Bar codes

Martin Fabian, a winter parishioner of St. Pius Church X, gets familiar with the parish's new barcode ministry tool as he prepares for Mass. 

Fort Lauderdale Parish uses new ministry tool to keep worshipers engaged and connected

FORT LAUDERDALE | Father Biju Vells, pastor of St. Pius X, was ordering restaurant food when a thought came to mind — and his prayers were answered.  

“A lot of the parishioners were asking about how they could get a missal for Mass,” Father Vells said, referring to his Fort Lauderdale flock pleading for their beloved liturgical books, used to help them be more actively involved in the Mass.

The lack of books corresponds with the strict safety measures imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic in parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Miami. In addition to wearing masks, parishioners are asked to stay six feet apart during communal gatherings. Holy water is no longer found at church entrances, and liturgical books, hymnals and other printed materials have been removed from the pews to prevent the spread of germs through touching and handling by numerous people.

That means parishes have been liturgically challenged at Masses to unite people in song and prayer.

“We want the people to experience all the senses at Mass by watching it and taking part in the readings and prayers and singing,” said Father Vells. “We want people to be able to participate better.”

He had been brainstorming to come up with an answer to his parishioners’ requests for books when the idea hit him.

“I was out at a restaurant. They gave me a barcode for the menu,” said Father Vells about the “quick response” (Q.R.) code designed with rectangles, dots, hexagons and other geometric patterns. He simply scanned the eatery’s code with his smartphone, and the diner’s menu popped up. Father Vells browsed the menu items and placed his order quickly, comfortably and safely without coming in contact with a person or a printed menu.

That was the answer to his prayers. “We thought we would try to fix our parishioners up with a system like it,” he said.

The parish did some homework and found online sites that offer free two-dimensional barcodes customized to link to a website. The unique codes can be read and decoded using application software on mobile devices such as smartphones and iPads.

St. Pius created its own code and placed the barcodes at the entrance of church pews. Worshipers simply slide into a pew, scan the code and launch the parish’s webpage where the weekend Mass readings, responses, prayers and hymns appear.

“It is a wonderful thing,” said Joan Balogh, 84, a parishioner of St. Pius X for 40 years. “It is easy to use.”

The barcodes are used repeatedly. There is no need to change, reprint or replace them.

Catherine Magarino, parish music director, updates the parish webpage linked to the code each week by posting that weekend’s liturgical texts and songs.

“We started with the feature about a month ago,” said Lucy Matos, administrative assistant at the parish. “I am so happy with it. This is another way we can connect with our parishioners.”

The new parish ministry tool is a way to better serve churchgoers, but parishioners at home can also benefit.

“We have the barcode on our website,” said Father Vells.

People who participate in the Masses via livestream also can scan the barcode, launch the readings, responses, prayers and songs, and be better united with their fellow parishioners and the celebrant inside St. Pius X Church.

The barcode scanning system is not new. Barcodes are used everywhere and in a variety of ways. For example, the big retailers use them for inventory purposes and with their scanners at the checkouts; all those packages delivered to the door by Amazon feature a one-dimensional barcode with vertical lines for tracking.   

How are parishioners at St. Pius X adapting to the new system? Among the people calling the seaside parish home are a large number of seniors, retirees and seasonal parishioners who spend their winters in South Florida.

Father Wells gives his tech-savvy parishioners high marks. “Everyone has a smartphone,” he said. “They know how to go online. I have instructed them to click on links and email. Everyone is adapting.”

Mass greetings, handshakes and the typical after and before Mass gatherings for fellowship and for growing the spirit of community are things of the past for the time being.

The barcode joins the growing list of modern ministry tools and techniques pastors are using to engage and connect their people during these unusual times. Parish ministry has drastically changed during the worldwide pandemic with zooming, livestreaming, videoing and other modern tools.  

Father Vells, who has been at St. Pius X for five years and was ordained to the priesthood eight years ago, confessed that he is adapting to the new ways of ministry.

“I never imagined this. I don’t think anyone did,” he said. “It is a learning process for everyone. I am learning.”

Is technology here to stay? “For right now, until this thing is over,” said Father Vells. “We are hopeful. Things will get better.”