Parish Life in a Time of Pandemic by Gene Ciarlo

Covid-19 has disrupted our world to such an extent that we may never return to the way things were before. One certainty has surfaced from this tragic event, and that is a rare, humble, but now frequently uttered admission from people in and out of authority: We don’t know what the future holds.

The list of positive, overt manifestations from the disaster—and every disaster eventually bears some positive results—has already been verbalized, editorialized, opinionized, televised, and scrutinized. Broadly speaking, it concerns what people have said and done to demonstrate that we all belong to each other. The tribalism in our humanity is transparent. The primitive instinct to come together has poured out of us. Human bonding and a renewed awareness of our environment in this crisis have been incredible, in the true sense of the term. So has the petition in one form or another, “God help us.”

I sense a good dose of spirituality without religion. Many people today claim spirituality without religion, but to my eyes it rarely seems to surface. I have not seen many external signs of spirituality in our 21st century, just a lot of frantic superficiality. The worldwide threat of sickness and death means that there are occasional deep thoughts about life and love above and beyond those which we are bombarded with daily in our media—not only the superficial, weak-minded media of commercialization, advertising, and merchandising, but the constant stream that is carried in the world of technology that we blandly call “social media.”

Those two little words that brand our day and age often spell toxicity. Now, in this crisis, giving them competition for primacy of place are the glad sounds of cheering for heroes and singing to lift spirits, creatively and successfully. There is a spiritual element that may go unspoken, however, and it is that we are all one in mind, heart, and intention. We belong to each other. It is a good feeling. “That all may be one” is more than a gospel prayer. If we are still far from that ideal, the virus has certainly made us more aware of it and brought us closer to it.

In a strictly secular sense, the pandemic is a teachable moment, one might even say a divinely providential one. We can see it as a terrible blight upon the entire body of humanity, something that must be overcome and vanquished as soon as possible. But it has also fostered a time of reflection and expression of feeling. Television news anchors and public personalities shed tears openly. Is this a sign of weakness or strength? We focus our sights on first responders, doctors and nurses, medical teams and lab technicians. We applaud them, sing to them, praise them for their service. We see their sacrifice on behalf of people who are complete strangers to them. They are putting themselves in mortal danger, in the way of potential death, for others. It is in many ways a form of martyrdom.

Jobs, rent, mortgage payments, income, bills, education, grants—who will help us in this time when we are not fully able to help ourselves financially or socially? What has been exposed and quietly hidden for decades is the number of people in our modern society who live hand-to-mouth and on the edge of defeat. The positive, heartfelt, deep-down good in our society as well as the hidden negative elements of our political and economic order have been exposed. Now we are witnessing the yin and the yang of life. Both grace and sin are stripped naked for all the world to see.

And what about this new world of religion without ritual that we Catholics and other churchgoers have been experiencing? People are told to stay home from church, synagogue, and mosque. This is indeed a radical change from what we have been accustomed to. We still have no idea where it will lead because it has never been tried before. Now it has been tried, but not to prove a point about attendance and commitment. The change has come as a matter of life and death. Yet to be proven is whether or not people wear their religion merely as an outer garment, or whether it goes deeper than the externals of ritual. Only time will tell.

In one of the more poignant Holy Week scenes from the Vatican, Pope Francis stood in solitary splendor, canopied and platformed in Saint Peter’s Square. It was a stunningly surreal, even upsetting image, bringing home the fact that people can’t attend the Eucharist as a community anymore and that we are at a loss to predict for how many weeks this will continue. Such distancing and absence of an appropriate liturgical setting flies in the face of everything that has ever been taught about sacred ritual and the presence of a believing and worshiping congregation according to Roman Catholic teaching. This desert of sacred ritual is bound to have an impact on the entire Christian world, and in particular the Catholic world, which is historically steeped in the importance of inculcating the senses with an awareness of a world beyond the mundane. Playing out the myths of God-with-us is fundamental to raising the mind, heart, and spirit.  

Since regular Sunday worship and most sacraments in Catholic parishes have been temporarily put on hold during Covid-19, different types of parish communities have weathered the storm in different ways. In what I would call the traditional parish, liturgical and devotional structures are stable and can stand alone, independent of a close-knit, strongly social community. In this case, the Mass and sacraments are missed primarily because they are a matter of routine rather than habits of the heart. Over the years they have become cultural phenomena. In addition to the lack of Sunday Masses, devotions to the Blessed Mother or to other saints have been interrupted and other social engagements have been put on hold. Clubs such as the ladies’ guild or the men’s Holy Name Society can no longer gather, nor can they sponsor events such as bingo or raffles which often support local charities or schools. The absence of these social routines leaves huge gaps in the lives and expectations of many traditional Catholics.  

There is another, less traditional parish which considers its liturgical prayer, including the Eucharist and the sacraments, as a means to gather and strengthen community bonds. This community of Catholic Christians thrives on coming together regularly for mutual growth and encouragement. Their work is primarily social outreach. During the time of physical distancing, they have devised ways to distribute food, clothing, and other services which have always been a significant part of their parish life. They use social media to stay in touch with each other so that they may work separately and yet remain in communion. The life of their community is not temporarily put on hold; it is changed. The community actually finds that it is drawing new life and vigor in its expanded role of offering itself to the needs of others.

The strength of the close-knit, service-centered, spiritually profound community shines in the midst of challenges. The members have been in contact with each other. Their involvement with other people has not diminished but has strengthened as they have witnessed a greater need for service. It may seem difficult to imagine, but this community of Christians has deepened their bonds during these trying times. They are anxious to meet again for Eucharist and to share the Word to replenish their spirits in a different way, one that is horizontal as well as vertical; they look forward to the day when they can once again come together to look each other in the eye, to embrace, to realize that they need each other and the fortifying life of the sacraments more than ever.

When it is time to come back, to gather once again for the first time in months, to return to Sunday Mass and the sacraments, what will the various types of parish communities look like? What will the subjects of conversations reveal? These lines from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet might offer some suggestion:

Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations? . . .

He to whom worshipping is a window, to open but also to shut, has not yet visited the house of his soul whose windows are from dawn to dawn.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion.
Whenever you enter into it take with you your all. . . .
And take with you all men:
For in adoration you cannot fly higher than their hopes nor humble yourself lower than their despair.

Gene Ciarlo is an ordained Catholic priest no longer in the active ministry. He lives and works in Vermont. He has been writing for Today’s American Catholic since the early days of its publication. 

 

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