Catholic Parishes in the Time of COVID-19

Where there is no vision, the people perish – Proverbs 29:18

Catholic parishes and diocese have been scrambling to adjust to a new world in which churches, schools, and offices are closed. Large gatherings for worship are not in the offing any time soon. Parish teams have struggled to learn live-streaming, while priests and deacons are disconcerted by preaching to empty pews.

Catholic worship and identity are focused on being together in community. Catholics can no longer go to Mass in person. They cannot receive the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Parents are waiting to baptize their children. Young people and adults are waiting for Baptism and Confirmation. Confessions and counseling are less comforting at 6 feet with masks.

Many parishes are trying various types of drive-in services with varying degrees of success, but authorities and dioceses are discouraging these practices. In the middle of this scramble, there is a growing sense that ministry strategies in the time of COVID-19 has to be something different. The crisis may last another 18 to 24 months depending on the development of a vaccine, widespread testing and tracking, and the success of medical treatment.

In general, the Catholic Church does not have pastoral strategies. Many parishes have pastoral plans, but they are all about the promotion of in-person meetings, charities, and social justice programs. In fact secular business vocabulary has not been “baptized”. The language of planning and shifting to changing needs are contained in many church documents and formal teachings.  However, goals, strategies, and tactics are implicitly and explicitly driven by a “Mass and sacraments first” culture stretching back 2000 years. Vision is one of the most prominent words, but it is mystical and searches for the presence of God in all things. Ah, yes. Where is God now? With Mother Teresa we have found God in streets and gutters. With Archbishop Oscar Romero we have found the deity in social and military oppression. But how do you encounter a God isolated, fearful, impoverished?

So, what is the vision now? How is ministry being re-envisioned? Are online services only a stop gap?

It is a shame to waste a crisis. It can be wasted if there is no vision to re-invigorate church in the home, also called the “domestic church”. It can be wasted if we focus only on our buildings and the unique Catholic syndrome of the “edifice complex”. It can be wasted if we focus only on the roles of the ordained priesthood and diaconate and downplay the priesthood of the faithful.

Vatican II (1961 to 1964) gave the worldwide Catholic Church a new vision of church in the midst of the ruins of the world wars of the twentieth century and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It is a vision that is still controversial but perhaps it is worth revisiting during the age of COVID-19 and the prospect of other emerging pandemics.

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