Bishop Joseph Tyson of the Yakima Catholic diocese will lead a panel discussion on COVID-19 issues at the Cornerstone Catholic Conference, a virtual statewide meeting on Oct. 30.

The event, sponsored by the Washington State Catholic Conference, will include presentations and workshops on pro-life issues, Catholic education, youth ministry and other topics.

Tyson and five other panelists will address issues ranging from outreach to the homebound, both before and during the pandemic, to social distancing and masking during Mass and how that has affected church attendance.

“We’ll discuss the things we’ve learned since we’ve been locked down. How do we do outreach? How do we help people dealing with psychological issues, people struggling with stress and isolation?” the bishop said.

COVID-19 cases haven’t been limited to parishioners, as priests within the diocese have fought through the disease as well.

On March 7, 2020, the Reve. Alejandro Trejo, pastor of Our Lady of the Desert parish in Mattawa, was the first priest in the U.S. to be diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the Catholic Sentinel newspaper of Portland. And in December, Monsignor John Ecker of St. Paul Cathedral in Yakima fell faint and hit his head during Sunday Mass before he tested positive for the virus.

In-person attendance at Masses was suspended in March 2020 across Washington and the U.S., forcing Catholics to celebrate Easter remotely. Mass resumed with masking and other restrictions in Washington last summer, and the mask requirement was lifted earlier this year until a surge in delta variant cases brought it back in early September.

Tyson noted the return to Mass and the use of masks has differed between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking parishioners.

“The two communities have experienced COVID differently. Spanish speakers are coming back (to Mass) faster than English speakers,” Tyson said. “In the English-speaking community, we have parishioners that work in the health care industry, who were concerned about the spread of COVID, and we have others who are more resistant to wearing masks.

“When the governor lifted the mask mandate and other restrictions, some of our English-speaking community ditched their masks right away, while some of the Spanish-speaking community, who may have been exposed to COVID in the fruit-packing plants, kept their masks on,” he added.

Most parishes were able to livestream Mass and other events during the pandemic and continue to do so; and the upcoming Cornerstone Conference remains a virtual event due to COVID, Tyson said.

“One of the beneficial things we’ve learned through COVID is how to connect with our homebound parishioners,” he added. “In a certain sense, this has improved our outreach to people who were homebound before COVID.”

While online tools such as Zoom, Facebook and YouTube have helped reach out to people, they lack the personal touch of worshipping in church, or of personal visits to home-bound parishioners.

“(Livestreaming) has helped us reach out to people who were no longer coming to church, but a few of our parishes are cutting back on that,” Tyson said. “Worship is where we gather together, in person, and receive the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and you’re not getting that through livestreaming.”

Bishop Tyson will lead a panel discussion, with questions and comments from the online audience, during the Cornerstone Conference.

Also on the panel are Alma Benitez, director of stewardship and development for the Yakima Diocese; Sandra Aguilar, resident services program manager for Catholic Charities Housing Services in Yakima; Daniel Sanchez, a Yakima Diocese seminarian; Deacon Carlos Luna of St. Joseph parish in Wenatchee; and Dr. Fernando Ortiz, director of counseling services at Gonzaga University.

Contact Joel Donofrio at jdonofrio@yakimaherald.com.

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