know we will pass through it.”
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