“We Were Born For This!” Examining The Issues
I recently read a great meme: “Guess what? God was not surprised by Covid.” Nothing happens outside of God’s providence and foreknowledge. Events may seem dire or confusing when they happen. They might seem unrelated to other occurrences. In fact, all are at least allowed by God, if not directly willed. In these unprecedented days, it is important to remember this scriptural truth.
The personal, economic, and social fallout from COVID-19 is immense. COVID-19 has been painful. Yet, it has also served as a catalyst. It is forcing necessary, and well-overdue, change in significant ways.
Schools have had to make the transition to online learning. They are finding possible alternatives for the future. These new approaches could positively transform education and bridge inequity.4 Organizations have discovered that some employees can just as effectively work from home. This trend is likely to grow.5 Families have re-discovered the value of time together. Even though churches have been closed, many families gained a fresh perspective on what it means to be the “domestic church.” Many Catholics were suddenly unable to partake of the Eucharist. They discovered, or re-discovered, nourishment in the Word of God. These, and other graces, have come out of this painful time.
COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst for change in many sectors. In the Church it seems to be acting as an accelerant.6 Churches are becoming convinced about the truth revealed in Romans 8:28. Parishes are seizing this opportunity to rethink and re-imagine what Catholic parishes can be.
In his white paper, “Re-imagining What A Catholic Parish Can Be,” Detroit priest Father John Riccardo put forth an idea. He argues that now is the time, with prayer and with utmost confidence in the Risen Lord Jesus, to retool our parishes. Why can’t they become centers of excellence for the priests that serve there? Can the lay staff that serves alongside them be re-envisioned? What about the faithful in the pews, the fallen away, and the unchurched in the community? Can they be looked at with new eyes?
Past, Present and Future
Over the past number of years, many dioceses have had to deal with, or plan for, dramatic change. This has included massive priestly retirements, declining vocations, limited financial resources, inadequate staffing, and a growing exodus from the Church—especially among the young.8 Longing for the “good-old-days” of the past can often be the mindset of the Church. My former seminary roommate once said, “Serenity and nostalgia cost money. And this archdiocese has been willing to spend – literally – millions for serenity and nostalgia.”
Across the country, we have seen well-intentioned attempts to face these pressing matters. We’ve seen it in Philadelphia. Parishes have closed, clustered, or merged. These actions often caused great emotional and spiritual pain to the faithful. In many cases, it increased problems instead of addressing them. It added to the exhaustion of priests and the staff that serve with them.
One key issue, according to Fr. Riccardo, is that many attempts addressed symptoms rather than the root causes underlying them. (Arch)dioceses seemed unwilling to face the difficult decisions needed to address the biggest issues. Parishes didn’t want to change. They did not want to face the hard reality of what was happening within their parish boundaries, schools and ministries. I remember reading an interview with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He remarked about the impression that the Church was simply managing decline.
Our approach needs to change, he said.
With some notable exceptions, the tendency throughout the country was to “tweak” or “band-aid” the problems. Now is the time to totally reimagine what a parish could be. We are going to have to adapt and adjust to a new – and exciting – normal. Novel thinking about parishes, priestly life, the involvement of laywomen and men, and strategic and effective ways to share the gospel, will be paramount. We need to do our best to assess what time we are living in, and adapt and adjust accordingly.
To do this, let’s first look at Church history over the past 200 years. This will provide some idea about the radical, rapid transformation in the world. It will also offer some explanation of why the Catholic Church, especially in North America and Europe, currently seems a bit unsettled, “off-balance” and unsure.