By Tina Dennelly
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, more and more priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre are walking or driving through their parish boundaries to connect with their flocks and offer adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
But what about a high school chaplain, whose flock has no boundaries and resides all across Long Island?
“When you hear your kids crying, what do you do? You go to them,” said Father Dave Atanasio, chaplain at St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip. “As a [spiritual] parent, that’s what I want to do.”
Every day for the last week, Father Atanasio has jumped into his car and covered hundreds of square miles as he headed to towns such as Wantagh, Massapequa, Lindenhurst, Bay Shore, Oakdale, up to Fort Salonga and Kings Park — and even as far east as Southold — to bring the Blessed Sacrament to approximately 75 school families.
“I’ve found people to be really receptive to it because they need our Lord right now,” Father Atanasio said. “When is there ever going to be another time when you’ll have the Blessed Sacrament on your front lawn? It’s been a real gift.”
After catching up and laughing a bit, all while keeping the required social distance — most families just stay on the front steps of their houses while Father Atanasio remains in the driveway or on the front lawn (some even stay inside and talk to him on their phones) — Father Atanasio offers a blessing with holy water to the families. If they leave out a container, he fills it and encourages them to bless themselves as a family or before bed for spiritual protection.
Then Father Atanasio, dressed in a cassock and surplice, holds up a monstrance for adoration. Despite being outside, “90 percent of the time all you hear is birds chirping,” he said. “It’s so peaceful.” In one neighborhood, cars driving by turned down their blaring stereos out of respect for the sacred sight.
A sign-up form went out to school families from the school’s campus ministry team via email a couple of weeks ago offering the home blessings.
Responses were organized by location, and Father Atanasio has been able to visit about ten homes per day.
“For many of these people it’s the first time they’re [experiencing] adoration,” he said.
The mother of one family, who didn’t realize Father Atanasio was bringing the Blessed Sacrament, fell to her knees and started crying when he brought out the monstrance. Pretty soon, everyone on the steps was crying.
“I think initially they thought it was just me showing up,” he said. “It was so beautiful, because she didn’t expect [the Blessed Sacrament]. I’m not the big star of the show here — Jesus is.”
“For a lot of these kids, they’ll never forget that during the quarantine, the priest came with the Blessed Sacrament,” Father Atanasio continued. “I know that our Lord has done something for the homes I went to, even if it was just for that day, just for that moment. It’s at least a reprieve from the anxiety that people have right now.”
Students at St. John the Baptist High School began remote learning the week of March 16. The campus ministry team of Jess Maddalena, Richard Costa and Father Atanasio began brainstorming ways for the students to stay connected not only to the school community but also to the wider community and to their faith during quarantine.
Mass is livestreamed daily on Instagram and the school website from the chapel at the Church of St. Joseph in Babylon, where Father Atanasio resides.
Every Tuesday a holy hour with adoration is livestreamed as well. Students and their families are invited to email their prayer intentions for Sunday Mass, all of which are read aloud during the Prayer of the Faithful.
“We decided we had to make Jesus the center of all this,” Costa said.
As he began receiving emails for assistance from groups the school normally helps during the year, including the Midnight Run organization which helps homeless people in New York City and the Sisters of Life, who help women in crisis pregnancies, Costa put out an email to school families asking for donations.
Students, of course, would not do the physical transport of supplies as usual, but families sent socks, underwear and face masks for Midnight Run and diapers, games, food and other supplies for the Sisters of Life to Costa’s house.
“The response was really overwhelming,” said Costa, who delivered the supplies with the help of his sons. “There were more than 200 boxes of diapers; my van was filled up twice with food, games, clothes.”
Also, students were recently invited to record a video of themselves at home reading a children’s book for Catholic elementary students in the diocese.
And, just on Saturday, the school provided lunch for the doctors, nurses and staff at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip. Below, junior Tyler Layton and sophomore Liam Dunn, assist with the lunch delivery.
This week the school is launching another activity for students: a virtual challenge of safely spreading Easter kindness and service throughout their communities. Students are to make a video of themselves doing a small act of service or kindness and then challenge others to do the same by tagging them on social media.
“We’re just trying to keep the students active as much as possible, realizing that schools are far more than academic institutions,” Costa said.