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Communication, teamwork key to pandemic response, say archdiocesan leaders

  • A sign advising parishioners of social distancing requirements is posted by the doors of Blessed Sacrament Church in Walpole, May 24. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • A family attends Mass at Blessed Sacrament Church in Walpole, May 24 on the first weekend Masses could resume. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • From top left, Joe McEnness, MC Sullivan, Patrick Krisak and Sean Hickey lead an April 20 video conference on the process of reopening parishes. Pilot file photo/Gregory L. Tracy

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BRAINTREE -- When the coronavirus began to spread in Massachusetts, the leaders of various departments and ministries of the archdiocese came together to discuss its potential impact. This group, which expanded from 10 to about 30 individuals, would continue meeting throughout the shutdown and oversee the archdiocese's response to the pandemic.

"Every aspect of this response has been, very much, a team approach," Joseph McEnness, head of the Office of Risk Management, said in a June 23 interview.

Starting on March 3, the archdiocese's Pandemic Response Team met once or twice a day via teleconference. Over time, subgroups were formed to address different areas of impact, such as finances, human resources, evangelization, and the operation of parishes and schools.

"Within the group, we have representation that really covers virtually every area of activity and has some responsibility for virtually every parish or agency within the archdiocese," said chief healthcare ethicist MC Sullivan in a June 18 interview.

Like McEnness, Sullivan has been one of the key archdiocesan officials helping deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

"When you start looking at an organization like this from the perspective of a response to a pandemic, there are so many components," McEnness said.

In some respects, the archdiocese took action earlier than other organizations in Massachusetts.

In January, before the virus came to the United States, the Office of Risk Management updated a planning guide from the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. The office distributed the updated guides to other organizations in their risk management program, such as schools, nursing homes, and religious orders. Although the guides did not anticipate the extent of the shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic, they provided a starting point for planning crisis management.

Archdiocesan employees transitioned to working from home sooner than most businesses in Massachusetts, before the governor issued the stay-at-home order.

"The two things that people generally are most uncomfortable with, which are uncertainty and change, have actually become the hallmarks of the life we're all living," Sullivan said.

One of McEnness' shared responsibilities throughout the pandemic has been overseeing communication between the archdiocese's leadership and those in the pews.

"We determined quickly that central communication was essential," McEnness said.

They established a hotline and email address, corona@rcab.org, where people could send questions about the coronavirus. They also set up a webpage to share all the archdiocese's announcements and updates regarding the pandemic.

Though the email question box receives fewer messages these days, a surge of questions and opinions comes whenever there is a new announcement. Many of these messages are requests for clarification regarding specific problems. Sullivan said the emails indicate that their communication efforts are working.

"It's wonderful that the corona inbox has given people a place to express their opinions and their feelings," she said.

On the policy front, Chancellor John Straub and Secretary for Social Services Father Bryan Hehir monitored legislation at the federal level, while Jim Driscoll, the executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, kept an eye on legislation at the state level. When financial assistance from the government became available, the archdiocese passed that information on to the parishes that would need it.

Sullivan said one of the response team's goals has been to ensure that the different subgroups' words and actions are consistent with each other. She said she thinks of them as functioning like a kaleidoscope.

"There were so many pieces, and touching one meant everything else shifted. And you had to make sure that they shifted in the right direction (so) at the end of the day there was a coherent picture and something that people understood," she said.

In addition to serving the Archdiocese of Boston, McEnness also provides risk management services to the other dioceses of Massachusetts. He maintained regular contact with their finance teams and human resources teams, sharing information and helping to coordinate their reopening processes.

"It was very helpful for all of them as well as us," McEnness said.

Protecting and caring for the clergy was a priority for the pandemic response team.

The Clergy Health and Retirement Trust maintained regular contact with the priests of the archdiocese and kept the response team updated on their statuses. The real estate office helped to identify rectories, where priests who tested positive for the virus or needed to go into quarantine could be isolated.

But while some were working to protect vulnerable priests, others were working to prepare younger, healthy priests to minister to those hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Sullivan assisted Father Robert M. Blaney, the secretary for ministerial personnel, in training a team of about 20 priests to bring the Sacrament of the Sick to hospitalized COVID-19 patients. These priests were assigned to live in separate rectories so they would not risk spreading the virus in their communities.

Meanwhile, as in-person liturgies and gatherings were halted, the Secretariat for Evangelization and Discipleship, led by Father Paul Soper, had the task of supporting parishes as they transitioned to "virtual evangelization." Masses were livestreamed in many parishes, and some parish groups utilized teleconferencing for faith formation and other forms of outreach.

The archdiocese held weekly webinars to update parish leaders on best practices being employed by parishes and schools. According to McEnness, the first of these webinars had between 500 and 600 viewers, and the webinar about reopening worship sites had about 1,500 viewers. After each webinar, a list of frequently asked questions was assembled and published within 24 hours. This was no small task, since over 300 questions might be sent in by viewers over the course of a webinar.

In a June 19 interview, Father Soper said the webinars enabled parish staffs to learn what other parishes were doing and what methods of outreach were proving to be successful.

Father Soper also led the reopening committee, a group of clergy and laity that Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley designated to oversee the process of resuming in-person worship. This committee included Sullivan and McEnness as well as two priests, two deacons, and two members of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. Father Soper said the committee's task was to ensure that parish gatherings could be "both reverent and safe" when they were allowed to take place.

Gov. Charlie Baker's announcement on May 18 that houses of worship would be allowed to reopen in Phase One of the state's reopening plan came as a surprise to many. By that time, the reopening committee had only met once and had to work quickly to prepare the guidelines for resuming public Masses and distribute that information to parishes.

The Secretariat for Evangelization and Discipleship issues a survey to parishes every Monday to assess how Masses went over the weekend. Father Soper said pastors have consistently reported that their reopening process is going well.

The pandemic response team now meets a few times a week, but Sullivan said they are ready to resume daily meetings if necessary.

"It's been interesting to see how well we all work together. People are generally and genuinely all about common good here, and that's been wonderful to see and wonderful to experience," Sullivan said.

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