Split Screen Shepherd

Pandemic-weary Catholics find spiritual nourishment and community in unique ‘Zoom’ Mass led by retired priest

By Christina Gray

Zoom is a not a word Msgr. Michael Harriman would have connected to his retirement after 53 years as a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Not as a verb or a noun.

That was before he put his well-earned days of leisure aside for a year to shepherd a group of Catholics hungry for communal worship in the darkest days of the pandemic.

Every Sunday afternoon between Palm Sunday 2020 and Pentecost Sunday 2021, Msgr. Harriman, 79, set up an altar in the leafy backyard of his childhood home in Burlingame and logged on to celebrate a Mass via Zoom. During its 65-week run, as many as 80 people beamed in from their own computer screens in far flung parts of the state and country.

Monsignor Harriman celebrated Zoom Masses from his home.

Zoom video-conferencing, a corporate staple for a decade now, allows multiple users in different locations to see and talk to each other in real time on a shared computer or mobile screen. The application became a virtual substitute for in-person meetings, parties, classes and more when the coronavirus public health crisis shuttered offices, schools and churches.

“All week long we couldn’t go anywhere, but we looked forward to the next Mass,” she said. “Father Mike was the glue that held us together.”

Mary Scanlon

Participants said that in Msgr. Harriman’s hands with a core team of lay organizers, the Zoom Mass was not just a better-than-nothing compromise for the loss of public Mass, nor an alternative to live-streamed liturgies. It was a unique oasis of Catholic faith and fellowship in a very difficult year.

“It brought so much love and hope to us,” said Mary Scanlon, a parishioner of St. Cecilia Parish San Francisco, who worked in the rectory with Msgr. Harriman during the 23 years he served there as pastor before his retirement in 2017. She called the Zoom Mass, “a miracle Mass.”

“All week long we couldn’t go anywhere, but we looked forward to the next Mass,” she said. “Father Mike was the glue that held us together.”

Stephanie Lowe and her husband Tom Vo, also longtime St. Cecilia parishioners who participated in the Mass were reluctant to see it end. But Lowe said it helped fortify their faith in trying times.

“The Mass provided a new foundation in hope that things would get better,” said Lowe.

The shepherd himself marveled at the spiritual richness of the experiment.

“I found it to be a very moving experience,” said Msgr. Harriman.

A unique pastoral opportunity

In the spring of 2020, three years into his retirement, Msgr. Harriman got a phone call from an old friend. He was “social distancing” at home, the same suburban, corner lot bungalow where his devout Catholic mother and hardworking father raised him and his three sisters.

The lockdown had halted Msgr. Harriman’s activities – outings to Giants’ games and get-togethers with family, friends and fellow priests – a luxury after the last two decades as the pastor of a large parish and school. He had been celebrating Sunday Mass at St. Bartholomew Parish in San Mateo at the invitation of the pastor, but that had also ceased as church doors closed.

The caller was Pat Sammon, a former teenage camp counselor at the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp in the Sonoma County town of Occidental when Mgsr. Harriman ran it some 40 years ago.

Sammon, now 57, and living in San Diego, had remained in contact with the priest whom he called a good “translator” of the Catholic faith, especially for a 15-year-old who at the time was trying to make the beliefs he was raised with, his own. With Msgr. Harriman’s influence he succeeded.

Sammon told Msgr. Harriman he was struggling without public Mass, especially during Lent.

“At first I just wanted to see if Father Mike was live-streaming somewhere,” he said, despite disliking its “one-way” nature. The retired priest was not.

Sammon, a regular Zoom user at work, wondered aloud whether a Mass could be done that way. He quickly asked if Msgr. Harriman would be willing try it, at least through Easter.

“It took some convincing on my part,” Sammon said with a laugh, but the priest eventually said yes. The work of the Holy Spirit, he agreed, but added: “I also think we just trusted each other.”

Doing God’s work or serving the Lord?

After being ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1968, Father Michael Harriman was assigned to St. Isabella Parish in San Rafael as parochial vicar.

After almost a decade at the Marin County parish, he took leadership of youth ministry activities for Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), a pivotal role he held for another decade which included running its summer camp and retreat center in the town of Occidental. Later he would serve as pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, and then an unprecedented 23 years as pastor of St. Cecilia Parish.

