Priests’ podcast dream becomes reality during COVID-19 distancing

Father William Schmid, left, and Father Matt Lowry record their daily podcast in the rectory of the Catholic parish in Flagstaff, Ariz., April 8, 2020. They started recording the “Northern Fathers” podcast daily as part of their efforts to reach out to parishioners and university students during the coronavirus shutdown. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

By Nancy Wiechec 
Catholic News Service

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (CNS) — Two priests were toying with the idea of doing a podcast for more than a year. Then came the coronavirus, a pandemic, school and church closings, and all of a sudden, their dream became a reality, real fast.

“We have to be able to reach our people,” said Father Will Schmid, pastor of San Francisco de Asis Parish in Flagstaff and one voice on the new “Northern Fathers” podcast. “Maybe this (was) the Lord’s way of saying, ‘Hey, get this done.'”

The other voice is Father Matt Lowry, chaplain of the Newman Center at Northern Arizona University. Together, their flocks in this picturesque northern Arizona city number in the thousands.

The two friends began the podcast series March 17, the day after Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix suspended all public Masses and parish and diocesan gatherings. The bishop’s announcement came right after the White House advised all Americans to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 to help curtail the aggressive novel coronavirus.

For nearly a month, Fathers Lowry and Schmid have been hitting the mics for 20 minutes or so each day after morning prayers. Their recordings post to SoundCloud and iTunes mid-morning.

“When I listen back on those early first days, it doesn’t sound like us. We were nervous, and we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Father Schmid told Catholic News Service. “We just felt called to do it, and we knew that people wanted to connect with us. We knew they wanted to be fed.”

Each “Northern Fathers” session is a mix of personal stories, humor, Scripture reflection, Catholic facts and anecdotes, all capped off with a prayer. It’s a back-and-forth conversation that includes how the priests, their parishioners and students are coping in this time of exceptional crisis.

The podcast has about 300 people listening to each episode and seems to resonate with parishioners and others.

“I’ve been enjoying the daily podcasts. There’s always some goofiness and some seriousness,” wrote Flagstaff resident Carrie Albright on San Francisco de Asis’ Facebook page. “Thanks for doing this.”

Another Facebook user sent greetings from afar. “Hi Father Will. Listening to your podcast from Australia.”

Even as church life is distant during the coronavirus pandemic, Father Schmid said the majority of parishioners seem to be coping with the “new normal.”

“Surprisingly, they’re doing really well,” he said. “I was worried that people were hurting a lot. And, there are some who are for sure — people who have family members or friends who have COVID or who are quarantined and then others who have experienced great economic hardships at this time. But the vast majority of the ones that I talk to, they’re doing really well.”

The ordinarily teaming parish grounds are unusually quiet except for the few people coming and going from the chapel, open for eucharistic adoration for up to 10 people at a time.

With help from parish staff, Father Schmid is livestreaming daily and Sunday Masses plus Friday Stations of the Cross, arranging for drive-by confessions in the church parking lot, conducting Zoom meetings with catechumens, posting regularly on Facebook and Instagram, and chatting with parishioners by phone. The parish school is utilizing distance learning to continue classes.

The priests also are praying with those in the hospital. But they must do so by phone from Flagstaff hospital parking because of tighter restrictions on access to patients in their rooms.

“It’s not what we want, but we feel like it’s what we can do due to the circumstances.”

People from outside Flagstaff might be confused by the “Northern Fathers” podcast logo, in which the priests are holding axes. But Flagstaffians understand. An ax is part of NAU’s lumberjack mascot as well as a symbol of the town’s roots. Felling timber in the vast ponderosa forests of northern Arizona was its founding industry.

Find the “Northern Fathers” series on Soundcloud, https://soundcloud.com/user-379518174.

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