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Catholicism Post COVID-19: Things May Look Very Different

May 14, 2020


“Why doesn’t my daughter know the Our Father?”

It was a question asked of me by a parent, as she was picking her daughter up from class of a Saturday morning. I had just spent an hour taking attendance and then trying to teach a forty-five-minute lesson to nineteen second graders who, by the end of the school year (we all hoped and prayed), should have been well-prepared to receive their first Holy Communion.

“Why doesn’t she know the Our Father?” It was asked with anger, as though having signed up her child for a Religious Education program, and dropped her off on time for class, her role in her daughter’s faith formation was done.

Naturally, I was very sorry to know that her daughter—a delightful little kid—could not yet recite the Our Father unprompted, but I took no responsibility for that. “Do you pray the Our Father with her at home, or the Hail Mary, or the Doxology?” I had asked her as politely as I could. “Do you say prayers before bedtime? Do you bring her to Mass? Do you pray before meals?”

The answer to all of those questions was “Well, no . . .”

“Children can’t learn what they are not exposed to,” I reminded her.

The woman walked away unhappy to realize that she needed to step up and do more, on her own time, in her own house—that the notion of a “domestic church” wasn’t just a nice idea but something real and necessary if she wanted her kids to lead actively faithful lives.

The good news is, as the school year progressed, she and her family managed to build a domestic church. It started with prayer before meals, then nightly recitations of prayers, including the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and a Glory Be before bedtime. In short order, Mass attendance became more frequent, and by springtime, I bumped into the mother while both of us were making the Stations of the Cross.

Parents who become on fire for the faith cannot help but pass that flame on to their children—to become their kids’ first and best teachers of the faith. That thought alone is enough to make me wonder whether our efforts to prepare kids for their sacraments shouldn’t require parental classes as well (or even in lieu of children’s classes) if we are to set the parents ablaze.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about all of that, and also (thanks in part to Word on Fire’s newly released ebook by Dr. Stephen Bullivant) about how the Church has been responding to the absence of Masses and confession times and what she needs to do post-quarantine—in a sort of “parental” capacity within a world so needful of sound instruction and example—to show the world that the Church is living, real, and relevant, when things do not quite go back to normal.

For, if the given value of “normal” means fairly crowded pews, a sign of peace, and the physical reception of Holy Communion, we may see our worship remain somewhat “abnormal” for a while—perhaps until a viable and trustworthy vaccine has been developed. Bishops will have to wrestle with determining how best to offer the Eucharist to the faithful while social distancing, masks, and glove-wearing are still advised. Will church buildings be operating at “half capacity” to ensure such distancing? Such a move would require more Masses each Sunday (and more priests to cover them!), which simple demographics would make unlikely.

Might we have to content ourselves—as the faithful did in the Middle Ages—with a Liturgy of the Word, Adoration and Benediction replacing the Mass as a matter of obligation? We may have to brace ourselves for that possibility.

Confessions at a Distance? Home Baptisms?

Mass concerns aside, how will confessions take place? Will priests and penitents be required to remain six feet apart? How does that ensure confidentiality within a Church setting? More likely we may have to, for a time, go through the trouble of making appointments with busy priests for a chance to confess our sins and receive absolution without a confessional screen but with a plexiglass barrier between us. It won’t feel nice, but if it gets the job done, we’ll adjust.

Might Baptisms, should the bishops decree, become something done at home, by parents themselves, if deacons or priests are unavailable? I know of one family who had that experience during this lockdown.

There is much to think about as the COVID-19 conversations begin to turn toward how we can live our faith beyond the live-stream offerings of the internet: how we may worship-as-community-while-social-distancing.

Because these questions are important, I have been praying for our bishops, that they may be guided in wisdom by the Holy Spirit—that the God Who Creates will gift them with creative answers that will help us feel like the Church is once again active and offering everything it can to the world, just as the early Church did: through sacramental worship and consolation, community witness and prayer, social outreach.

That last activity can take many forms, of course—visual, interactive, and even boldly physical.

Pope Francis’ magnificent and powerful ubi et orbi of March 27 could perhaps be replicated, in timely and distinct ways, by bishops in their own diocese, inviting the faithful to pray and adore together online. Personally, I’d love to see the Holy Father do regular live-streamed prayer events, because it is important for people to see their pope. Just so, it is important for them to see their bishops.

Processions—socially distanced, of course—might also be useful, here as a means of bringing Christ to the community, to the neighborhoods in a visual and reverent way. I think of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, while she was in Italy, still a Protestant and tending to her dying husband. She wrote of going to her window to watch regular processions pass by, and how it brought her, unexpectedly, to her knees at the window and drew her into praise.

These needn’t even be diocesan-organized. Any family can bring a statue of Mary, or a favorite saint, into their yard, and permit their neighbors to participate in prayers and hymns as they parade around the house, or down the street and back.

Since the Acts of the Apostles, outreach to the world beyond the Church, even beyond the faithful, has been the Church’s great means of following Christ’s command to love others as ourselves. Indeed, many of our most beloved saints were more or less inventing the notion of “social services,” long before governments began to think about it. Our outreach in a time of physical risk, material need, and economic uncertainty will have to take many forms and will demand of our bishops (and most especially the laity who are the hands and feet of Christ) as many creative solutions and offerings as we can devise. Perhaps parishes with empty convents or permanently closed schools will find ways to (affordably) convert those structures into temporary or emergency housing, the cafeterias into working kitchens by which we may feed others.

All of that, of course, will absolutely require some sacrifice from the laity—both in presence and in financial support. But the Catholic Church has so much to offer a hurting world, and so many gifts—and gifted members—that my hunch is this may not be a problem. These past few months has left so many of us feeling helpless, so unable to address the urgent needs at hand (of medical attention, research, or bereavement intervention) that many of us will be itching to do good for others, which—we all know it—makes us feel good too.

And it is, of course, powerful evangelical work.

My ideas may not be the right ideas—I’m a nobody slogging away at a desk, so what do I know—but it seems inarguable that as we exit a long, strange time and enter into what may be even longer, stranger times in which “new normals” develop and evolve, the Church must assert itself—as she has time and again throughout history—as having a meaningful and important place in recovery.

Watch Jared Zimmerer’s excellent interview with Dr. Stephen Bullivant here.