Online world gives El Paso flock a closer glimpse of bishop’s personality

Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, visits a garden he has planted in El Paso May 4, 2020. (CNS photo/Fernie Ceniceros, courtesy Diocese of El Paso)

By Rhina Guidos 
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Clad in his black bishop’s suit, the YouTube clip shows Bishop Mark J. Seitz leaning back in a chair saying, “some people think that we in the church only want your money. That’s not true.”

The video then cuts to a wider shot, showing him with a blood bag strapped to his arm.

“We also want your blood,” he says. “We have a critical shortage in our El Paso community. Finally, you have a good reason to get out of the house.”

It’s one of several public service announcements the bishop of El Paso, Texas, has made in recent days, along with another one that shows him planting a coronavirus “victory garden,” which shows his quirky sense of humor that may not have always come across when those in the pews have seen him carrying a crozier and donning his miter.

“In some ways, what people are telling me is that they feel they’ve gotten to know me better since (the coronavirus pandemic) than before,” he said in a May 4 telephone interview with Catholic News Service.

He said the perception for some may have been that he was “real serious or removed,” but now, he said: “They’re seeing that I’m someone they feel is more approachable, friendly. I don’t think I’ve changed my style, but they have a chance to see me in this context. When you think about it, no matter how much I run around the diocese and celebrate Mass, it’s only a limited group of people I see at one time, but a lot of people are seeing me now, between these PSAs, interviews and Sunday Masses. They just didn’t have a feel for what I was like.”

It’s one of the unexpected boons of being forced to connect in a different way with his flock. After authorities moved to limit physical contact among populations to stem the spread of the coronavirus, prelates like Bishop Seitz have looked to and joined an array of social media platforms to keep in touch with those in their dioceses.

Though he has been active on Twitter for a while, Bishop Seitz wasn’t on Facebook until after the pandemic hit.

“I’d resisted Facebook for years,” he said. “I can’t even keep up with email. But with this (the pandemic), I thought it would be important to use whatever means I could to be in touch with people.”

It’s been difficult to see the churches in the diocese closed, he said, but even more difficult to be away from the people, particularly since the community was still dealing with the aftermath of an Aug. 3, 2019, mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart. Bishop Seitz and others in the diocese were still ministering to some of the victims and survivors.

“There was a man I was visiting in the hospital. He was still in intensive care nearly nine months after the shooting,” Bishop Seitz said. “I wasn’t able to see him; It was frustrating not to be able to be there for him. He did die a couple of weeks ago and it was very frustrating that we couldn’t be there to offer him the sacraments. That’s awful to think of people dying in the hospital without being able to receive the sacraments.”

Guillermo Garcia, 36, died April 27, bringing the death toll of the deadly incident, which targeted Latinos, to 23. Since then, a priest from the diocese has made inroads to be able to spiritually tend to Catholics in the hospital during the pandemic, Bishop Seitz said.

The coronavirus has shown that “God is working in the midst of this situation,” he said. “People are feeling the hunger for the Eucharist and for the work of the church and that’s really encouraging. There are plenty of challenges, but I feel that God is present.”

Though he has some limited contact with staff, he has kept in touch with most via video teleconferencing.

“I have become the king of Zoom,” he said. “I’m doing a weekly meeting with clergy, with administrators, bishops of Texas and various and other sundry groups.”

But there are matters that he feels he needs to tend to in person. On April 29, after a probate lawyer contacted him during the pandemic, he participated in the interment of 46 cremains that had never been claimed and provided a space for their burial in one of the diocese’s Catholic cemeteries. He said he wanted to take part in the burial as a “final expression of respect, being assured that there’s someone praying for them.”

“I imagine them also praying for those who show them this charity, and maybe welcoming us someday,” he said.

He’s also participated in food deliveries organized by the diocese’s network of helpers, including deliveries to some convents where women religious had been struggling to put food on the table, and to hungry local families, including one in which the mother had recovered from COVID-19 and had returned from the hospital. He spoke with her from outside, through a door to the family’s apartment.

“I was so glad to make the connection,” he said.

He also has been busy personally giving thanks to those who donate to their parishes via a phone bank, whose number is flashed on the screen during local Masses broadcast on local TV stations.

It’s important, he said, to let others see the work of church members amid the pandemic.

“It’s to let people know that the church just hasn’t rolled up the sidewalk and gone away at this time,” he said. “I realize that when people see me out there, they know the church is out there.”

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