Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to receive updates weekday mornings. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.
• • •
It’s 9:30 on Wednesday morning, and Father Carlos José Rojas, pastor of St. Cecelia Catholic Church in Clearwater, is ready to begin the midweek Mass.
His eyes light up. “Everyone is welcome,” Father Rojas says affably. “We are going to ask for mercy around the world, especially for the victims of this epidemic and for those who are working now, like doctors and nurses.”
But the welcoming words of Father Rojas are heard far away from the pulpit of St. Cecelia, the church where he was appointed only three weeks ago to serve the Hispanic community.
Rojas only managed to celebrate one Mass when the impact of the coronavirus became evident in all spheres of society. As a precautionary measure, the bishop of the Diocese of St. Petersburg asked Rojas to spend more time at home. St. Cecelia had to temporarily close its doors and cancel traditional Masses so as to avoid large concentrations of people.
To overcome a sense of spiritual homelessness, Father Rojas reminded his parishioners about the mission and meaning of the Schoenstatt Apostolic Movement. Founded in Germany, the movement invites families and individuals to make a covenant of love and to dedicate space in their homes for the Virgin Mary, known as a “home shrine.”
The situation also forced Father Rojas to bring his weekly Masses to Facebook. For now, they are streaming from his efficiency in Land O’ Lakes. Masses in Spanish are streaming on Sunday and Wednesday at 9:30 a.m.
“Now, our home is our sanctuary,” said Father Rojas.
Father Rojas is considered one of the more popular priests ministering to Clearwater’s Hispanic community. Before being transferred to St. Cecelia, he was assigned to the Transfiguration Parish, which later became Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Mission. Before that, Rojas was assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Wimauma.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Father Rojas said his online Masses emphasize the value of the family in times of despair.
Rojas was born in Boston but grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico and moved to Tampa when he was 15. At the University of South Florida, he was the president of Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity. He began to question his life’s meaning, which led him to the church. He left USF for St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach, and was ordained in 2006.
Now 43, Father Rojas said will continue to use live streaming during the coronavirus shutdown to help people feel connected.
“If the quarantine continues, then so do we,” he said.
Jenny Nolasco, coordinator of the Schoenstatt movement in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, said that Father Rojas’ initiative is a response to solving a spiritual need in our community.
“The churches are closed and although nothing compares to a conventional Mass, this is something to continue feeding our Hispanic community and the multicultural movement of the Diocese,” said Nolasco.
Father Chuck Dornquast, director of vocations for the Diocese, said he also started broadcasting his Sunday Mass a week ago through Facebook. He streamed the Mass from the chapel of the Cathedral of St. Jude The Apostle.
“It is the first time that I personally did such a thing, and I think it is incredible to provide a spiritual need in these difficult times,” said Father Dornquast.
Carlos Flores, associate director of the St. Petersburg Diocese’s Office of Hispanic Ministry, said Father Rojas is one of many priests in the Diocese who are courageously “living the gospel” by using technology to stay in touch with parishioners.
“Through the livestream of the Mass, we were able to come into his domestic church and accompany him, just like he accompanies his parishioners when they go to Mass on Sundays,” said Flores.
In the first week, the livestream had more than 15,000 viewers among its three Facebook pages, with more watching later, according to Flores.
Raquel Sanchez, 73, is watching the live Masses as often as she can from her apartment in Kendall, a Miami suburb. Sanchez said she heard a lot about online liturgies and the commitment of Father Rojas from friends and relatives in Tampa.
“It’s better to have a Mass and be safe at home”, said Sanchez. “At least for now, it is the best path to do it.”