Msgr. Harriman told a short story from his earliest days as a priest when asked why he agreed to the rather foreign concept of a Zoom Mass.

Only a year after his ordination, the young priest had despaired that he was already “drying up.”

“I figured I was not putting enough time into my homily because there was so much else to do at St. Isabella,” he said.

His spiritual director’s response guides him to this day.

“Mike, you have to decide whether you are doing God’s work, or serving the Lord,” he told him. “If you’re doing God’s work you’re deciding what that work is. If you are really allowing the Lord to work through you, then you ask, ‘Lord, what is your will for me today?’”

 “The Mass Built Community”

The Zoom Mass came with priestly provisions.

“I did not want to take away from parishes,” said Msgr. Harriman. “That’s why I agreed to 1 p.m., a very difficult time in a person’s Sunday. I was not going to compete.”

He also requested a core team of lay leaders willing to spend one night a week together over Zoom to plan each Mass.

Sammon recruited Jamie McClone, of Sea Ranch, to co-chair a team of six people. The two had worked together as CYO camp counselors and like Sammon, she had remained in lifelong contact with Msgr. Harriman.

Each Monday, the priest gave the team the Scripture readings, a theme, and ideas for music and songs. With upmost care and consideration, the team planned the liturgy.

Separately, one person would work with Msgr. Harriman one-on-one each week to do an exegesis of the scripture readings and found a way to incorporate their personal reflection into the weekly virtual gathering. In all, 35 people were able to participate in that way.

“They were central because it was their own pastoral experience, their own lived experience as a son, wife, husband or daughter,” he said. “(Sacred Scripture) really came alive for everyone, you could see it in the faces.”

Promoting or publicizing the Zoom Mass was never the intention, he said. Invitations were made person to person, through three streams connected to Msgr. Harriman’s pastoral life: St. Cecilia parishioners and staff, former CYO youth ministry counselors and campers, and friends, family members and acquaintances of those people.

Week by week, participation grew through word of mouth, and the Zoom Mass continued on.

The beauty of the format was its surprising intimacy, said Sammon. “It was different than being in the middle of a church, far away from who is speaking. We had that two-way connection.”

In this context, the Prayers of the Faithful could be achingly earnest and humble.

“A lot of times there was not a dry eye on the screen,” said McClone. “We heard things that some people had never told a soul.”

Some of the participants were not active Catholics or had not been able to “find their place in the church,” said Msgr. Harriman. “There was a lot of catechesis going on,” he said.

McClone’s adult son Casidhe had not practiced his childhood faith in some time but was drawn in by the engaging community.

“Msgr. Harriman made Mass feel like an invitation to be part of a family,” he said, and it was.

Participants began to log in 20-30 minutes early just to talk to each other, and often stayed on after the Mass ended.

Susana Lapeyrade-Drummond, a lifelong CYO camper, counselor and supporter, who lives in Brentwood, was among those logging in.

Msgr. Harriman’s commitment to the faith and Zoom Mass community “inspired our commitment,” she said. “I am clear that I want to be a lector in my own parish.”

“Father Mike managed to create this amazing experience where we all came together as one celebrating God and Christ,” McClone said of his pastoral genius. “We sang, we held hands, and everyone was welcome to the table. It was really quite beautiful.”

The Zoom Mass ended as intentionally as it had started more than a year earlier.

On June 12, about 60 Zoom Mass-goers gathered in person for the first time for a communal Mass and meal among the redwoods at the CYO camp in Occidental. Msgr. Harriman was gifted with two personalized stoles as tokens of thanksgiving.

“To be really honest with you, they hated to see it end,” he admitted. “But I was always clear that it would.”

Msgr. Harriman chose a meaningful date for the final Mass: May 23, Pentecost Sunday.

Parishes were starting to open up again, in the month and a half or so before the last Zoom Mass, and Pentecost was symbolic of the need for members to “go forth,” he said.

“Father Mike was adamant that we not use this experience as a crutch,” said McClone. “It is now time to take what we learned from this back to our parishes.”

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