5 friars on computer screen

Clockwise from top left: Charlie Smiech, Page Polk, Raphael Ozoude, Brian Menezes, and Bill Farris

As friars have found, ‘It’s a great resource’

Charlie Smiech sits in his room at Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, Calif., staring at rows of faces on a computer screen. Thousands of miles apart, he and five others talk about their work, their plans, their shared frustrations. Their meeting is nothing short of miraculous. And they owe it all to Zoom.

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Charlie Smiech, left, at Serra Retreat with fellow team members Regan Chapman, Ray Tintle, and Michael Doherty

A year ago, when the pandemic drove us into our separate, isolated spaces, the question was, “What exactly is Zoom?” Now the question is, “What would we do without it?”

“It’s become almost irreplaceable,” says SJB Vicar Bill Farris, whose work in Cincinnati requires interaction both locally and nationally.

“It’s a great resource,” says Page Polk, who attends Provincial Council meetings via Zoom from the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But when a meeting goes much past an a hour and a half, I find myself roaming in my mind’s eye. I get tired of looking at all the little boxes on the screen.”

The camera and microphone in a tablet, cell phone or computer are the conduits for this miracle. The link generated by Zoom – click it to be transported – is the incantation that makes it happen.

For Charlie, a child of the ’60s, “It reminds me of ‘The Jetsons’,” a cartoonish view of a future powered by robotics and gee-whiz technology. “If you can’t be there in person, what a gift it is to be connected by Zoom.”

vintage photo of woman using bell picture phone

Bell’s PicturePhone was an early attempt at video communication.

Introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, Bell’s PicturePhone, an expensive novelty, was a precursor to video phone apps and video conferencing. Last year when the pandemic drove us apart, the world turned to Zoom – designed as a meeting tool and embraced for its reliable, easy-to-use software – to bring us together.

At the Interprovincial Novitiate in Santa Barbara, Calif., novice Brian Menezes uses Zoom to connect with teachers and spiritual directors across the country. “It helps people come face to face,” he says. “Having someone to talk to helps us feel a close human connection – a challenge many face during these times.”

Raphael Ozoude is a student-friar whose learning life revolves around Zoom. Part of the community at St. Joseph Interprovincial Friary in Chicago, he attends four of his five classes at Catholic Theological Union remotely. At CTU, “Almost everything is online, mostly through Zoom.” It has made him realize, “I’m very much used to being in class in person. Zoom was entirely new to me. It was an adjustment.”

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The Provincial Council in person: Clockwise from top left are Bob Bruno, Roger Lopez, John Barker, Page Polk, Bill Farris and Mark Soehner

Before the pandemic, Bill had more than a passing acquaintance with Zoom. “I was lucky to have encountered it as part of a conference on mission effectiveness at St. Bonaventure. We had a week-long onsite meeting, then every month we had a follow-up meeting on Zoom, like 10 times.” Last spring when the shutdown began, “We started having to look at alternatives for Provincial Council meetings, so I suggested we try Zoom. For that first Council meeting, three guys were at home in Chicago, Virginia, and Scottsdale, and the rest of us were in Cincinnati.”

The pluses? “It’s a fairly easy program; it doesn’t require a lot of technical skills. It’s easy to set up meetings, then join the meetings. A couple clicks and you’re in. One feature maybe people aren’t aware of,” he says, “is that you can have breakout sessions” set up by the organizer within the main meeting.

Bill has used Zoom for webinars, province committee meetings, legal consultation, follow-up with friends after a high school reunion, and “one family meeting with my brother as he got in touch with his children who weren’t in town. It wasn’t as much fun as having them there. There’s more spontaneity to a family visit.”

friar with lap top

Brian Menezes says one of his favorite features is being able to change his Zoom background.

Page has mixed feelings about Zoom. “It’s a wonderful medium since we can’t travel and be with each other. I’m grateful for it, but I’m tired of it. It’s not the same as sitting across a table from someone. It’s a challenge for me sometimes to remember that there are a certain number of people on the screen, and to be attentive to each one of them.” Using Zoom for the Provincial Council, “Meetings can be more focused. We get a lot more done, but it’s not as much fun.”

Part of St. Barbara Province, the Franciscan Renewal Center (also called “The Casa”) where Page ministers strives to be “a spiritual oasis for renewal, rest and prayer” by offering public worship, retreats and special events. Liturgies at the church, suspended due to spikes in COVID-19 in Maricopa County, Ariz., are about to resume. To stoke interest until programs restart, “We do a Zoom thing here called ‘Discover the Vision,’” Page says. “It meets twice a month and is an opportunity for people to join us and learn about the ministries we do.” Led by a development team member, it includes a tour, historical tidbits from a friar and news of their social justice ministry.

Last year Charlie had just joined the team of three other friars at Serra Retreat Center, a ministry of St. Barbara Province, when the second wave of the pandemic swept California. “You come out here, you’re all ready to go, and you realize nothing is going to happen until it’s safe,” he says of the letdown. “I made that adjustment by using a lot of time for prayer, evaluating my life almost as a monk might do. It’s been a blessing in some ways.”

