The Church’s mission of evangelization does not disappear in the face of adversity; rather, it becomes all the more urgent. The Church cannot bide time until the Covid-19 pandemic ends and normalcy returns, but must instead adapt and continue the work of the Gospel. Pastoral life is paramount in this mission, for Catholics are formed and nourished in the parish through the sacraments and faithful community. Creativity, flexibility, and mission-oriented leadership can address the deep need for community in the parish while also remaining conscious of health and safety.
The Pandemic Problem
Without the availability of in-person worship at the beginning of the pandemic, Catholics turned to online streamed Mass and the act of spiritual communion. Many parish communities sought an online vitality. Even with the reopening of churches and the restoration of some normalcy, many community activities remained diminished or completely absent from parish life.
In many cases, the efforts to safeguard health and safety obscured the pastoral needs of the Church during the beginning of the pandemic. With nearly a year of distance and isolation, the need for community has only intensified.
The Pastoral Problem
“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). The earliest pages of Scripture testify to our innate need for community – a need which every person can affirm from their own experience. Humanity was created for relationship with God and with others, and the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly hindered the opportunities to engage with others as we desire.
Vibrant parish communities often center around shared activities. Activities like serving coffee after Mass, gathering for Bible studies, serving in parish food pantries, and providing faith formation offer parishioners the opportunity to share meaningful time and build relationships that strengthen the overall parish community. Covid-19 has limited (at best) or eliminated (at worst) opportunities for fellowship among parishioners, and distancing in the pews only exacerbates the feelings of distance amidst parishioners.
Even with the mobility enabled by masks and social distancing measures, the isolating effects of the pandemic remain a significant burden in people’s lives. After almost a year of living in an abnormal, anxiety-inducing social environment, people are increasingly hungry for community and for interactions that feel normal. In addition to a concern for safety, pastors and lay faithful must recognize the deeply-felt longing for community and seek to foster connections between parishioners and between the Church and her faithful.
Restoring Hope and Community
Parish life will not be as it was – this is a crucial realization. Adaptation and innovation are necessary to build community during this time, and creativity, flexibility, and mission-oriented leadership can address the needs of the faithful as the pandemic continues. Most importantly, the Church must actively accompany the faithful. If the Church is not with people now, then people will not be with the Church after the pandemic ends. Drawing on the Church’s mission of evangelization gives clarity to community-building efforts during this time. With no clear understanding of the future, parishes must adapt so as to best serve the needs of the faithful during this pandemic.
Luckily, the normal functions of a parish – such as providing access to the sacraments, giving spiritual formation to parishioners, fostering Christian fellowship, and serving others in the community – can continue during this time. Community and safety can coexist, thanks to creative online formats and safe in-person gatherings.
To bridge the distance between parish and parishioners, communication is especially important. Whether through newsletters from pastors and parish staff or posts on social media, regular communication from the parish gives the Church a more consistent presence in the lives of the faithful. The Church has Christ’s message of hope, and amidst isolation and anxiety, people are longing to receive these words of encouragement and hope.
Creative outreach for the elderly and vulnerable is especially important. Elderly parishioners are often unfamiliar with the virtual world brought about by the pandemic, and at-risk populations experience greater isolation out of concern for health. Checking in with parishioners through phone calls or front-porch visits brings the desired connection to those who might not engage with virtual communication.
Additionally, the laity have a crucial role to play in facilitating community. Priests and parish staff should, of course, seek to create community in the parish, but lay people can address the need for fellowship in various ways. Starting in the family, parents have a renewed responsibility for catechesis, especially since parishes may not offer in-person faith formation and virtual learning is far less effective. Through supporting this in-home catechesis and responding to the needs of parishioners, the parish can empower the laity to articulate and address the challenges they face due to the pandemic.
As the pandemic continues, so does the need for a creative and robust response to the pastoral needs of the Church. In the mission to relentlessly proclaim the Gospel, all Catholics must seek to overcome the isolation of the past year and reinstate vibrant community life, thereby caring for both the physical and spiritual health of the Church.
For additional information on the Catholic Church’s response to the pastoral and managerial challenges of Covid-19, watch our webinar on the topic here: