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Emanuel Vasconcelos, Associate Pastor at St. Anne Catholic Church, speaks with Virginia Prescott, host of On Second Thought, about the creative ways the church is staying connected with its congregation during the coronavirus pandemic. 

You all have been live streaming masses for a couple of weeks now. What's it like to walk out in front of an empty church?

Yeah, it's an interesting feeling because we know that people are watching, but we don't hear anything. We don't see it, and we have to see it usually after the fact. Sometimes people make a comment on the Facebook page that we have for our parish. They say, "Thank you so much. It's been good to hear you and see you." So we get the experience after the fact, but it really is a very different experience than what we're used to.

So where did you get this idea of taping photographs of your congregants in the pews?

So that was something that I actually saw happening in Italy. There was a priest in Italy, and certainly, they had already quarantined very early in March, I believe. And so this particular priest had the idea of having his parishioners send photos to him to place in the pews so that as he looks out over the altar, which we're used to seeing people not empty pews on, he was able to see them and remember them. And so when I read that message, that story, I went up to our pastor, Father Robert Schlageter, and I said to him, "We've got to do this. We've just got to do this." He's like, "OK."

And so we started. The next day was actually our first time having live-streamed daily mass without a congregation. And so he mentioned it right then and there. He's like, "Well, we already have one photo. We're putting it in the pew." And then we had everyone email their photos to a special email for our parish and they were able to have their photos printed out and placed in the pews. And so we have at least 650, if not more, photos that have come in. And so we have both families and then students from our school, St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, which is right here with us as well. So we have a blend of students and families that are regulars here in our pews and visible to us while we have mass for them and with them.

So what's it like now? Do you walk around and talk to people?

Well I do look at the photos. I take time sometimes before mass begins or after mass is over to walk around the pew and just to remember certain people and think of them and pray for them. There was one photo that I thought was interesting. A parishioner and his wife were expecting and I hadn't seen their new baby. And there they posted they sent a picture of their new baby with them. And so I got to see the baby up close, even in a photograph.

A number of small and some very large churches have not stopped holding physical mass. Pastors in Louisiana and Florida, indeed, have been arrested and charged with violations of stay at home orders. I'm curious, what do you think about that defiance?

Yeah. You know, I think that the defiance that they show, while maybe they think they're having good intentions, is somewhat selfish and imprudent and we need to be able to contain this and flatten the curve. And so the best way to do that is to limit social interaction. I've seen enough of what's caused this to say, you know, it's better for us out of respect for each other to stay at a distance for a time, let this pass and let things be taken care of, and then we can hopefully return soon to our places of worship so that we can gather and pray.

Well, this is the time of year the people are spending time reflecting during Lent and preparing for Easter Sunday. How are you conducting these other aspects of your ministry when people are filled with anxiety in some cases?

Well, in some ways, our faith is a way to help us through the difficult moments. So to be able to root ourselves in prayer and scripture, even if it's something of a very isolated experience, that can be a great help. I know that's helped me as I prepare for these liturgies to look at what God is saying in the word of the day. Each day, there's different scripture readings that we focus on as a church and throughout the world. And so to look at those readings and to see how God speaks to us even right now in 2020 in this pandemic and to to be able to reflect on that and root ourselves in that trusting that God's with us through it and hasn't abandoned us, I think that's been one way to stay with less anxiety.

Another thing that helps for me, I think, is to stay connected in this kind of way. So I've been able to have video chats with some parishioners or to call on someone to check in on them. We have a group of students at a university at Columbus State University that we tried to get together and just have lunch together like we used to do. And so we found ways to stay connected, to ease the stress that comes with what's taking place around our world.

This is the height of the Christian holidays. This is when churches are full of flowers and often causes. And then rehearsing for months for Easter service at Palm Sunday mass. Pope Francis asked the faithful to devote themselves to service at this time. So how are you celebrating this Easter mass?

Well, this is a holy week unlike any other. I think that any of us can say it's unprecedented and it's very difficult to consider celebrating in the midst of such anxiety and fear. But I also reflected on how these days, when you look at the origins, like when things started like this, that the disciples fled when Jesus was being crucified and they were hiding in their homes, they were quarantined in many ways from all that was going on in that moment, that first Good Friday, that first Easter. And here God comes to console, to show that he has power over sin and death. And so it's a great way for us to experience what it was like for those first disciples, what it was like for them to be in fear and hiding and still waiting on the Lord to bring his healing and his consolation.

So do you think your parishioners are going to send new photos for Easter in their Sunday best and in their Easter bonnets? 

I wonder, we might get a few. I know we tried to make sure that some of the parishioners were sitting in their usual spots and church.