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Undoing Aloneness: How one Jesuit Parish is Responding to COVID-19

By Frank Buckley, SJ

June 30, 2020 — My name is Frank Buckley, SJ, (the one wearing the red bandana in the photo) and I am a Jesuit priest, clinical psychologist, and clinical director of the Center at Blessed Sacrament, the Jesuit parish in Hollywood, California. Pope Francis’ Urbi et Orbi ends with an invitation to re-imagine what it means to be Church during COVID-19. The Pontiff concludes, “How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.” This article is a response to Pope Francis’ reflection that we are finding ourselves alone and lost and at times it can feel as though we are perishing. In writing this article, no one needs to be told these are challenging times. However, as we moved through Holy Week, we were reminded of the importance not to lose hope. Pope Francis invited us to listen to the Jesus who says, “Do not be afraid.” In fact, Pope Francis, during the Mass of the Last Supper, described hope as our inalienable right that cannot be taken from us.

What does this hope look like as we become a virtual community in the heart of Hollywood at Blessed Sacrament parish? As a clinical psychologist with a focus on flourishing, I am aware that behind psychopathology is overwhelming affect and aloneness. As COVID-19 isolates more and more communities, I am also aware of the possibility of moving in a new direction which St. Ignatius called agere contra (to move in the opposite direction) and ask how do we undo aloneness in our communities during this pandemic through meaningful connection?

More than once from the pulpit at Blessed Sacrament, I have described this parish as the gem of Hollywood. Located on Sunset Boulevard, in the heart of the entertainment world, the parish finds itself unusually situated between those who are unhoused and abundant opulence looking down from the Hollywood Hills. I knew the moment I stepped onto the campus that this was the perfect parish to re-imagine what it means to be a Jesuit parish with a preferential option for the poor.

Pope Francis stepped into office inviting the world to imagine the Catholic Church as “a field hospital for the wounded.” However, I suspect that even the Pontiff, could not have imagined how prophetic this vision of “a field hospital” might look like during COVID-19. Another Jesuit, Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, Father General of the Society of Jesus, articulated a similar vision this last year when he delineated the four Universal Apostolic Preferences for Jesuits and lay colleagues: finding God through the spirituality of St. Ignatius; care for the poor; care for the young; and care for the earth. Who could have imagined, even a few months ago, that churches across the United States would be closed down for Easter? What does this new reality mean?

This new reality invites us to engage our imagination in ways that have never been engaged before in the history of the world. However, we do not do this haphazardly; both Pope Francis and Father General during the time of the pandemic have encouraged us to keep our eyes and hearts on the poor who are most directly affected by  COVID-19. I am certain, for the Church, going back to business as usual is not an option. I propose we move forward by using our Jesuit exemplars of hope, namely Pope Francis and Father General. Aloneness only leads to pathology; however, healing through the Gospel commitment to the poor has nothing less than the possibility of transformation for all of humanity. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, highlights in his talks and books, it is when we reach out to the margins and stand with those on the periphery that our world gets broader not more narrow. This pandemic is an invitation to enlarge our hearts and our Church, in ways that had previously been inconceivable.

With this in mind, I invite the reader to be curious for a moment. How might a Jesuit parish in the heart of Hollywood connect, while sheltering at home, with a preferential care for the poor and the most vulnerable? Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood has done this in a variety of ways that I am certain would make even St. Ignatius smile. Blessed Sacrament has gone online with Facebook and YouTube to keep parishioners connected while sheltering at home. When a parishioner gets onto Facebook, they discover there are many ways to engage with their Jesuit faith community. Where I personally experienced this gem of Hollywood shine most brilliantly was the manner in which the Food Pantry responded to the crisis by opening every Saturday morning from the moment the pandemic hit Hollywood. The Food Pantry provides meals for the unhoused and those who cannot afford food, including fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, bread and other nutritious staples that people are most in need of at this time. I almost could not believe my eyes as our crew of volunteers at the Food Pantry had people physically distanced six feet apart; everyone in the line was given something to eat during a time when even the shelves at Trader Joe's were empty. It was like watching the Gospels come alive as an almost ghost-town Sunset Blvd was lined with people who were unhoused filling their shopping bags with fresh bread, delicious vegetables, chef designed packaged meals and water. Even Cecil B. DeMille could not have painted this on the cinema screen.

Finally, using technology in new and innovative ways, under the direction of Pedro Marquin, Blessed Sacrament engaged different Jesuits and lay colleagues in the parish to undo aloneness in the community by offering live feed groups that included: liturgies, book clubs, an online Jesuit alumni community, Adoration, praying the Rosary, a daily weekday morning meditation group titled Flourishing During Times of Uncertainty, an RCIA group in English and Spanish, a group on how the Gospel can help relieve anxiety, watch parties for young adults, and even two young Jesuit priests on top of their Jesuit community “doing the Exercises” to promote exercise and well-being during this time. Finally, the technology reached its zenith with a Zoom interview on Good Thursday with the treasurer for the Province of Chile igniting the imagination through a remarkable response of the Chile Province. The province closed a Jesuit Retreat Center and turned it over to the government for elderly with COVID-19. All of this technology expanded the imagination of the community to what is possible in reviving hope during a pandemic.

Fr. General Sosa, SJ, recently challenged the world to engage these four Universal Apostolic Preferences during these times of uncertainty to connect in three particular ways, namely through love, intellectual rigor and social action. Pope Francis preached during Holy Week the importance of allowing Jesus to wash our feet and in the experience of that compassion our only response can be to wash our neighbor’s feet. Today, during the pandemic of COVID-19, we must be imaginative and not look back. How in the middle of this pandemic do we become a community focused on undoing aloneness? This begins by resisting the temptation to look back to a bygone era, but instead casting our sights on the future and its plethora of possibilities.

Can we begin to re-imagine our world and our lives today where we take seriously the invitation of Pope Francis and Fr. General Sosa? Together, we have experienced a space which could never have previously been imagined. Yes, our Jesuit parish in Hollywood certainly is pointing the church in a new and beautiful direction. Is there more work to be done? Yes, let us use the Jesuits in Chile as an exemplar. If they can close a beautiful Jesuit retreat center in the heart of the city and allow it to become a refuge for elderly infected with COVID-19, then the possibilities for undoing aloneness are endless for what may be possible for our Jesuit apostolates as we journey through the heart of this pandemic.





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