When public Masses were canceled beginning on March 14 in the Archdiocese of Washington due to local leaders’ recommendations on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, Msgr. Robert Panke, the pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was one of many local priests who immediately set to work to find new ways to connect to his parishioners through prayer and outreach.

As parishioners still gathered for Eucharistic Adoration while following recommended social distancing, the priest launched a parish YouTube channel and began live streaming daily Masses from his chapel. The parish also began an outreach effort to deliver food and needed medicines to elderly parishioners and those whose health conditions caused them to be most vulnerable to the virus.

But Msgr. Panke also faced a challenge shared by his fellow parish priests – how to continue their outreach without financial support provided by parishioners in the weekly offertory collections that they normally receive at Saturday vigil and Sunday Masses.

“The work of the church continues, and we have regular bills to pay,” Msgr. Panke said. “The offertory is the key income item on our budget. Without the regular offertory, it will be very difficult to keep things going.”

For Msgr. Panke, as with other pastors, those costs include the salary of parish staff, the upkeep of parish facilities and related utility bills. For St. John Neumann Parish, the expenses also include supporting Mary of Nazareth School in Darnestown, a regional school cosponsored by seven upper Montgomery County parishes, and also supporting charitable outreach, like the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s service to those in need, and the food pantry at St. Martin’s Parish in Gaithersburg.

As the coronavirus shutdown began, the priest said people asked him how they could continue to give to the parish and how they could help in its outreach. “I’m really grateful for the generosity and concern of parishioners,” he said.

Msgr. Panke acknowledged that it’s difficult to talk about parish finances in the midst of a crisis. That weekend, he planned to send a Flocknote message to parishioners, encouraging them to continue their weekly giving, while also telling them that in this uncertain time, the parish “is going to cut costs across the board.”

“We’re calling on the good Christian faithful to be generous, as much as they can,” he said.

On March 23, Msgr. Panke wrote a letter to St. John Neumann parishioners that was posted on the parish's website, expressing gratitude for how many have offered to help during the coroanvirus crisis. He noted that on the previous weekend when no public Masses were held there, the parish received $2,300 in checks and $7,100 in online donations, for a total of $9,400, while the parish's 2019-20 budget for each week is $18,000.

Msgr. Panke said he would be working with the parish's finance council to cut costs, and he encouraged parishioners to give what they can at this time, either through online donations or by mailing or dropping off checks.

“I realize that the economic impact will hurt some households greatly, and please know of my prayers and genuine offer of any support the parish can provide for you. Please don’t worry if you can’t contribute.  Trust in God and know of my prayers,” Msgr. Panke wrote, adding, “If you are able to still give any amount, it would be a blessing.”

Msgr. Robert Panke, the pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, celebrates Mass in his chapel, which he began live streaming this week on the parish's YouTube channel. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj) 

In interviews, local pastors said that at this time when public Masses are not being celebrated in the archdiocese, ongoing support of parishioners remains critical, through online giving or simply by continuing to use their parish envelopes and mailing those checks to the rectory.

That point was also emphasized by Joseph Gillmer, the executive director of development for the Archdiocese of Washington.

“In the health crisis we’re in, online giving is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to ensure that the good works of the church continue on, and it’s times like these that need to continue that work is more important than ever,” Gillmer said.

He noted that giving coincides with how Catholics during Lent are called to focus on almsgiving, along with prayer and sacrifice.

Gillmer recommended that parishioners can check their parish websites, many of which present different options for supporting the church, with buttons linking to online giving that can be drawn on a regular basis from a bank account or credit card.

“If parishioners are not comfortable with that, sending a check to the parish directly in the mail will always work,” he said.

As of March 18, about 25 of the archdiocese’s 139 parishes did not yet have an online giving platform, but Gillmer said his office is helping parishes make that option available for parishioners. Currently, parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington are working with seven online giving providers, including eCatholic, Faith Direct, Give Central, Our Sunday Visitor, ParishSOFT, Vanco and WeShare by LPI.

Catholics’ donations to their parish not only support its ministries, but a percentage of that also goes toward supporting the Catholic school sponsored by the parish, and also toward the archdiocese’s ministries and its educational and charitable outreach throughout the area, Gillmer said. 

Many parishes, like St. John Neumann in Gaithersburg, Maryland, have a link on their website for online giving. That parish uses the Faith Direct platform for online giving. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Other pastors also underscored the importance of parishioners’ ongoing support during the coronavirus shutdown.