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Page Polk preaching in Scottsdale, Ariz.

But in a place that relies on retreatants for survival, “It’s been challenging. We’ve had people here, but we can only use every other room. No one can eat inside; they have to eat outside. I just finished a meeting where we painfully came to the decision of postponing our men’s retreat, a group that would have been quite large. It wasn’t feasible for us to have the retreat, nor was it safe.”

At least they can commiserate through Zoom with the staffs of four other Franciscan retreat houses in California. Charlie also meets virtually with the Interprovincial Retreat Committee led by Bruce Michalek of Our Lady of Guadalupe Province. “It’s a way of seeing people from different parts of the country, checking in with one another and taking care of business,” Charlie says. “In the ‘old normal’, we would get together once a year in person.” With Zoom, “We can see each other and talk to each other every other week or so.”

Beyond hosting virtual retreats, “We’re hoping to expand our Zoom community. We’ve been praying with people by Zoom. I’ve been meeting some of the retreatants on Zoom. We’re thinking about having Zoom spiritual direction, not in the classic sense of the word, but with folks who want to talk to a friar about spiritual things. There are some things one may not feel comfortable talking about via Zoom. It’s so public, we don’t have the closed environment for confidentiality.”

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The October Investiture at the Interprovincial Novitiate

Charlie is preparing for his first Ash Wednesday with Zoom. For those who register, “We’re sending out a prayer service in the mail, we have some questions for people to ponder about what Lent means to them, suggestions of things they can do throughout Lent, and a litany of books.” They will also receive “a tiny bag of blessed ashes in the mail” which they can apply themselves, “or maybe with a spouse or relative to make them feel part of the larger group” outside their safe cluster. It’s not ideal, “but it’s something in this desert of the pandemic.”

Connecting with the wider world is crucial for friars in formation. At the novitiate, Brian says, “Zoom has played an invaluable part, as we are able to learn and share ideas with the brothers and sisters of this wonderful Franciscan family.”

Among its applications, “Zoom helps a lot with online classes and meetings. It saves time by eliminating the setting up of meeting rooms, and cuts down on the use of paper for presentations.” Then there’s the mobility. “Having Zoom on a cell phone helps us stay connected while being on the move. You get to select what environment you want to be in, whether that be your room, an office, the backyard, or warming yourself by a fireplace. Once when we had a house meeting it was my turn to cook, so I connected to Zoom through my phone, which enabled me to participate in the meeting while preparing dinner for my brothers.”

For those who feel confined, “One of my favorite Zoom features is being able to change the background” framing the speaker, Brian says. “I can appear to be anyplace around the globe, all while seated in the comfort of my room.”

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For Chicago’s student friars, learning is mostly remote: “It’s just another life experience,” says Raphael.

In Chicago, Raphael is both a Zoom student AND a Zoom teacher, so he’s familiar with the fatigue that accompanies overload. “Some professors are very engaging,” he explains. “Others just sit and read. Sometimes with classes I have to sit in one spot for so long, looking at the screen constantly, that after a while your mind gets tired. There’s nothing moving. It’s very difficult to get engaged. I guess the other thing is lack of real contact with other students. You can see each other on the screen, but it’s not the same as sitting with them in class and borrowing someone’s pencil.”

One benefit of Zoom, he says, “is that if I need to, I can get up and get coffee downstairs. Sometimes my mind is like, ‘I just need to take a break.’ I’ve found it increasingly important to get outside, just to clear my mind.”

Through Zoom, Raphael is teaching a Sacrament of Confirmation course to teen-agers at a parish in Chicago’s Chinatown. “I got to know the parish through John Boissy; he asked me to teach there. Some of the students are very engaged and outspoken.” And if they’re not? He puts them on the spot and calls on them. “Otherwise they’re not learning.”

laptop with zoom meeting

The most common complaint about video meetings is fatigue.

Raphael is ready to return to the classroom, and says of his exposure to Zoom, “It’s just another life experience that I would have taken some positive lessons from. This period has helped everyone understand the importance of community. Having a community can easily be taken for granted.”

God willing, the pandemic will wane, but “I believe Zoom is here to stay,” Brian says. “As the U.S. provinces come together, Zoom will continue to play a vital role in functions that will make us more fraternal, united and connected.”

Charlie admits, “I wasn’t a big fan of Zoom at the beginning. There were technical difficulties, and I’m not a tech person.” Now, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s the only way to go.”

Page has a theory about its long-term impact. “I think any group might consider, do we all really need to come together? Whether it’s local or national or international travel, do we do things in a more expedient or economically feasible way? I think we’ve had to sit back and ask, how can we conduct the business we need to conduct?”

Whatever the future holds, “It’s a remarkable medium,” he says, and hastens to add, “But then, I’m still fascinated by fax machines.”