Virtual Faith Sharing Combats Pandemic Isolation for Local Catholics

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By Tony DeGol
Proclaim!

When Mary Jo McConnell came to the realization that the pandemic was taking a toll on her faith life, she decided to do something about it.

The Holy Rosary, Altoona, parishioner describes herself as someone who thirsts for the Eucharist and daily Mass. She also yearns for scripture. 

All arrows pointed to the virtual faith sharing that is temporarily filling the void of no in-person gatherings through the diocesan renewal initiative ARISE Together in Christ.    

When the pandemic hit a year ago, the ARISE small groups stopped meeting. The halt came in the midst of season four during Lent 2020. Season five was originally scheduled fall 2020, but because of the continuing coronavirus concerns, Bishop Mark asked that it be pushed back to the upcoming Easter 2021 season. 

In the past months, small groups were encouraged to gather virtually, if possible, and review highlights from past seasons and support each other through these rough times. 

McConnell is sure glad she jumped on the bandwagon. 

“Through the weeks we’ve been involved together, my faith has grown,” she insisted. “It has just been an uplifting experience. It’s such a comfort, and the support that we receive from each other – it’s God’s presence.” 

McConnell has been so inspired that she has invited several others to join, including Susan Maurer. 

“The pandemic and some of my own health issues had brought about a great deal of isolation, and the virtual group has been like a breath of fresh air,” assured Maurer. “It has helped me keep scripture in my life, and brought some new friendships into my world. It helps to share the journey and the scriptures with others. We have shared some great laughs, stories and a few tears in our group. I think in many ways it has been a healing balm for all of us.” 

As Catholics, we are baptized in a community of faith, reminded Milissa Else of RENEW International, which sponsors ARISE. Even during these unprecedented times, we are called to gather in prayer, break open the Word, and listen to God speaking to us. 

“Pope Francis has encouraged us to be bold and creative in ministry,” Else added. “In this pandemic, we recognize that there are new opportunities. We can use technology in great ways, and so we began to meet in small groups on line doing the same type of faith sharing that we experienced when we were in person. Of course, we would all like to be in person, but we found a very deep connection on Zoom.”  

Ro Gibson loved the ARISE in-person meetings. 

“With COVID and no ARISE, I was missing the open sharing which had become a regular part of my prayer time,” she confessed.  

After seeing a bulletin announcement about the virtual faith sharing, Gibson reached out to Else, who serves as a group leader. 

“Sharing with the group was easy and enjoyable,” she relayed. “All the members of the group were all there for the same reason: to grow in our faith and love for the Lord. When Milissa asked who was interested in continuing with the Zoom meetings after our Christmas session was winding up, everyone wanted to continue.” 

Barbara Rossi has also embraced the switch from in-person to virtual faith sharing. 

“Our Sunday night meetings are spiritual fun; laughter is spiritually cleansing,” she commented. “Milissa is an outstanding facilitator – kind, astute, and spiritually encouraging. She e-mails the Sunday readings and a commentary to prime the pump for our weekly faith-sharing. Being part of a group helps me to be more devoted to the Word in scripture. It feels like the past few months have been filled with the spiritual energy of a well-walked Lent.” 

Aurora Ressler feeds off of the support of a faith community. She has been enriched by numerous group spirituality opportunities, including the weekly Zoom gatherings.  

“It is an opportunity to come together to listen to God’s Word, share our thoughts, and share how scripture speaks to us,” she said.  

During this season of Lent, as individuals seek ways to strengthen their relationship with the Lord, Else invites the faithful to be part of the virtual sessions. Contact her at MilissaE@renewintl.org or contact Sister Linda LaMagna, CCW, the diocesan ARISE coordinator at llamagna@dioceseaj.org.  

For those intimidated by technology, RENEW can offer assistance. 

For those hesitant to open themselves up to faith sharing, take a chance, urged McConnell. 

“There is no reason to be afraid to step out of your comfort zone,” she advised. “You will not regret it. Your faith will grow. You will become more hopeful. We trust in God.” 

[Photo: Milissa Else (top right) and Mary Jo McConnell discuss virtual faith sharing during a Proclaim! TV segment with Tony DeGol, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.]