Taking his cue from the Badger Bounceback, which began kickstarting the state after COVID-19 shuttered businesses, schools and churches, Archdiocesan Chief of Staff Jerry Topczewski worked with archdiocesan staff to draft the Catholic Comeback Matrix in spring 2020. It was the answer to a phased plan that Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki hoped would provide a smooth transition back to a fully operational archdiocese.

“Back in April 2020, the state issued the Badger Bounceback, which was a six-page document that talked about being Safer at Home and how it has saved lives, protected healthcare workers and critical employees, and prevented our hospitals from being overrun,” Topczewski said.

Topczewski used the state plan as a model for how the Archdiocese could safely open parishes with a priority of returning to Mass.

“The parishes were asking, so we began listing all things having to do with parish operations and categorizing them in different ways, such as the liturgy and returning to Mass, other sacraments and religious education and parish activities,” Topczewski said. “We divided the matrix into liturgy, sacraments, parish, school, education and religious ed, formation, speakers, parish missions and evangelization. I also added archdiocesan activities at the Pastoral Center and information on returning to work.”

Other ideas, such as determining which phase they could safely allow individuals in the buildings, plan events, and hold diaconate courses and formation were also added to the matrix. Topczewski then began populating it and discussed it with others in the archdiocese.

“The original Matrix, dated April 30, began with liturgy,” he said. “We came back to Mass May 31 on Pentecost, and with our liturgy office, put the Matrix and a letter online to give parishes a month to prepare. We focused on liturgical guidelines, such as Sunday Mass first, and we had suggestions for the priests and parish directors to use their discretion as to whether the parish had enough cleaning supplies, their process for cleaning and adequate volunteers to help.”

Although the archdiocese followed state guidelines for COVID-19 prevention, it maintained strict guidelines even after the State Supreme Court overturned the governor’s mandates. The Matrix continued throughout three phases of lessening restrictions and several versions until, finally, eliminating the phases.

“Somewhere in the stream of versions, we got rid of the phases. When people called from various churches wanting to have things like rummage sales that were not listed in the Matrix, we relied on various people.  I called on Fr. Jerry Herda for sacramental questions, Barbara Anne Cusack and Brad Berghouse for operational and ministerial questions, and together handled the general and ad hoc questions,” said Topczewski. “Throughout the process, it became our motto that, ‘How do we say yes to what people want to do within the matrix?’”

One of the ways they were able to say yes was by observing which parishes in the archdiocese seemed to be doing an excellent job. St. Dominic Parish in Brookfield was one of the examples following guidelines and utilizing outstanding leadership in this regard. Another parish wanted to host a rummage sale; they had planned it for outdoors, with social distancing and handling the money safely.

“We said yes to them and were happy to be able to do so,” said Topczewski. “They demonstrated they could do it. It was like an elastic band as we allowed some parishes to do more, using them as pilot programs. We wanted to be cautious, and to open smartly and safely. Because we ran the programs like this, we never had an outbreak from any event or had a celebration or sacrament that was a super spreader. We are confident we took a good, smart approach.”

In addition to responding to sacramental questions, Fr. Herda, Vicar for Clergy, said he served as the contact person to help priests and parish directors understand and implement the Matrix.

“One of the things we learned very early on during the pandemic is that there were more questions than answers,” Fr. Herda said. “The Matrix was a very helpful guide to keep everyone on the same page.”

Barbara Anne Cusack agreed and was impressed with Topczewski’s work on the Catholic Comeback Matrix. She appreciated having an opportunity to review it each time before they updated it.

“I was able to raise issues that had come to me or because I know how parishes operate,” she said. “My main involvement was in answering questions about the matrix from pastors and parish staff. That’s because many people see the Chancery Office as a ‘ready reference’ and call her for a variety of reasons. The number of alternate-site weddings increased dramatically because of COVID, and there were many questions from priests and deacons about that new option.”

Cusack said most pastors and parish staff seemed to appreciate the Matrix, finding it helpful to have common guideposts and practices.

“That way, you didn’t have parishioners comparing what was being done in some parishes but not the same in others,” she said. “There were some parishes that did not put effort into complying, and we had our share of concerns raised about that.”

According to Fr. Rick Stoffel, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Slinger, St. Lawrence in St. Lawrence and Resurrection in Allenton, the concept and purpose of the Matrix was a sound idea that unified all entities within the archdiocese.

“Each of my parishes followed its guidance carefully with consideration for their parish culture(s),” he said. “While some of our folks chafed and felt the Matrix was far too stringent (and) others felt it allowed too much, the vast majority realized how important it was to cooperate with public health authorities and make do with what we could and could not do.”

As Fr. Stoffel and other pastors experienced the guidance, he said the Matrix became a convenient, authoritative reference point for pastors and parish staff to say, “no, not yet. Wait and see. Soon — we hope.”

“Admittedly, our staff and volunteers eventually tired of some aspects being, to their minds, prolonged unnecessarily, and began to ‘compare notes’ with other parishes and community organizations, wondering why we could or couldn’t do as they were or did,” Fr. Stoffel said. “The newest, and hopefully final, version of the Matrix was greeted with much happiness and relief, as only very few, by comparison, things remain somewhat restricted.  We are hopeful and prayerfully anticipate complete lifting of restrictions in the coming fall.”

When the data demonstrated it was OK to loosen some restrictions, Topczewski said he would write updates and notes on the existing Matrix.  Some of his notes included allowing for in-person choirs in the third phase, and what to do about quinceañeras and the resulting celebrations. Other decisions surrounded daily Masses, weddings, and handling hymnals, bulletins and offertory money. Topczewski would publish a new version after input from his team.

“We didn’t want to overburden one parish over another on anything, especially daily Masses if it was difficult to clean the church,” Topczewski said. “In the beginning, we allowed weddings if there were less than 10, but changed to allow more in the parishes who have successfully celebrated Sunday Mass.”

Topczewski said they were not alone in trying to be cautious. The Wisconsin Council of Churches and other dioceses had similar plans, and even some non-Catholic churches noticed and used the Matrix.

“We received an email from a Lutheran pastor who said he followed our Matrix as he had nothing else to go on,” he said. “He thanked us for our leadership and the archbishop for insisting we are allowed to have our religious celebrations.”