How should the Catholic Church in the United States prepare to carry-out her mission in a “post-COVID” world?
As the now-infamous year 2020 has ended, and the world eagerly awaits the benefits of recently approved COVID vaccines, American Catholics should mobilize for a new wave of evangelization. There is no reason to wait until anti-COVID restrictions are lifted before deciding how best to share Christ with an ever-more wounded and distant world.
To be clear, by “post-COVID” I am referring to the situation after the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control and is no longer a dominating feature of people’s lives. That descriptive does not refer to “going back to normal,” as such a shift seems far-fetched at this time.
The COVID crisis has worsened the estrangement of civil society from the Church, of many Catholics from the practice of the Faith, and of family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers from each other. The increasing distances between individuals and groups was a poison of the human heart long before COVID. But the current pandemic has quickly made matters much worse.
The Catholic Church is the instrument of unity par excellence in God’s relations with mankind. Christ established his Church to draw all peoples into communion with the Holy Trinity. The Church’s mission of unity is especially true of the Holy Eucharist. The Mass is the sacramental representation of the Sacrifice by which the entire world is saved. In Holy Communion, Christ feeds his people with his own Body and Blood, drawing them into transforming intimacy with himself and union with each other.
It is a bitter irony that the COVID crisis has had a most deleterious effect on participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And so fidelity to the Eucharist is the first priority among the following ten ways the Church can intensify her evangelizing efforts, beginning today:
1). Renew the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Clergy and lay ministers frequently discuss the effects of various COVID-induced practices, including those pertaining to the Mass. Should public Masses be cancelled? Should the faithful be dispensed from their obligation to attend Mass on the Lord’s Day? How elaborate and rigid must our safety protocols be before, during, and after Mass? How many people will return to Mass when this crisis is over?
While each of these questions merits attention, dioceses and parishes must not ignore the opportunity this time offers to review and renew everything about the celebration of the Mass. Are priests following the Roman Missal? In its entirety? Is the sacred music truly sacred? Could minor ministers—sacristans, altar servers, lectors, cantors, and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion—benefit from additional training and formation? Is the church’s sound system adequate? Is the church clean and the sacred art and decoration all that it can be? Are ushers and greeters well-trained and hospitable? Is everything done in and for Holy Mass truly aimed at giving glory to God and saving His people?
2). Renew people’s appreciation of the Mass. The Church has a prime opportunity to share the Good News of the Eucharist with her own members and the world. This time of spiritual “fasting” from normal Catholic sacramental life can be a time of increased hunger for and love of the Mass. But that hunger and love need encouragement. Witness to the power of the Holy Sacrifice and catechesis about the riches of the Mass would do much to promote Eucharistic piety.
3). Assemble and share information about online resources. Catholics today are living through a renaissance of digital evangelization. There are more resources, more readily available, than at any time in the history of the Church. But millions of Catholics are still under-informed about the existence of these resources, and need help distinguishing between good and unhelpful resources, so that they can make the best use possible of their time online.
4). Make strategic use of video conferencing technology. Complaints about video conferencing are ubiquitous today, as people are growing tired of doing online what would normally be done face-to-face. Nevertheless, incredible strides have been made both in the development of video conferencing technology and effective use of this technology. There are surely a great number of ways the Church can leverage these gains for future evangelization and discipleship formation.
5). Become tech-savvy, not tech-dependent. Catholics need to distinguish not only between helpful and harmful digital content, but also between Church activities that translate to the digital world well or poorly. Live-Streaming, for example, is a helpful devotional tool for those who cannot attend Mass or other liturgies, but it is not a substitute for in-person liturgical participation. Catechesis would likely benefit from a mixed approach including both in-person and online teaching. In each area of the Church’s life, discernment is needed to decide what activities are enhanced by technology and what is impaired by over-reliance on technology.
6). Find ways to connect with those most isolated. The COVID crisis has highlighted the urgency of reaching out to the homebound, the homeless, and those who live in institutions of various kinds. Christ commands His disciples to share the Gospel with all people, in today’s world special attention must be paid to those who cannot come to church. Our parishes and other apostolates must bring Christ to them.
7). Preach faith, hope, and love at a time of doubt, despair, and bitter anger. The time is long past for the Church to emphasize ministry to those suffering from mental illness, addiction, or isolation from the church community. The Gospel is truly “good news” for all people, no matter what their situation in life. Catholics need to be industrious, creative, and self-sacrificing in bringing the love of Christ to those who are most in need of His tenderness, love, and mercy. Mental illness and suicides have spiked during this pandemic, and it is time for clergy and laity alike to respond in a variety of ways to meet the needs of those who are desperate for genuine love and help.
8). Open churches for prayer. People need to pray. The Church preaches the need for prayer, but all-too-often our churches are closed to those who wish to pray. There are practical challenges to be overcome, no doubt, but a little ingenuity and sacrifice would undoubtedly yield much good fruit. The goal should be to keep churches open as much as possible, to let people know they are open, and to make sure that people can rely upon churches to be open consistently and as-advertised. People will not make the effort to stop into church if they are not confident they will find it open for prayer.
9). Offer confessions as often as possible! Put simply, mortal sin is a terrible bottleneck to grace in a time when so few confessions are offered. There are many, many demands made of priests today, but there are also few opportunities for evangelization as privileged as hearing confessions. The “narrow way” to which Our Lord refers, the way that leads to salvation, the way taken by few and avoided by many, is very often the doorway into the confessional.
10). In all things, bring order out of chaos. Jesus Christ is the answer to which every human life is the question. In these chaotic times, people long for truth, order, stability, meaning, and direction. The Church offers the exact antidote to all that poisons the human spirit today. Catholics should be confident that when they preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, when they share the truths of the Faith and the way of life given by Christ and imitated by Our Lady and all the saints, they are sharing precisely what every person needs in order to find salvation and eternal life. Catholics do not sell their own opinions in the marketplace of human ideas. They share the gift of deliverance from sin and death unto eternal life with God. They share a pattern of life and society that hastens the building-up of God’s Kingdom on earth. The Church is a home for all people, and the only sure vessel by which all people can find their way to that eternal home Christ has prepared for those who believe in him and love him.
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