Today, the longing for “normal” is practically palpable. This virus, and all its social ramifications, taints all of life with the abnormal – from wearing a face covering to elbow bumping, and from contact tracing to seeing grandma through the window. To this, many say: “I’m tired of it” or “I just wish we could go back to the way things were.”
This kind of talk is common in our parishes as well. We want our Mass schedules and programs back, and we want them just as they were before.
But, whether in daily life or parish life, what if “normal” never returns from its grave? What if “normal” never arrives on the horizon?
We often search for peace elsewhere. We hold out hope that peace will arrive in a new set of circumstances, which will certainly make us happier, healthier, and more content. All of this is the manifestation of a certain infidelity to the present moment, as if God is everywhere but here, now. Msgr. Luigi Giussani challenges this kind of mental retreat into the past or flight into the future. On this point, Giussani emphasizes that “Living life as vocation means tending toward the Mystery in the circumstances through which the Lord has us pass, by responding to them. […] Vocation is going toward destiny, embracing all the circumstances through which destiny has us pass.”
However, the truly Christian position, one that takes the Cross as its starting point and in all its seriousness, believes peace is possible here, now, because peace is not an absence of struggle but the presence of a Person. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has entered in profound fullness into the depths and heights of the human condition. Encountering Him in the present, then, is the key to changing how we engage our circumstances, and maybe even discover new opportunities to change them in the process. We do not have to change our circumstances in order to encounter Him.
If God’s providence is at work today, as Giussani indicates, then God must be beckoning us – “ineffective” church-workers that we sense ourselves to be right now – to something more, right now, and not in a month, in a year, or in years from now. What if we enter deeply into the present circumstances instead of looking before or beyond them? What will they teach us? What new opportunities arise? What is God doing right now – in my life and in the lives of the families that comprise the parish? Will they actually show us a new way forward should things ever return to “normal?” Are we open to that? What if God is allowing this time, in part, not only for families to reset amid the frantic lives they lived just 6 months ago, but also for the Church to reset her approach to ministry? What if a parish’s evangelizing and catechizing ministry does not return to “normal”? And, what if that is intentional?
In what follows, I simply wish to offer a few observations about what God might be doing in the present and what this could mean for parish ministry – particularly those ministries directed towards youth and their families – though some of the principles could be applied further. This list is by no means comprehensive, nor is it thoroughly researched. Instead, it is just one parish minister’s attempt to think-ahead by simply thinking-now; it is an attempt to get at “the real” of the now with an openness to seeing what God might be teaching us and where He might be leading us.
Our plans are…just our plans
If the coronavirus and all of its reverberations throughout society teaches us anything, it is this: We are not in control. A couple months ago, while speaking with a priest from a nearby diocese, he recalled, for the first time in weeks, the pastoral plan that numerous committees had developed over many months. He asked, “I wonder where this whole situation leaves that plan?” I have to believe that an unprecedented series of circumstances, like those we are enduring, has significantly impacted, if not entirely altering, nearly every five-year, three-year, and even one-year strategic plan. Everything is up in the air. It is hard to know exactly what next week will hold, much less next month, or next year.
This is not to say pastoral planning is valueless, but today’s situation does make one profoundly aware of the fragility of those plans. In the end, we realize that our plans, which may be saturated with good intentions and may be rooted in prayer and discernment (though I’ve been part of enough processes to know this is not always true), are just our plans and that we do not “make” the Church. It also makes us realize that sometimes our plans can become idols, attempts to take control, or, as Joseph Ratzinger puts it in Introduction to Christianity, to “tame the mysterious by…grasping the divine in one’s hands.”
In other words, this situation invites us to embrace the present, to discover Christ here, to be moved by the Holy Spirit here, and to invite and accompany others along the same path. We either surrender to the Mystery, clinging to It at every moment and allowing It to lead us, or we succumb to the gravitational pull of our own illusions. Faith takes up the former position and today’s circumstances invite us to this kind of faith by casting down our fearfully idyllic ideals.
Resetting the domestic church
The upending of all of life, the ceasing of incessant activity, the stay-at-home mandate, quite literally, the grounding of the whole family, while it can be viewed with a negative lens, is an almost unbelievable opportunity for families to reset. Family dinners have returned and board games dusted off. One can only look at a screen for so long before signing out and rediscovering the goodness of the “other” sitting under the same roof. Loving one’s neighbor takes a rather concrete form in those with whom I live. For the domestic church, God seems to be offering an opportunity to set things right, to root out disorder, and to engage in life together.
While this experience does offer families a chance to reset, it also lays everything painfully bare. Families that were thriving before, seem to be weathering the storm fairly well (though certainly not without some hiccups). At the same time, for the many families that were broken and struggling before, this situation only exacerbates difficulties. I have heard numerous stories of husbands caught in their pornography addiction, children escaping reality through ceaseless social media use, growing instances of domestic violence, and so forth. Family members once able to hide, distract, or cope via opportunities outside the home now find themselves inescapably stuck. Nevertheless, the light shines upon that which was once shrouded in darkness, and new opportunities for healing arise and the Church can step into this space with the light of Christ.
