Catholic families can respond to the coronavirus epidemic through prayer, connection with each other, and care for their spiritual, mental and physical health, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles and several guests said in a Wednesday town hall.
“As we all know we are going through great challenges with the coronavirus pandemic,” the archbishop said. “This is so challenging for all of us, priests and bishops, and to you all the faithful, not to be able to participate in the celebration of the Mass and receive holy communion and also participating in the other sacraments.”
Gomez said it has been very sad for him to celebrate Mass but see the church “totally empty.”
“No matter where we are,” he said, “Jesus Christ is in our lives. We are brothers and sisters in the family of God.”
The town hall, based on the theme “Better Together,” was conducted by phone and livestreamed May 6. Several guest speakers gave practical advice and helped address challenges.
“I see a lot of blessings in what is happening, just by the fact that we are able to communicate more and in different ways,” Gomez said.
The event aimed to discuss various issues, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Catholics and their families, how to pray as a family, how to build community through prayer, and how to face other challenges of the epidemic.
Archbishop Gomez had opened the town hall with a Hail Mary and other prayers for those affected by the coronavirus.
“In my own personal experience, there is time to really work on my own prayer life and the way in which I try to serve God and the people of God in the archdiocese,” he said.
The archbishop pointed to important events of prayer, like the Good Friday Litany to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the U.S. bishops’ May 1 consecration of the United States to Mary Mother of the Church.
Helen Alvare, a law professor based at George Mason University who advocates for women and families, said the lack of a long commute under the coronavirus restrictions has given her time to pray, to communicate with loved ones, and to share a glass of wine with her husband.
She encouraged parents to ask themselves why they want their children to be practicing Catholics. It should be motivated by “an actual desire to have Christ in your life” and to have a faith that helps explain the world.
Alvare said she takes care to narrate and share what she is doing in her spiritual life with her children and her husband. Catholicism is not “just in the air” anymore and Catholics “have to be explicit” about what they believe and why.
Participants in the town hall could ask questions and answer several poll questions about how they practice the Catholic faith.
One caller asked Alvare about advice for her situation, where four adults in her home with different political views.
“There’s so much information you don’t know what to believe,” the caller from Whittier, Calif. said.
“This should not be political but it has come political,” she said. “We’re all over the place with information. It's confusing, it's stressful. We’re arguing over what is real, not real, what is true news, what is not true news. It’s messed up.”
Alvare replied that while one cannot dismiss politics as unimportant without proving further disagreement, you can say something like “there is a lot of misinformation on both sides” and “it would be a shame if politics gets in the way of family.” She suggested acknowledging that there are big questions that a family won’t be able to solve, but families should realize “we were given to one another in some particular way.”
“Our children were given to us. It was not to argue about politics. It was to love and care for one another,” she said. “Don’t let it divide us.”
In her remarks Christina Lamas, executive director of the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, suggested parents reflect on the question “What kind of faith do you want your children to have 30 years from now?” She also had another question for parents: “Knowing what you know now, thinking 30 years into this future, what would you like to be remembered?”
Lamas’ own mother did everything possible to nurture a religious vocation in Lamas and her sister. While her mother’s desire was not fulfilled, Lamas said, “I give thanks to my mom for that desire. The seed that she planted in my heart allows me to have a strong relationship with Christ right now.”
Holiness is found in the family, a “domestic church,” with parents “the first teachers of the faith,” through their words, their actions and examples, said Lamas
With many families now forced to communicate remotely, Lamas stressed the importance of reaching out to family members, including those who are not necessarily devout. She herself took a risk and encouraged everyone to gather together to pray and to connect. They all responded positively to the idea, and the family now has a Bible study every Sunday even though they live on different coasts.
“It’s a beautiful experience to see each other break open the Scriptures, and to turn to a six-year-old, or a five-year-old, and be catechized by them. They have an entirely different way of looking at things. It moves us to know that this is how we are passing on the faith,” said Lamas.
In addition to Bible study, her family members play games like Simon Says and Bingo over internet video. Technology provides “ways to connect and interact that we haven’t done before,” she said.
Lamas asked parents to ask how their families continue to embrace their faith and welcome Christ into their families. When epidemic restrictions are lifted, they should think how parishes can support this “domestic church.”
According to Lamas, families should “nurture faith in homes so that they can share it outwards, evangelizing so that Christ can be known to others as Christ has been revealed to us.”
Archbishop Gomez addressed a question on reopening churches for Mass.
“We want to do it as soon as possible but our main concern is the protection of our brothers and sisters,” he said, citing the importance of the advice of public health experts. He counseled patience and the need to pray to God to end the threat.
Those who have time should “really take advantage of this moment” and think how they can be “true disciples” faithful to their vocation, the archbishop said. “What is our call? What is our vocation?” he asked.
Another speaker at the town hall was Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a psychiatrist, Catholic ethicist, and professor at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine who specializes in children and families
Half of Americans say in surveys that the coronavirus epidemic is harming their mental health in some way, he reported.
“If you’re dealing with challenges, you’re not alone. What we’re going through is not normal for human beings,” commented Kheriaty.
He encouraged parents to continue “loving your children very much.” Children could be absorbing secondary stress from overhearing the news or phone conversations. Children need help to come to an understanding of events within their own ability. They also need a sense of security and safety.
“Look at this as an opportunity to grow closer as a family,” he said. “the fact that they’re worried or concerned is a good sign, it's a sign they care.”
He encouraged parents to help children pray for the world, for the sick, and those who died. This will help remind them of God’s providence and of “the loving, caring presence of God in their life.”
Kheriaty warned against destructive patterns he had observed, as when someone stays up until 2 a.m. to binge on Netflix movies and snack, then rolls out of bed at 11 a.m. and stays home, isolated, with no face-to-face conversations, “much less meaningful work.”
There is an “unhealthy recipe” of disruptions in sleep and physical activity, too much screen time, misuse of alcohol or drugs to manage stress, boredom, or the anguish of unemployment or financial strain. These have a long-term risk to physical and mental health.
He recommended reintroducing structure to one’s life, including a daily or weekly schedule. He emphasized the importance of good sleep, mealtimes, work or a hobby of some kind, regular prayer, regular physical activity, maintaining social connections, and work in service to others.
He said a family meal should be a “centerpiece” under the epidemic.
“The most important school that your children will attend is the family dinner table,” Kheriaty said.