Small groups have come back into vogue for Catholics over the past decade, but they’ve met a powerful foe in COVID-19. Many states and cities are under stay-at-home orders, and the rest are banned from meetings of more than ten people. Even in the latter case, it’s best to have close physical interactions with many people outside your immediate family.
As a pro-life people, we should absolutely obey all the mandates to help stop the spread of the virus and the subsequent onslaught on our limited medical resources. Luckily, this doesn’t have to mean the suspension of our small groups.
Christians have found ways to build community from afar for millennia. With today’s technologies, it’s easier than it’s ever been. I learned this as a FOCUS missionary. We had students emailing every year trying to bring discipleship-model of evangelization to their campuses without missionaries. I got to help found a group dedicated to training students via video chat. We took the idea of a traditional campus and moved it entirely online. It was very different and had its unique challenges, but it worked. The women I worked with are doing incredible things for Christ to this day (though to be fair, they would have done that no matter what).
What I’m trying to say is this: no matter how much you miss your in-person group, you don’t have to dissolve until the pandemic is over. You can continue to build community during COVID-19, and come through it as a stronger, more intact group.
Remember There’s a Precedent for This
Finding ways to keep community over distance and during plagues is nothing new in the Church. Many books of the Bible are actually letters from St. Paul to churches across the ancient world! If the Ephesians and Corinthians could make do with an occasional letter, we can certainly survive with a Zoom retreat planning committee.
As religious communities developed, founders and abbots/abbesses had to find ways to keep their communities intact over distances. Sometimes this meant giving followers rules, like prayers to say at appointed hours and specific fasts. It often meant sending written communications.
Finally, during times of plague, ordinary people had to make do, often without clergy or access to letters from their religious leaders. The people had to do what prayers they could and try to live virtuous lives without the sacraments or even much communication with each other.
The point is this: We can text each other easily. We can pray and do other devotional activities (more on that below). We can actually see each other as we discuss things in real time. All of this together means we could be in the midst of the most apostolically fruitful plague on record.
Spiritual Ways to Keep Community
Maybe your moms of preschoolers group can’t gather for a Mass and a chat, but you can pray the daily readings and text or call each other during quiet time. Your Knights of Columbus group can set a time to pray a Rosary. Your Bible study can choose a book or study program to do together and discuss what you’ve read in the ways outlined below.
Don’t underestimate how much you can do through technology. The other day I distracted my friend’s toddler while she fed her baby (he stacked stuffed animals on top of the phone and then used his helicopters to “rescue” me while I called for help). My sister and I talk nearly every day to do the daily Mass readings together. Priests are live-streaming their Masses and using their social media to ask for intentions.
Don’t waste this time complaining about the in-person contact we can’t have. Use it to discover the incredible ways God has given us to come together while still protecting the most vulnerable from this disease.
The Mechanics of Meeting Digitally
Here are my top four options for meeting digitally:
1. Conference call: This works best with a smaller group and if one person is going to do the majority of the speaking. Everyone else needs to mute their microphones. While the major drawback of this is that you cannot see the other people, it is a good option for the technophobes out there.
2. Marco Polo: This is my favorite way to stay in touch with one person or a very small group (two or three people). Rather than chatting live, you leave a video message for the other person. This gets rid of the need to coordinate a time to mutually chat. You just chat when you have the time, and they reply when they can. It’s much more relaxed. The only trick is to keep the messages short enough that they can respond (usually just a few minutes long). Whatsapp has a similar video chat feature with better encryption, but Marco Polo has fun filters and a live reaction option.
3. Video chatting: This is probably the most popular for an actual study. I personally prefer a Google Hangout because it’s what I’m most familiar with, but Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and Facebook messenger are all viable options. Be warned that Zoom does require you to sign up for a specific time for your chat.
Tips for Digital Communities
As I said earlier, digital communities have their own particular challenges. Here are some of the best ways I’ve found to mitigate them, some of which are probably obvious but bear mentioning:
1. Make sure your phone/laptop is plugged in. Even when you think you have enough battery, just assume you don’t. Video drains it. It’s better to be prepared.
2. Wear headphones, especially for a video chat. Your computer’s microphone will pick up the sound from your speakers and make the experience very annoying for everyone involved if you don’t wear headphones.
3. Arrive early. If something can go wrong with technology at a ministry meeting, it will. Getting there early allows you to troubleshoot and familiarise yourself with the platform (and any updates if you’ve been away for a while).
4. Stay still, and mute your microphone when you aren’t speaking. Most video chatting platforms will have one person go fullscreen while everyone else remains in a much smaller window. The fullscreen person is typically decided by noise and/or movement. If someone else is giving a moving testimony, you don’t want to replace them as the main screen because your dog started barking or you stretched. Ask me how I know!
5. Be gracious with interruptions. When you think about the technology and innovation that goes into allowing us to video chat, it’s amazing that there isn’t more of a time lag. But there still is a time lag. You’re going to think no one is speaking and then end up talking over someone. Someone is going to do that to you. It’s just how it goes. It’s best to laugh about it. And on that note …
6. Don’t try to pray aloud in unison. It never works with the time lag. Have one person lead, and have everyone else join in silently. Otherwise, you’ll be distracted by the varied time delays and unable to focus.
I hope this helps you. If all is going really downhill, feel free to offer a prayer to St. Clare and St. Isidore, the patron saints of television and the internet, respectively.
Please stay healthy and safe during this crisis, and good luck evangelizing the digital continent!
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Melissa Keating is a writer, editor, and content strategist based in St. Louis. She has been writing weird things that Catholics seem to like since her freshman year at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she graduated with degrees in communications and foreign languages in 2012. Melissa then took her oddball talents to the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), where she helped found the Digital Campus. She has worked on award-winning multi-media stories for the Archdiocese of Denver and contributed to The Catholic Hipster Handbook before moving back home to St. Louis, where she helped parishes start support groups for the bereaved and the divorced and separated.