As elsewhere, much has changed here in Wiikwemkoong since the beginning of the pandemic. One of the changes is that I have not been able to go to the local nursing home for weekly masses, which I used to do. – Fr. Paul Robson, SJ
Within the Jesuit Province of Canada, the various apostolates and communities have adapted their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably by shifting some of their services to the internet. This strategy, however, risks leaving some people behind—namely, elders. Indeed, while a number of seniors have easy access to the Web and the mobility or assistance required to successfully watch online masses and participate in virtual activities, this is not the case for everyone. So, how has spiritual support continued to reach them? How has human contact, which is essential for overcoming isolation, been maintained?
Several Jesuits explain how they have used various strategies to reach out to elders in their specific circumstances. Jesuit fathers Pierre Côté (Rector of the Gesù), Henk van Meijel (Director of Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Renewal Centre and Director of René Goupil House), Wayne Bolton (Associate Pastor, St. Pius X Parish), and Paul Robson (Pastor, Holy Cross Mission) share their experience here, which could inspire other sectors even after the pandemic.
As Fr. Côté points out, almost all seniors have television. It’s a good way to reach them when everything is closed. “Is it necessary,” he wondered, “here in the downtown area to imagine a television channel?” He also asked other religious organizations in Montreal for their opinion. The idea was launched and is now being evaluated by the Gesù as part of a communication tool kit to reach the faithful who were used to going to church.
In Wiikwemkoong, television broadcasting had already begun, and the results are positive. According to Fr. Robson:
In the spring and summer, with the help of local telecommunications service provider FirstTel, Sunday services were streamed over the internet and on a local television station. Although not everyone in the community gets the television channel, many do, so we were able to connect with some elders who may not have a computer.
When it is impossible to share one’s own content virtually, Jesuit works and communities can still offer various televised masses to elders. Fr. van Meijel points out that several Jesuits in Toronto and Montreal participate in this ministry. These masses, however, “don’t have the same personal touch as being part of a congregation,” he says.
Mail is another means of communication mentioned by Fr. Côté. As with television, he says, “even though there is no interaction, there is action. A card that says ‘we’re thinking about you,’ with a little note, can help. For a number of people, receiving mail is important.”
Fr. Bolton describes his experience at St. John’s:
We are responsible for two homes for older people and we have sent letters to the residents. Our parish committee involved in ministry to seniors also sent Christmas cards. Richard Mulrooney, SJ, who teaches at St. Bonaventure’s, asked his students to create cards for isolated seniors. This meant that we sent each resident one letter and two Christmas cards.
For another type of distanced contact that is more personal than mail or television, many have turned to the telephone. Fr. Bolton explains, “Fr. Smith and I phoned parishioners, old and young, to check up on them and find out how their children and grandchildren were doing during the pandemic. It was a source of inspiration, gratitude, and joy to learn how people support each other.”
Farther west, in Manresa, Fr. van Meijel explains that even before the pandemic spiritual guides would accompany people in person as well as virtually or by phone, but now the in-person visits have decreased by 90 percent. And during telephone calls, spirituality is sometimes just a pretext for a conversation.
Fr. van Meijel continues, “One community member said yesterday that he was surprised by some of the calls he receives. Elders often call him for spiritual guidance, but now it is not generally spiritual guidance they’re looking for. They just need someone to talk to, they need to be listened to in a sacred conversation.
For many people, especially older people, the ministry of listening is of utmost importance.
In the midst of a whirlwind of health restrictions and regulations, visits remain essential when permitted, such as those carried out by Our Lady of Lourdes volunteers who have contacted and helped elderly or isolated people. These human contacts are necessary for mental health, as Fr. van Meijel again points out:
At René Goupil House, our infirmary in Pickering, the issue of mental health quickly became a priority after lockdown began last March, when no visitors were allowed to spend time with our elderly Jesuits. We are fortunate, however, to have a dedicated and caring staff who have been able to identify those in difficulty and give them a little more personal attention during the current confinement which, in many nursing homes, is lacking due to a shortage of staff and financial resources.
Fr. Robson describes how he was fortunately able to make a few visits to the retirement home in Wiikwemkoong:
Each time I underwent a COVID test and received a good result (negative), I was able to schedule a visit. During these visits, we did not gather for Mass, but I would bring communion to people in their rooms. I cherished these enjoyable moments.
Even though it is sometimes difficult, Jesuit ministries seek to reach elders through various means. This work can be a source of consolation.
During the current crisis, I have been continually touched by the number of donations and comments sent in by retreatants who eagerly await the time when we will again be able to host group retreats. Most of these donations come from our retreatants over 60 years of age who are financially comfortable and who look forward to the days when they will again be able to participate physically in a group retreat with like-minded retreatants, where personal friendships can again be deepened in our loving God, since virtual contact is only a substitute for physical, personal contact. – Fr. Henk van Meijel