Let’s talk about where are we going as a post-COVID Church
Posted: Wed, 09 Sep 2020 10:01
"As we now move forward, after weeks of lockdown, we need to have an honest and open conversation about where we are going as a Church. How are we going to find a new 'wine skin' to meet this new challenge?" Gerry O'Shaughnessy SDB calls on all of us to help our Church form a community of faith for changed times, by sharing our own insights, experiences and sacrifices during the pandemic, and our hopes for the future.
Embraced in deep love and the efforts of people all over the world
Now is the time to overcome, to bring peace
We gathered for love and I hope to fulfil that desire
The time has come to fight and overcome our unhappiness
To COVID-19 that stands in our way
I say Disappear from this earth
We shall fight
We shall fight this terrible monster
Now is the time for people all over the world to stand up
My deep gratitude goes to all those who are already fighting.
From A message to the Whole World, Yayoi Kusama
After six months of lockdown, our schools and workplaces are making the stuttering movement towards post-pandemic normality. What has this time taught us about what it is to be Church? Late March brought the unthinkable: the Church closed its doors! The Church, that bastion of welcome, peace and inclusivity was designated a 'super-spreader' on the basis of close contact, singing, sharing the sign of peace and, the hardest to accept, receiving Holy Eucharist. The sacrament of LIFE had brought the possibility of DEATH.
As we now move forward, after weeks of lockdown, we need to have an honest and open conversation about where we are going as a Church. How are we going to find a new 'wine skin' to meet this new challenge? Covid-19 was part of the dynamic development of the Church, as it reacted to the crisis; looking through history, we see a robust Church family facing difficulties and problems. The sitting room at home became our workplace, schoolroom, choir, cinema . And, on Sunday, it was our sanctuary: our place of encounter with God and the community of faith. However, no matter how interesting, high-tech and interactive our Sunday online Mass was, it was basically a service of the Word, as we watched the celebrant, alone, receive the Eucharist. We can talk of Bishops relieving us of our Sunday 'obligation' and being able to share a spiritual communion, but a Mass without Eucharist that we could share was just not the same. However, it did bring comfort, help and salvation to those caught up in the horror of a pandemic, something shared by the global community. Covid-19 did not discriminate and while most other problems, such as SARS, were seen as 'over there', Covid hit Manchester with as much force as it did Manila.
We are now in the very slow recovery stage, as we attempt to return to work, to open our inner cities and ensure that our schools are FULLY open—never forget that schools remained open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers throughout lockdown. People are frightened as we have seen how deadly this virus is and we remember those who died without the touch of their family or loved ones, and had to be buried quickly without the usual rites of thanksgiving and grief.
Churches are once again 'open' in a way that allows for a limited congregation, no singing and the need for a deep clean after each service. Some are afraid to return to such close proximity to others and have opted to continue with their weekly online Mass, while others have opted to share their Sunday mass on a Wednesday.
Covid-19 has taught us that we needed to think outside the box and kudos must go to those clergy and pastoral leaders who had to work outside their comfort zone in providing online support, when they didn't know their broadband from their modem! As we look to the future, I feel there is a need for us to examine how we function as Church in the future. You need to be part of that conversation as your experience of these past six months is essential can lead us forward. Your personal insight will give the Church an experience that the Bishops or clergy will not have.
The BANDA research institute in the US report that already a third of respondents have opted out of both online and in-Church worship. The reasons for this are varied and diverse but the feeling of being 'zoomed out' features high. After a week of using the kitchen laptop for everything from your management meeting, making your Tesco order, your children's schooling, the weekly family quiz, Skyping grandparents stuck in quarantine and sharing your latest dance routine on Tik Tok, the thought of another session in online Church is just too much. Of course, there is the reality that many simply do not have the technology to keep in touch and have slipped of the radar.
Many also reported that technology could not replace the other functions that Church provides, especially the social: they miss that chat over the coffee after mass; they miss the singing; they miss community. We can argue that we have never been as connected as we are today: that might be fine if we want to speak with a sister in Cape Town, but do we really want to FaceTime our brother who lives in the next street? Churches have been very creative in the way that they have offered outreach in these times: everything from the excellent 'Battersea Angels' support project to Samaritan-style telephone ministry. Many of those wonderful extras in parish life from the 'Little Church' and RCIA programme to the 'Pensioners' Lunch' and the 'Family Film Night' have to put into the back burner. The Eucharist, albeit in a modified way, is still offered but those extras are far from being peripheral—for many they are a lifeline that help us in our practice of the faith and deepens our sense of community. My hope for the church as it emerges from the era of COVID-19 is that we rediscover and learn to value what is essential to the faith: the work of women, men and children, the value of honesty, transparency and expertise, the provisionality of all our knowledge, the working of the Spirit in unexpected places
As we navigate these changing times, there is a real temptation to return to pre-pandemic ways. When our backs are against the wall, it is so easy to adopt a 'we've always done it this way' stance. Covid-19 has challenged the global community in a way not seen for generations. The sense of growing separation from one's church community under pandemic conditions may be most acute for those who have depended on that community for support. We need to work very hard to plan a new way forward. Consciously or unconsciously, we have presented an ecclesiology (a theology of the Church) that rightly places the Eucharist at the centre. However, what these pandemic times have done is to return to those days when we 'heard' mass with limited or no collaboration and sharing. We need to ensure that the vision and insights of Vatican II are a still a reality in our Church.
Pope Francis reminds us that we are a 'field hospital' and not a rest home for the perfect. We are the Church founded on the 'wobbly rock' of the all too human Peter. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of certain characteristic Christian practices. Pope Francis has exemplified the pastoral leadership we need as he invites us to a kind of 'solidarity in place', encouraging us to check in on friends and family by phone or internet, or to deliver groceries to those in need. The Church needs to ensure that these seemingly little actions develop the Eucharist we share when we break the Bread of Life and offer the Cup of Blessings.
As a community of faith, we forget at our peril the final words of the Mass when the deacon or celebrant asks us 'to go in peace to LOVE and SERVE the Lord.' As we move forward in that peace and plan for a Church that has to be different , we do well to remember the reflection of John O'Donohue and recognise the 'holy' all around us—a 'holy' that exists beyond our 60 minute 'Zoom mass':
We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us
From 'The Inner History of a Day