WHILE millions of Catholics transition to a virtual church experience due to the coronavirus pandemic, spare a thought and a prayer for people like Rikki Avenell.
The 74-year-old has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disorder that affects her breathing and keeps her hooked to an oxygen concentrator all hours of the day.
She would experience severe medical complications if she contracted COVID-19, so she’s keeping her distance – but it’s coming at a price.
Having lost her husband to dementia in June last year, and now because of government restrictions has no access to her beloved parish community of 44 years in Sandgate, Mrs Avenell is starting to notice to loss of physical connections with her neighbours.
The iPad she got for Christmas from her son, who lives in Sydney, would help if she could figure out how to turn on the WiFi.
In such an isolating situation, all Mrs Avenell has time to do is pray.
“It’s really had an effect on me,” she said.
“But I try and do the readings at home everyday home anyway, and I use my missal of 28 years.
“I sit upstairs with my oxygen, say my prayers and fall asleep.
“I try to say my Rosary and sometimes I don’t get through it.”
So you can imagine Mrs Avenell’s disbelief when the phone rang last Friday afternoon.
It was her parish priest, Fr Joseph Kanatt, calling to check in on her.
“It was unbelievable,” Mrs Avenell said.
“I couldn’t believe that he rang me up.
“I just felt so privileged that he would ring me up.”
But that won’t be Fr Kanatt’s last phone call to Mrs Avenell.
Since the Sandgate-Brighton parish were told to close their two churches on March 23, Fr Kanatt started a ‘parish buddy’ program, asking parishioners to make a good old-fashioned phone call to isolated members of their community.
“For a lot of our elderly parishioners, it’s their only social connection they have all week,” Fr Kanatt said.
“It’s the only time they get to see other people.
“That isolation is something they’re struggling with.”
Nearly a dozen parishioners have signed up for the program, and many are calling in on people they’ve seen every Sunday for years, but never had the need to speak to them.
“There is no doubt that effects of COVID-19 has brought uncertainty and a level of fear into the way we live our lives,” Fr Kanatt said.
“Our prayers continue to be with those affected both here and overseas and we hope that through this initiative we can do our bit to assure those in our community that they are not forgotten.”
It’s not just adults joining in on these new ways to connect with fellow parishioners.
Over at St Keiran’s Primary School, Brighton, students have been busy calling Sandgate-Brighton parishioners and sending them cards to cheer up their days.
The children have also been making Palm Crosses this week and will be sent to parishioners for Palm Sunday this weekend.
Fr Kanatt said the crosses would be sanitised before being sent to parishioners later this week.
Down south, Burleigh parish priest Fr Morgan Batt is making the most of social media to adapt to their “new normal”.
The parish found a way to live-stream their 9am weekday Mass and 10am Sunday Mass, run a parish video blog, and are posting content on popular platforms Tik Tok and Instagram.
The parish newsletter is also available at the front of their five churches for anyone who happens to walk by.
“We were seeking a new normal, because we are not going back to the old normal as this cannot happen – life has changed not ended,” Fr Batt said.
In one video to his parishioners on Facebook, Fr Batt said “buildings might be closed but the church is open – because we are the church and our lives are ongoing”.
Fr Batt said he has received countless emails from parishioners with other virtual ideas, while others have offered to deliver food and medicine to shut ins.
“What I see happening here is the repurposing of ministries and the interaction of the virtual parish along with the real parish families,” Fr Batt said.
“Its seems a new way is developing – where this goes is a matter of Spirit and creativity.”