“The offertory is the lifeblood of every parish,” said Msgr. Charles Antonicelli, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Washington, D.C., which was established in 1794 and is the oldest Catholic parish in the federal city. “….All the bills of the parish are paid through the offertory. That’s the main source of income for the parish.”

The priest, who also serves as vice president for mission for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, which has its headquarters next-door to his parish, noted that due to the coronavirus precautions, his parish had to cancel the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass honoring the parish’s patron saint, which typically includes a bagpiper playing and young Irish dancers doing jigs outside the church. St. Patrick’s remained open that day, and people stopped by to pray and light candles there.

Like his fellow priests, Msgr. Antonicelli has to face the sadness of not being able to celebrate Mass with his people during this time, but also the worry of how to continue to pay for the parish’s upkeep – not only the utility costs for the church and rectory, and the cost of parish ministries, but also paying the salaries and benefits of parish workers like directors of religious education, music coordinators, housekeepers, cooks and maintenance people.

“They rely on their salaries,” he said.

On the weekend of March 16-17, signs on the doors of St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., noted that public Masses are not being held at this time due to recommended precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The disruptions caused by the coronavirus precautions were also being confronted by Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, who serves as rector of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., who said that on March 17, he was on the phone much of the day talking to couples seeking to postpone their weddings until the fall, after the archdiocese had announced that for the time being, weddings could be held, but could only be attended by immediate family members.

To abide by social distancing recommendations, the cathedral transformed its Monday morning breakfast for the homeless into a program of handing out brown bag lunches to them.

The veteran priest, who was also in discussions about how the coronavirus precautions will impact Holy Week and Easter at St. Matthew’s, said the cathedral parish was encouraging its members to continue their support through online giving or by mailing checks. Like other pastors, he especially expressed concern about how parish workers’ salaries, and also how the offertory supports vital liturgical, educational, faith formation and charitable outreach.

“Any parish, week by week depends on the Sunday collection,” Msgr. Jameson said. “You lose that, it hurts a lot.”

(CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Msgr. Peter Vaghi, the pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Maryland, also noted the importance of online giving or mailing in parish envelopes at this time. Online giving helps parishes “budget with assurance, knowing a certain amount of funds will come forward,” he said.  

But he added that, “Everyone is suffering because of this virus. Some people are suffering financially themselves,” and should not face pressure to support the church if they can’t do so at this time.

“We trust people will give what they can for the church,” Msgr. Vaghi said. “…Those who are able to give more, could. Those who are unable at this time, we can’t put undue burdens or expectations on them. We have to walk with them where they are, and hope people will walk with us in the same way.”

That point was also made by Father John Dakes, the pastor of Jesus the Divine Word Parish in Huntingtown, Maryland.

Online giving from parishioners at this time “is very crucial,” he said, but he noted, “It’s not my #1 priority.” His main concerns now, he said, are the spiritual and physical well-being of his parishioners.

Father Dakes said he continues to have “electric and heating bills to pay,” and his parish cosponsors the Cardinal Hickey Academy in Owings. 

Like other parishes, Jesus the Divine Word is following recommended health guidelines as it continues to offer Adoration and Confession. Father Dakes said that parish volunteers are also mobilizing to provide groceries and other help to elderly parishioners.

The priest has been trying to send daily Flocknote messages to members of his parish, and he has emphasized, “Even though we are not having Mass, the church will continue to serve you.”

Father Michael King, the pastor of Jesus the Good Shepherd in Owings, noted his parish has been offering Eucharistic Adoration during the week, and he’s been hearing Confessions, and doing what he can to stay connected with parishioners using virtual media.

“People are coming, and it gives people a connection with the Lord,” he said, also pointing out how parish volunteers will be preparing meals for a homeless shelter in the county.

In an interview, he said, “The needs of a parish still continue. We still have our large utility bills, electric, gas and oil.” His parish also cosponsors the Cardinal Hickey Academy, and like other pastors, noted that the salaries and benefits of teachers and other church employees need to be paid. He too said online giving or mailed donations are especially crucial for parishes while public Masses aren’t being held, and he said he plans to send a Flocknote reminder to parishioners about the need for their ongoing support.

Reflecting on his parish’s ministry during a challenging time, Father King said, “We don’t do it alone. That’s why we need community and prayer. That’s how we’ll get through.”

That point was echoed by Gillmer of the archdiocese’s development office, who said, “This health crisis, rather than weakening our bonds of faith, is demonstrating that it’s much stronger than we know, and we’ll be stronger coming out of this, from a faith perspective.”

(Parishes or parishioners seeking more information on online giving can contact Gillmer at [email protected].)