It was a penance service unlike any other Roman Catholic Archbishop of Santa Fe John C. Wester has given.
Standing before rows of parked vehicles lined up in the parking lot of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi on March 28, a week before Easter, Wester granted general absolution to parishioners three times that afternoon as a part of the Lenten services. A year ago, Wester was not able to offer even that following the state’s shutdown of churches in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
This Palm Sunday service was a concession to provide a sought-after service to the congregation during one of the most important holiday periods on the Christian calendar while ensuring parishioners were safe and socially distanced amid the continuing pandemic.
Wester said the service went well, considering it was the church’s first effort.
“People participated in the process, and the pastor, Father Timothy Martinez, told me that people appreciated being able to get to confession without endangering themselves,” Wester said.
It was yet another example of how churches in Santa Fe and across the state have reimagined how they interact with their congregations during a pandemic that, while waning in New Mexico, is still in the driver’s seat.
Not even a holiday as important as Easter can change that.
Many churches now livestream Masses, services and events on their websites or on social media for followers who cannot attend in person, and they limit visiting hours during the week. Newsletters are posted online or sent via email, and weekly activities like Bible studies, youth events and even counseling sessions are conducted virtually or by phone.
For followers who attend in-person services, rows are cordoned off and seats are spaced out to adhere to social-distancing measures that cut capacity in half or more, even as Santa Fe County is in the turquoise level of the state’s four-tiered system of pandemic-related public health restrictions. The turquoise status allows for the fewest restrictions on operations.
Churches may operate at 75 percent of indoor capacity, but some church leaders say they hardly come close to that.
Michelle L’Heureux, the administrative secretary at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, said the church can accommodate about half its capacity because certain rows are roped off to spread out the congregation.
Ron Sebata, pastor of the Light at Mission Viejo, said it regularly has about 250 followers in its gymnasium, which can hold about 1,000 people. Despite those challenges, Sebata said the easing of business restrictions lends hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and more people will return.
“Normalcy is coming sooner rather than later,” Sebata said. “I believe that COVID has given us all an experience. We’re at a time of reflection in which we can look at our lives and see things that were maybe important pre-COVID are maybe not at the top of our list right now.”
Even as church leaders see a return to normalcy approaching, they recognize some of the changes they made due to the pandemic might be here to stay.
Greg Schneeberger, senior pastor of Christ Church Santa Fe, said broadcasting or recording services will likely continue because some followers might want to catch up on a sermon if they miss a week or just revisit it for more reflection.
Wester said some churches and parishes will continue to provide either livestreams or radio broadcasts of services so parishioners can listen if they don’t feel comfortable indoors or because of capacity limitations.
“But these are sacred services, and I don’t want them to turn into movie productions,” Wester cautioned.
Some events might see both an in-person and virtual component to meet the demands of some people’s busy schedules, he added.
However, Schneeberger said the pandemic taught an important lesson for leaders to reach out to their members more often, and sometimes a simple phone call can suffice. In his case, that led to setting up a midweek prayer meeting with the congregation and daily devotionals the church sends by email.
“We started to call everybody on our rolls,” Schneeberger said. “I mean, we should be doing that anyway, but you get so busy, then COVID happens, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, we better do this.’ ”
L’Heureux said the church’s lunch kitchen, which serves those in need, still does not allow visitors to eat indoors, instead providing them with to-go boxes. Its thrift store remains closed, and L’Heureux said the church might revisit how it operates those services in a month or so.
“We’ve been so busy with the Holy Week and Easter and all that entails, it hasn’t been an issue for us,” L’Heureux said.
Wester said that as churches and parishes slowly opened up to more followers, clergy had to change the way they interacted with them. For Ash Wednesday, priests sprinkled ashes atop parishioners’ heads instead of applying them to foreheads in the shape of a cross — or congregants applied ashes to their own foreheads.
Some churches hold Communion as followers leave instead of incorporating it into the services, and confessions are done in a more open space to alleviate any health risks.
Wester said he does not know how long those practices will continue, but he emphasized it is better to have some interaction that followers are seeking than none at all.
“People are learning to call their rectory and let the priest know when they’re sick so we can get to them,” Wester said. “God brings new light into difficulty and even tragedy.”
Ernesto Salazar, who visits several parishes in Santa Fe, said he has always felt safe and comfortable whenever he goes to Mass because of the safety protocols in place.
“To me, there is more risk going to Walmart and people touching everything than there is going to church,” Salazar said.
Yet for all of the precautions church leaders have taken, Sebata said the one thing they can’t change is the human desire for interaction. He said social distancing and mask-wearing seem to act as a physical barrier for people, and virtual meetings do not come close to providing the kind of bonding people need.
“You have Zoom for leadership meetings and also to provide Bible studies, and it’s a great way to meet one another, but we still need that interaction,” Sebata said. “We need to cry on somebody’s shoulder. We need to laugh with someone or hug them.
“You can’t do that in a Zoom meeting where everybody is watching.”