Bishop Vann recalls the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On a gloomy morning about a week into the temporary suspension of all Masses that he ordered on March 17, the bishop arrived early to preside over a 6:30 a.m. Mass that was to be livestreamed to the faithful from Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove.
“I pulled up and it was raining and there were people outside kneeling, trying to see inside the church,” said Bishop Vann, who also that day dispensed Catholics from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass.
The bishop felt the sense of isolation parishioners were experiencing because they weren’t allowed to come together in their usual parish setting.
Some felt irritable. Others, he recalled, felt angry.
The stress and trauma caused by the pandemic were only beginning.
But as the bishop took in the scene of the locked-out parishioners, he also recognized something else.
“There was a palpable sense of them really trying to have some connection to their church community,” he recalled, recounting this story months later, during a panel discussion on Zoom hosted by Be Well Orange County.
In that hour-long session on Oct. 6, Bishop Vann and other religious leaders discussed mental health, substance abuse, and the role of the faith-based community of Orange County in trying to heal the afflicted in the anxiety-addled era of COVID-19.
“What we’re trying to show folks is that there’s a reality here greater than themselves — that there’s God’s mercy and love and strength and healing for them,” Bishop Vann said during the discussion, which also featured Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church; Rabbi Richard Steinberg, senior rabbi at Congregation ShirHa-Ma’a lot; and Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, religious leader of the Orange County Islamic Foundation in Mission Viejo and director of the mental health department at Access California Social Services Agency in Anaheim.
“We have a whole series of blessings that we are using so we can pray with these folks for whatever their current concerns are,” Bishop Vann continued. “It’s important for them to know that God is here and that they are not by themselves. We are with them and God is with them.”
It’s a sentiment the bishop has echoed at a steady series of public appearances he has made since the pandemic began and that he continues to make – at schools, hospitals, funerals, special outdoor Masses, and more.
The recently divisive presidential election, along with the ongoing racial divide in the country, unemployment, and other societal challenges, has only added to the trauma unleashed by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
As of press time the disease had killed 1,586 in Orange County, 19,437 throughout California, and more than 276,000 in the United States.
Bishop Vann has made it a priority that the pandemic isn’t killing people’s faith.
Since his tenure at the Diocese of Orange began in 2012, the bishop has presided over many memorable events, highlighted by the Holy Year of Celebration leading up to the dedication of Christ Cathedral on July 17, 2019.
A year later to the day, the bishop found himself in a vastly different place: at the clinical units where COVID-19 patients were being treated at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.
His visit came three days after a surge in COVID-19 cases had forced the second shutdown of houses of worship statewide, although churchgoers still could attend Mass outdoors or watch services online.
Wearing a white face covering, Bishop Vann prayed with St. Joseph nurses, doctors, and other healthcare providers who were caring for the sickest COVID-19 patients.
He also provided a brief blessing over the hospital’s paging system that everyone could hear, and he also delivered a televised Mass in the hospital’s chapel.
“I’m very happy about the bishop’s concern and outreach to our caregivers,” said Sister Nancy Jurecki, director of mission leadership and spiritual care at Sisters of Providence Health System, of which St. Joseph Hospital is a part. “He is certainly a friend to our hospital.”
Cathy Fletcher, mission leader at St. Joseph Hospital, said the bishop’s visit on Friday, July 17, boosted the spirits of frontline caregivers.
“His blessings and prayers were greatly appreciated,” she said.
FROM A FUNERAL TO A CONFIRMATION CEREMONY
On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 25, Bishop Vann stepped inside Christ Cathedral just before a funeral was to be held for Jesus Aguilar, 92.
As loved ones waited for the service to begin at 2 p.m., the bishop walked up to the urn containing Aguilar’s ashes.
He prayed that Aguilar would enjoy eternal life as he made the sign of the cross.
“Thank you, Father,” a relative of Aguilar said.
A few hours later, the bishop was at La Purisima Catholic Church in Orange to celebrate an outdoor Mass under a white tent during which 73 young parishioners received the sacrament of Confirmation.
“It’s a huge blessing to have him here,” said the Rev. Martin Nguyen, parochial vicar.
Minutes before Mass began, Dagny Rodriguez, an 18-year-old senior at Villa Park High School, walked up to her mother, Heidi, who was handing out hand sanitizer to the socially distanced attendees.
“I feel really honored to be able to have him come and perform this special ceremony for all of us,” said Dagny, holding a Holy Spirit medallion necklace that all Confirmation candidates received. “It’s really nice that we’re going to be blessed with his presence and that he’s going to be able to confirm us into the Church.”
Wearing a red face covering, Bishop Vann addressed the candidates at the late-afternoon ceremony.
“The breeze among us now is like the breeze of the Holy Spirit coming here to help you shine the light of God (on others),” he said.
Switching between English and Spanish, the bishop recalled having dinner at a nearby hilltop restaurant and seeing the lights of La Purisima church.
“I mention this because that’s like up the mountain where Jesus was,” Bishop Vann said. “He would take his disciples up the mountain where God would teach him. This evening, my friends, Jesus brings us up the mountain, and your mission is to be that light that I saw that evening and to be that light of Christ, and to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit and accept the mission that God has given you.”
The bishop mentioned how these are not easy times.
“But it’s the time that God has given us,” he noted. “We are called to be witnesses to that light, to help people see in the pathway of life, and you can show the way…so everyone can see that God is here.”
PEOPLE IN CRISIS
On Oct. 5, Bishop Vann served as celebrant at the 32nd-Annual Red Mass of Orange County, held on an outdoor patio at Christ Cathedral. The Red Mass brings together the legal community of Orange County to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit and receive God’s grace to strengthen the resolve of lawyers and judges as they face the ever-increasing challenges of our times.
This year’s Red Mass, of course, was markedly different from past ones. The St. Thomas More Society of Orange County celebrated its first Red Mass in Orange County in 1988.
“This makes me think of the times throughout the centuries that Red Masses have been conducted while plagues or wars or other challenges loomed,” said William J. Brown Jr., president of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County.
“It’s a great year to hold a Red Mass to give prayers of thanks for the blessing of the rule of law in our country, and the fine public service by those who operate our legal system,” Brown added.
On the Oct. 6 panel discussion on mental health, moderated by Lauren Brand and Jennifer Bryaof Be Well OC, Bishop Vann and others noted how the pandemic has triggered a spike of people in crisis.
“The faith community does not necessarily as a whole have a good reputation around treating people with mental illness with kindness and compassion, or with wisdom or understanding, or even scientific knowledge,” Kay Warren said.
The bishop agreed, adding that this must change.
“We’re trying to show people that there’s a reality here greater than themselves at the current moment — that there’s God’s mercy and love and strength and healing, and that we’re here to help be with them and pray with them,” he said.
As Thanksgiving Day 2020 approached, with worsening COVID-19 infections sparking yet another closure of indoor church services, among other restrictions, Bishop Vann’s comments that day continue to resonate even louder now.
“The need to really be with someone suffering and to share their challenges has become very evident,” said Bishop Vann, noting that the pandemic has disproportionately affected certain communities, such as Hispanics, more than others.
He said he’s made a special effort these past several months to minister to the marginalized, noting that the diocese has many resources – including food banks and a crisis line – for those in need during the dark days of a global pandemic.
“I’m here as a shepherd,” Bishop Vann said. “I’m here as somebody who cares for them.”