Holy Name families reflect on pandemic – the good and the bad
BY MARLENE A. ZLOZA
Northwest Indiana Catholic
CEDAR LAKE – “COVID-19,” “coronavirus” and “pandemic” have been dirty words around the world for the past 18 months, but the Faith Formation program at Holy Name of Jesus faced them fearlessly Sept. 19-20 as it welcomed families back to in-person lessons for the first time in two years.
“We’re going to talk about our fears, successes, changes and relationships, going back to last year and up to now,” said Mercedes Austgen, pastoral associate, as dozens of families gathered both in the school gym and on Zoom for Sunday morning and Monday evening sessions dubbed “Telling Your Story: A Reflection on the Past Year.”
“We want to talk about what was bad, but also what was good, and about how we can move forward,” she added.
Father Patrick Gawrylewski, O.F.M., the parish’s new pastor, offered a welcome and introduced himself to the families, urging them to attend Sunday Mass as part of Faith Formation and inviting all ages to approach him as another catechist. “If you have questions, just ask,” he said. “There are no silly questions, so don’t be afraid.”
The first exercise Austgen encouraged both students and parents to participate in was symbolic of efforts to put the “bad” behind them. “Finish the sentence: ‘What I disliked most about the past year was …’ and write it down,” Austgen instructed. “Then crumple up the paper and throw it on the floor.” The scraps of paper were later collected and will be buried on the church grounds, explained Austgen, signaling the words of negativity – from ‘eLearning’ to ‘fear’ – are gone forever.
Family members broke up into small discussion groups to share the negatives and positives of pandemic life, with an almost unanimous consensus among the schoolchildren that virtual schooling was difficult to navigate, and that it was scary not knowing if their family members would get sick.
“I had to give up sports, and some friends,” said one young boy, while a girl admitted, “The pandemic was scary, because my brother got (COVID).”
Some adults concentrated on the positive. “We have to hope that (COVID-19) won’t get worse, but (instead) will get better,” Kylee Misch said.
Catechist Mary Joan Dickson listed “Spending time with family, cooking together and playing games” as positives stemming from quarantining.
“My yard has never looked better,” added Ruth Willy, who said she also found time to clear the clutter from her home by donating unneeded items and ‘gifting’ her children.
Austgen encouraged the groups to sum up their discussions with one word, marveling at “the huge range of words” they produced, from “fun” to “troubles,” and from “refreshing” to “faith.”
The second half of the evening had participants gather in age-specific small groups for continued discussion about the challenges and blessings they have experienced.
“If you had to ‘thank’ COVID-19 for something, what would it be?” Austgen asked, with the high school group responding with “more time with family,” “more appreciation for what I have” and “more time to work on my athletic skills.”
Going forward, the teenagers saw themselves “being more aware that people are struggling financially and emotionally,” “making time for myself,” “learning a new skill” and “learning to live with COVID-19 as a new reality.”
Austgen revealed that “one of the hardest things the parish staff had to deal with during the pandemic was death, and families unable to hold funerals. A lot of families were cheated out of the opportunity to grieve well,” and asked the families to join her in a prayer service for all of those who died during the pandemic and their families.
“Think of the people who have passed away in the last one-and-one-half years, and hold their families up in prayer,” she asked while encouraging families to light candles placed at their tables and bring them up to a table in the center of the room, where a lit paschal candle stood tall. Small children received small votive lights to add to the mix. “These candles represent people who passed away and the families that were all scattered and had trouble getting together,” Austgen explained. “We will hold them up tonight.”
Father Gawrylewski closed the evening with a blessing for the new school year, inviting parents to extend their hands over their children as they prayed. He also offered them a challenge, asking them to prepare for weekly Mass by reviewing the Sunday readings that are in the students’ Faith Formation books. “You might challenge me after Mass by asking me to talk about something I didn’t address (in my homily) and help me to grow as well,” he said.
“This is our home church and we want to be part of the Faith Formation here,” said Rosemary Linas, who attended with husband Jerry and their three children after taking time off during the year of virtual lessons. “This is a good way to meet other families, too.”