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‘This is exactly what we want to be doing’: A friar’s life in Brooklyn during coronavirus

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by Christine Rousselle

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Apr 25, 2020 / 12:00 pm MT (CNA).- Fr. Brendan Buckley, OFM. Cap., had never heard of the Zoom before this past March and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. After his home in the Diocese of Brooklyn became a center of COVID-19 illness in the United States, he learned.

With the help of two parish employees, he has now shifted much of his parish ministry online, caring for his flock at the parish of St. Michael-St. Malachy despite the outbreak.

“They’ve got something [streaming] every day of the week,” he said. This includes fitness programming for children, meetings of the parish’s young adult group, First Communion classes, all in addition to live-streams of Masses.

The vast majority of Buckley’s parishioners are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and other Central American countries, he told CNA on Friday, April 24. Many of them “don’t have jobs that necessarily have unemployment insurance attached,” he said, or medical benefits. They have been especially hard-hit by the economic effects of the virus, and are his chief concern when trying to deliver practical help.

“People like that are what our main concern is here, because they don’t have anything to back them up,” he said.

On April 24, his parish staged a pop-up food distribution with Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens. Opened in addition to the existing 34 food pantries operated by Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens, the parish event saw a total of 9,360 meals distributed to 1,040 families in need, with an additional $2,500 in grocery vouchers given to 100 families.

Buckley told CNA that as a Capuchin Franciscan friar, his work ministering in Brooklyn during the COVID-19 pandemic is following in the tradition of his religious order. The boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens contain about 60% of the COVID-19 cases in New York City, which has more cases than anywhere else in the country.

Several priests of the Diocese of Brooklyn have fallen ill, and died, from the coronavirus.

“From my perspective as a Capuchin Franciscan, this is exactly what we want to be doing: directly helping people in need,” he said. “Throughout the difficult times in Europe, the Capuchins were right there on the front lines. When leadership in different cities fled to the hills during plagues, the Capuchins stayed, and ministered, and died.”

Buckley heaped praise on the work of Catholic Charities, which he said have been meeting ever tougher challenges during this crisis, enabling him to more fully live out his vocation as a Capuchin.

“Catholic Charities has been such a help in allowing us to have the resources to be able to do this kind of outreach,” he said.

Buckley explained to CNA that he had two main areas of concern when it came to his parish: providing food to his parishioners, and ensuring their psychological health. Hence the pop-up event at the parish on Friday.

“Catholic Charities has been just amazing in terms of their outreach. They have provided over 1,000 families with food today,” he said. The pop-up pantry was organized with other Catholic organizations, including the Knights of Columbus and Ancient Order of Hibernians.

“They have been exceptional in their care for those in need,” he said. “I’m just so proud of them.”

Buckley has not neglected the spiritual needs of his flock, even while he is still not able to celebrate Mass publicly. He is hard-of-hearing–and without one of his hearing aids that he sent for repairs pre-pandemic–he had to work with the diocese to figure out a way for him to continue safely, and literally, hearing confessions.

While the diocese recommended a space of at least six feet between penitent and confessor, that would not work for Buckley’s situation. He is now hearing confessions twice a week, for two hours at a time, in his office with the door closed. A penitent must make an appointment for confession in order to ensure that the church would not become crowded.

Buckley said he’s “very excited” to resume hearing confessions.

“The need for the Sacraments is so important,” he said. “Especially confession and the reception of the Eucharist.”

Once Buckley is permitted to have public Masses again, he will have a backlog of at least 15 memorial Masses he promised to celebrate for parishioners who have died from COVID-19.

“We’ve had one after another of parishioners, or family members of parishioners[…] that have died. It’s been a lot,” he said. He has regularly posted prayer requests on social media, to the point where “I worried that people are going to get sick of me asking for prayers for somebody else.”

In dealing with the pandemic, Buckley said that the most challenging spiritual aspect for his parish is the inability to mourn in the standard manner.

“They can’t go to wakes and funerals. So, it’s very hard on them. They can’t say goodbye,” he said. He told CNA that he has been dealing with much of the grieving process on the phone with parishioners.

Despite everything, Buckley insists that his parish has been blessed; blessed with a small, yet smart and capable staff who moved programming online, and blessed with the outpouring of assistance from others.

“I’m very grateful that there’s so many incredible people out there that are willing to help, volunteer, sacrifice themselves to help others,” he said.

“We’re so blessed and so touched. God is good.”

Catholic Charities distribute food at St. Michael – St. Malachy Parish, Brooklyn. April 24, 2020. Credit: Diocese of Brooklyn
Catholic Charities distribute food at St. Michael – St. Malachy Parish, Brooklyn. April 24, 2020. Credit: Diocese of Brooklyn
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