Ministries of and in Rockford Diocese Adapting
By Lynne Conner, Observer Correspondent
April 30, 2020
DIOCESE—As priests and parishes in the Rockford Diocese adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that the stay at home directive has also hit most ministries. 
Across the diocese, retreats, workshops, seminars and other discipleship building programs have been cancelled, postponed or altered to keep people safe. 
At the diocesan Bishop Lane Retreat Center west of Rockford, over 19 retreats were cancelled during March and April with the last weekend retreat held March 6-8. 
“Any weekend or weekday retreats that were scheduled after March 8 and even into early May had to be rescheduled to later in the year,” said Kristen Sapoznik, director of the retreat center. 
“We’re working on trying to get the cancelled retreats into the summer months or fall, which is already an extremely busy time,” she added. 
Sapoznik said the retreats that were cancelled were booked by both diocesan and non-diocesan groups. 
“Depending on the number of people attending a retreat, we can accommodate around three groups in one weekend. This is in addition to any groups that come during weekdays for a retreat,” she said. 
The Bishop Lane Retreat Center’s main building accommodates two weekend retreat groups and the youth building typically accommodates one group. 
In addition to rescheduling canceled retreats, Sapoznik said that food ordered for those retreats needed to be dispersed.
“We did have some perishable items like fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk which were donated to local food pantries.” 
“We’re taking our direction from Bishop (David) Malloy and the (Winnebago County) health department on when it would be safe to re-open,” Sapoznik said. 
All the buildings on the grounds of Bishop Lane Retreat Center have undergone a deep cleaning to be ready when the facility reopens, she added.
Parishes steps up
At St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Crystal Lake, two Light of the World retreats, scheduled in March, were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic
According to Allyson Svigelj, director of evangelization at the parish, the retreats — one in English and one in Spanish — had around 100 people registered. 
Another parish event, “Back to School with Father John Evans,” was to be presented as planned on April 27-29. Svigelj said the class was a live stream teaching event rather than a gathering at the parish. 
Seminarians in residence at the parish — John McFadden and Ryan Nooraee — were to help the pastor, Father Evans, with the program. It was live streamed  on YouTube from a  classroom. 
Svigelj was scheduled to run the computer and take questions from parishioners.
Even before the event was held, she said, “It’s frustrating that we can’t have this event in person at the parish, but we are happy that the event can be held in a virtual format.”
“So much planning goes in to retreats that it’s really devastating when they can’t happen. We long for the day when retreatants return and our center is filled with joy,” Sapoznik said. 
Technology helps
Matt Schwartz, an Aurora native and member of Holy Family Parish in Rockford, said his job as a trainer and coach with Parish Success Group (PSG), gives him a unique insight on how to help parishes cope with the coronavirus pandemic. 
“Parish Success Group contracts with parishes across the U.S. and does consulting and assessment of ministry programs towards the goal of building stronger parishes,” he said. 
Traveling to parishes and conducting in-person training and reviews of ministry programs accounts for about one third of Schwartz’s work each month. 
“Currently, I am working with three parishes and was supposed to travel to one of those parishes in early March. I ended up having to cancel that trip and some others as all travel for PSG was suspended until April 30,” he said.
During the travel suspension, Schwartz actively used virtual technology to consult with parishes he cannot visit. 
“My colleagues and I at PSG all work from home to some extent and utilize conference calling, emails and video chatting to correspond with the parishes we coach,” he said.
That meant PSG was “already using computer technology to communicate with our parishes when the COVID-19 pandemic started ramping up,” he said.
While Schwartz acknowledges there is no substitute for in person meetings, he appreciates the fact that PSG has been and will continue to use virtual technology as a regular business practice. 
“Now that parishes are familiar with live streaming video, as many Masses were celebrated this way in the last month, they may be able to embrace Zoom meetings and similar technology as part of their evangelization efforts.”
Schwartz contends that the coronavirus pandemic and its disruption to parishes across the country could serve as an outreach opportunity. 
“I think the most important thing a parish could do at this time is to focus on being pastoral and not programmatic. Programs within a parish don’t make disciples, relationships do,” he said. 
“Some of the parishes we work with are actively contacting their parishioners during the stay at home directives. They’re asking their parishioners, ‘What are your blessings?’ ‘What are your challenges and anxieties?’ and ‘How can we pray for you and help you during this time?’ This type of outreach now helps build up the parish community and creates disciples going forward,” he said.


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