Oregon Catholics have faced a year of unprecedented challenges since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in spring 2020. But on most Friday evenings since then, hundreds and often thousands of people find a source of solace in the home of their spiritual leader, Archbishop Alexander Sample.

Crowds are not physically joining the archbishop in his residence, but rather are viewing his livestreamed Chapel Chats on Facebook Live, where he speaks to his flock from the heart, seated in the heart of his home — his private chapel.

“(That chapel) is the heart of my spiritual life, really,” Archbishop Sample said. “It’s the place where I pray for (the people), the place where I feel most connected with them in the body of Christ. That seemed to be the most appropriate place to talk to them.”

The first time he held a livestreamed session from his chapel — March 27, 2020 — it came at a critical time for many Oregon Catholics. They were approaching their second weekend without access to the sacraments during the initial pandemic lockdown, and the archbishop wished to give his spiritual flock a message of consolation and hope.

“Something sparked in me, like a pastoral instinct,” said Archbishop Sample. “It was going to be a very hard weekend for our people, not being able to come to the celebration of Mass. So, I wanted to speak to the people as their shepherd about that.”

Originally, he viewed the livestreamed chat as a “one-time event.” But after seeing a strong response from viewers, he decided to continue holding Friday evening conversations from his chapel. By May, these conversations became known as “Chapel Chats” and were drawing thousands of viewers, including hundreds joining during the Friday livestreams.

As the archbishop would later describe it, it was fortuitous for the church to be learning new ways of communicating to Catholics during this time. When other challenging issues presented themselves, he was able to speak to his flock directly and promptly, but most importantly, from his heart.

“When the social unrest happened and the rearing of the ugly head of racism happened, I was able to directly talk to the people about them in a timely manner,” said Archbishop Sample. “When the wildfires hit, I was able not only to go down and visit those folks … but also bring an awareness of their suffering to the wider church.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with everything the archbishop says during the Chapel Chats. That became apparent during the 2020 presidential election and last fall’s government restrictions.

Still, the archbishop said, “to be able to talk about … our responsibility as Catholics in the public square, we had this medium that I could immediately bring to the people. … I was able to address it directly and personally.”

The personal, intimate touch of the Chapel Chats is something Archbishop Sample hasn’t found in other mediums. Combined with the timeliness of livestreaming, it’s why he’s decided to conduct Chapel Chats live instead of pre-recording them for Friday evenings he’s not available.

“There’s just something very personal,” he said. “I’m actually talking to (people) live and there’s something important about that to me.”

While the archbishop tends to have notes prepared, depending on the subject he’s discussing, the Chapel Chats are not scripted events; speaking authentically and from the heart is very important to him. Archbishop Sample generally discerns what to talk about during the week, then prepares notes on Friday before posting an update to his audience about what he plans to talk about that evening. After setting up his computer in the chapel, he asks the Holy Spirit to work through the Chapel Chat as he awaits the chiming of his mother’s grandfather clock that notifies him it’s time to go live.

That prayer to the Holy Spirit, the location he streams from, the topic of discussion — all are intentional choices the archbishop makes for his Chapel Chats because his ultimate goal with them is to help viewers deepen their faith and grow in their relationship with God. He plans to continue holding Chapel Chats as long as it benefits his flock.

“The reason I became a priest in the first place was to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “I’m a much happier bishop, quite honestly, because of the Chapel Chats. (They’ve) given me that pastoral outlet to try to reach out to people with the message of the Gospel.”