The past few weeks have been difficult for everyone. The coronavirus has infected tens of thousands of New Yorkers so far, thousands of whom have died. For the Catholic community in Brooklyn, the coronavirus pandemic hit at a particularly important time — mere weeks before Easter.
The Diocese of Brooklyn made the call to close their doors on March 20 to comply with social distancing guidelines. That was in the middle of Lent. For a community that celebrates by coming together at church multiple times throughout the days leading up to Easter, the isolating effects of the pandemic have been distressing.
“A lot of people are in their homes alone. And they’re getting kind of, I guess the word is stir-crazy. Or some people are even suffering from a bit of depression,” said Monsignor Cassato, the parish pastor at St. Athanasius and St. Dominic in Bensonhurst. “You’ll notice sometimes you call certain people and they’ll actually begin to cry, and they say they are lonely or frustrated and tired of being in the house, and things like that.”
Monsignor Cassato has been the priest at St. Athanasius for 20 years, and has spent his 48-year-career so far in the Diocese of Brooklyn. He has been making personal calls to older members of the parish to check in on them. “You let them talk, you try to let them get it out. You try to get them a little bit of faith. Say ‘God is with us; don’t be afraid.’ And then I try to make them laugh a little, too. Tell them a funny story, you know, try to bring them to some sort of reality. You say, ‘we’re moving along, hopefully it gets a little better next week.’ Try to give words of encouragement.”
The diocese has tried to come up with new ways of engaging with churchgoers while continuing to promote social distancing. Monsignor Cassato has been posting daily videos to Facebook sharing a spiritual message. Remaining active on the church’s Facebook page has been an effective tool for remaining connected to parishioners, Monsignor Cassato said.
He added, “Facebook Live is bringing me a lot of names of people that are either sick or died from corona. I got two calls today – basically [asking me to] make sure you mention my mother’s name, my father’s name who passed away on the mass.”
Catholic churches in the Brooklyn Diocese are streaming masses daily in seven different languages. They started streaming mass in English, Spanish, Creole, Italian, Polish, Korean, and Mandarin on their cable channel and website and on Facebook last week. St. Athanasius and St. Dominic had nearly 3,000 viewers for their English-language mass on Palm Sunday, and about 2,000 for the Spanish-language mass, according to Monsignor Cassato.
Social distancing guidelines are evolving rapidly, though, and some of the church’s ideas are holding up better than others. Initially, Catholic churches were going to set out tables full of blessed palms for people to collect on Palm Sunday, but they reconsidered that as the pandemic worsened. Now, they’ve delayed the handing out of palms until a later date.
Within the last two weeks, the Diocese of Brooklyn lost two priests to COVID-19. Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, 49, died from complications due to coronavirus at the end of March. He was pastor of St. Brigid’s Church in Wyckoff Heights and Diocesan Coordinator of the Ministry to Mexican immigrants. He is believed to have been the first Catholic priest in the US to die from the disease.
A second priest died on Saturday after contracting COVID-19. Father Gioacchino Basile, 60, had been working at Saint Gabriel Church East Elmhurst, Queens, which is also covered by the Brooklyn diocese.
Monsignor Cassato said of the two men, “Well loved, well respected, well thought of. They were very strong, dynamic people to bring people to church and they did their jobs very effectively, and they’ll be sorely missed.” He added, “how do you replace someone like that?”
Church members have also tested positive for coronavirus at Holy Spirit Church in Borough Park and Our Lady of Peace Roman Catholic Church in Gowanus. A priest at St. Brigid Church in Bushwick tested positive for the coronavirus as well.
The average age of Catholic priests has been rising, from 35 in 1970 to 63 in more recent years, a Georgetown University study found. Older people are more vulnerable to becoming severely ill from coronavirus, and the work of priests has continued to put them out in the community.
Monsignor Cassato said he does have some concern, due to his age. “I must be honest with you, I’m a little afraid,” the 73-year-old priest said. Tuesday he assisted in five Catholic burials at a cemetery, and Wednesday he helped in two more. He tried to say a few comforting words at the burials, which are now limited to less than ten people and where people wear masks and must respect social distancing guidelines. “I try to be as helpful and present as possible,” Monsignor Cassato said.
Throughout this time, Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens are continuing their work of delivering meals to people that are homebound, and to seniors who typically visit senior centers but now cannot come home. The diocese is continuing to try to connect in whatever way they can.
“I pray honestly and sincerely every day for an end to this, a return to the church, and an ability to hug people that you want to hug,” Monsignor Cassato said. “I really do.”