Persons before programs
In the spring, after the initial scramble to stream Masses, to keep programming alive digitally, or create take-home packets, some parishes have rediscovered a more personal approach: They called everyone on the books. This type of initiative had a number of obvious advantages, the first of which is simply putting the person before the program. While this should always be the case, it is too often not. The proliferation of programs over time precludes the possibility. Phone outreach also allowed for meaningful conversations with some disengaged parishioners or with those who had disappeared altogether. Taking up this phone ministry allowed parishes to regain a sense of the relationality that lies at the core of a parish, a relationality that is far less concrete now than it once was when the parish church was at the center of the life of a town, a neighborhood, and one’s liturgical and social life.
The phone call put the parish in touch with the real lives of people.
Anecdotally, in the midst of the stay-at-home order in Ohio, I called a fellow parishioner with whom I have become friends over the last year. He is almost completely disengaged from the parish, save for his children attending religious education, and he often refers to himself as a fallen-away Catholic. For him and his family, this time was a great blessing. Members of his family engaged with one another anew. They enjoyed the slower pace and delighted in the simple pleasures of life and work around the house, and so forth. In a word, his own word, he was “grateful” for this time and is not sure if he was looking forward to a return to “normal.” He rediscovered the familial relationships that shape his existence.
Now, this man probably never read a single email from the parish, and I did not get the sense that his family is necessarily praying together, streaming Mass, or doing anything religious. Nevertheless, his gratitude was the manifestation of a religious experience, of an awakening of his religious sense. This became clear to me as he was talking. He was not grateful to the coronavirus or to the governor, but to God. And, God was using this time to open him up. I only know about this because I actually talked to him, and, in talking to him, in perpetuating our friendship, I have gained tremendous insight into where he is in relation to the Lord and how I can better accompany him. In the end, this kind of personal discovery, meaning the discovery of the person on the part of the parish, could (and probably should) substantially change the way the parish approaches ministering to her families.
Moving away from mechanical ministry models
In an address given in the early 1980s, Ratzinger describes the technological world of self-made man, one which we are watching crack and crumble (yet again), as one which takes feasibility as its foundation. In this environment, Ratzinger notes, “to a great extent the family, the basic sustaining social form of Christian culture, is in the process of disintegrating” and, with regard to catechesis, “its traditional social supports–family and parish–are present only in broken form.”
As family life has deteriorated over time, parishes have stepped in and taken on more responsibility for youth formation. The result, however, has not been more well-formed youth, as the statistics indicate, but simply a structure that can effectively leave parents out of the formation equation almost entirely once they get their children in the “pipeline.” This often only perpetuates an ever-widening chasm between life and faith. It can also, over time, cause a subtle shift, one which is initially imperceptible, from the parish serving the domestic church to the domestic church serving the parish.
As the parish attempts to make up for a lack in the domestic church, the whole of parish life can become programmatic, and the parish can end up relying upon and putting pressure on the domestic church for the survival of the very same programs it originally created to help families. We end up dangling a series of carrots (often sacramental ones) in front of families out of fear they will simply walk away after they jump through enough hoops to receive the last one, and they do. The irrelevance of such programs for the lives of many parishioners has become rather apparent in these days. Is so happens that when people go into “survival mode,” they slough off everything extra, everything irrelevant. Many have jettisoned parish programs and the parish’s feeble attempts at staying relevant, though this perhaps just lays bare what was already the case.
All of this invites parishes into a new moment. If a parish can, in the midst of this time when programs and events grind to a halt, put the person before the program, invest in relationships, and generate conversations like the one mentioned above, that parish will gain tremendous insight into where families (particularly parents) actually are and likely have been. This will require finding new and creative ways of “going out” to the families where the families are now that various levels of separation exist between them and their normal points of contact with the parish. Through it all, it will likely become clear that one-size-fits-all programs, ones which are highly mechanical and which assume a homogenous audience, are, quite simply, inadequate.
This could teach us an important lesson as we move forward: Industrialized or highly process-oriented formation structures built on cultural assumptions and ecclesial personnel, the likes of which no longer exist, are simply insufficient in a fractured postmodern, post-Christian society. Perhaps the best way to pick up the pieces is to go to each piece personally somehow. We can start to see this in our current “normal” because it is one of the only ways to do ministry – i.e. personally. In living intensely “the real,” in being faithful to God in the present moment, and in opening our parish programs (and ourselves) to constant renewal, we might just discover a new “normal” – one that is more personal, more animated by faith, and less hampered by fear and control.
In this experience, we might find, perhaps, that we ought not go back to “normal.”
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