St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, launched new multi-angle, high-quality livestream capabilities in early March – just in time for Holy Week and Easter. Facebook photo
St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, launched new multi-angle, high-quality livestream capabilities in early March – just in time for Holy Week and Easter. Facebook photo

What a difference a year makes.

While 2020 brought the temporary closing of churches and an abrupt change in how the Lenten and Easter seasons would be celebrated across the Diocese – and indeed, the world – this year’s Holy Season brings in-person Masses and fresh livestream capabilities.

“Like last year, we are livestreaming the Triduum and an Easter Sunday Mass to ensure that everyone is able to participate in this holiest time of year in whatever way they are able,” said Jennifer Schlameuss of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral.

“Last year, it was just staff present, but this year we will be able to welcome in person about 300 people comfortably and with proper social distancing because we have a large worship space,” she said.

The Freehold parish, its pastoral associate explained, began its robust livestreaming schedule the Monday following the cessation of all public Masses in March 2020. It now regularly livestreams three daily Masses and one Sunday Mass; special liturgies; Stations of the Cross; ecumenical and interfaith programs; worship services, and a monthly St. Joseph’s series. Auditing the parish’s Facebook page enables staff to include people mentioned in the general intercessions and respond to any parishioner feedback.

“It’s been a lifeline and tether for those who have otherwise felt very alone and distant from the Church,” Schlameuss said. “We have made it a priority to try and keep those who are not ready to venture out still feel connected with their community as much as possible.”

A clear indication of the technology’s importance was the result of a recent request for funding to purchase new video equipment. Parishioners donated nearly four times the amount requested “because people have valued our efforts so much,” she said.

Faithful Supporters

Grateful parishioners were also keys to success in St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, which unveiled its new livestreaming capabilities at the beginning of March.

“I was fortunate enough that my predecessor … had the insight, creativity and knowledge to begin livestreaming our Sunday Masses, including last year’s Triduum, all from his iPhone,” Franciscan Father Francis DiSpigno, pastor, wrote in a recent message to parishioners.

“If COVID-19 has any silver lining, it is that we were forced to reimage how we connect with one another and how we can be brother and sister to others in a new way,” he said.

When it was announced in mid-2020 that the parish’s former pastor, Franciscan Father James Scullion, would be reassigned by his order to Virginia, he made it known to the faith community that he did not want any farewell gifts. Rather he asked that any donations be made to help the parish purchase cameras in order to upgrade livestream capabilities.

“The response was wonderful,” Father DiSpigno wrote. “We now have three cameras in the church and a portable camera to livestream other celebrations and events. We have come a long way since Father Jim started this all with his iPhone. … Thank you, Jim, for setting those wheels in motion, and thank you to our wonderful donors for making it happen.”

Outdoor Accommodations

If trends continue to hold steady in St. Mary Parish, Middletown, this Holy Week and Easter will see the faithful attending parking lot Masses by the hundreds.

The parish embraced outdoor Masses as soon as possible last year, with numbers growing from an average 200-220 cars each Sunday noon Mass to about 540 families for the Christmas liturgy.

Speakers mounted on poles and a simulcast over an unused FM radio band assure all can hear the prayers and Readings. Ushers and local police officers direct traffic into the lot, the Eucharist is distributed car to car with minimal contact, and parishioners respond to the Sign of Peace with flashing headlights or friendly car horns.

“People are coming from all over – Pennsylvania, New York, North and South Jersey – to attend the weekly Mass,” pastor Father Jeffrey Kegley said.

“The priests are energized. This is something special,” said Hank Pekarsky, parish business manager, adding that there is an open-air stage in the church’s sprawling parking lot.

“No matter the weather, they are out there. Once, in the rain, Father Jeff asked for a few people to step outside their cars and shelter the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion with umbrellas, and, instantly, about 20 did,” he said.

‘The Way’ to Renewal

This Lent, members of St. Leo the Great Parish employed modern technology and sturdy sneakers to achieve a lofty goal: to walk the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela without ever leaving New Jersey.

Mark Russoniello, pastoral associate for parish faith formation, learned of two smartphone apps – “Camino For Good” and “Camino 360” – which enable users to virtually walk the pilgrimage route known as “The Way of St. James,” a 500-mile network of paths through France and northern Spain culminating at Compostela, the cathedral at St. James’ burial site.

The virtual journey was introduced to the Lincroft faith community when Russoniello and pastor Father John T. Folchetti realized it would dovetail with the parish’s Lenten themes of renewal, communion and joy.

The parish even hosted screenings of the 2010 Camino movie “The Way” and created T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “The Way to Renewal, Communion and Joy.” All were requested to pray the Rosary or a favorite devotion while walking each day, with distance being tracked by apps or other personal devices. The pilgrims’ virtual passport would be stamped with the locations they reached along the route.

Russoniello reports that roughly three dozen are walking either individually or in pandemic-inspired pods. He includes weekly reflections in the parish bulletin, as well as scriptural verses from the Letter of James and Camino photos to motivate the Lincroft pilgrims. A group of women meet weekly at the parish to walk its perimeter and pray the Rosary, he said.

“These apps really give you a sense of being on the Camino route; it’s outside the box, and wearing the T-shirts is subtle evangelization,” Russoniello said.