Is COVID Killing the Church?


At the beginning of the COVID crisis I was interviewed alongside Catholic paediatrician, Dr. Kathleen Berchelmann, to discuss the implications of the lockdowns on the health, well-being, and faith of families.


In the interview, Dr. Kathleen and I were in complete agreement that out of all of the unknowns, one thing was certain: the longer the lockdowns occurred, the more would be revealed about every family.


If pain and abuse was hiding in the shadows, this would be more and more difficult to cover up. If neglect and absentee parenting were present in the home, the more obvious the situation would become to anyone who was even half paying attention. And of course, if there was actually a healthy family environment, if there was a strong marriage in place, if kids were loved and cherished and given the time and attention needed to grow and flourish, then this too would become more and more evident.


But here is what we did not discuss: that the situation surrounding COVID and the continuous lockdowns (no matter what you think of them), have shed a very similar and dispassionate light on our parish families as well.


And what I continue to hear from parish pastors and leaders all around the world is that the parish and diocese before the pandemic is fundamentally the same after the onset of the pandemic. In other words, the only difference is that it is becoming more and more difficult to hide the empty pews.

The cause of the empty pew crisis before COVID was the same as it is now during the pandemic—it is the refusal to take an honest look at what I have come to call “the faith tornado.”

Before the lockdowns, a pastor could persuade himself that things weren’t really all that bad. After all, one quick look at the parish directory would tell him that the Church was full, or at least, it could be if he could ever get them all to step into the building at the same time. Or he could have looked at the numbers coming in for the Sacrament of Confirmation and that too might have given him the sense that the people of God were still engaged. After all, this too makes some sense on the surface of it, since both the young and their parents freely chose to be present.


The reality, however, is that most pastors have been aware of the empty pew crisis for some time. And if they had wanted to they could have blamed poor catechesis at home, a weak connection with the local Catholic school, or any number of broken links in the chain. Of course, they could have reasoned this way but they would have been wrong to.


The cause of the empty pew crisis before COVID was the same as it is now during the pandemic—it is the refusal to take an honest look at what I have come to call “the faith tornado.”



Every person of faith must continually circle through the stages that shape our faith life: from evangelized to catechized to sacramentalized (As pertains this latter stage, I am of course referring to regular reception of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation.) Through this process we gradually move deeper and deeper towards the centre, arguably the safest place to be in any tornado.


But also like in a tornado, there is always the danger of spiralling out. This is when we get stuck in one of the stages and we fail to move on.


Much like the mass attendees who come to Church for no other reason than that it is their routine.


Or charismatic prayer groups that distrust catechesis.


Or apologetics junkies who find more joy in argumentation than worshipping God or encountering Him.


Each of these groups exemplify what I am talking about, that is, a stalling or stagnation that is ultimately harmful to the Body of Christ.


It is for this reason that the Church endeavours to help us at each of these stages, particularly through the parish.


After all, it is the parish that should be facilitating encounters with the unchurched in the community and encouraging those already in the pews to deepen their relationship with Jesus.


It is the parish that should be nurturing those who have had this encounter through study and teaching.


And it is at the parish where we should all be worshipping this God in spirit and truth as we come together to break bread and build our lives around the Eucharist.


But that is not what is happening, is it?


Most of the parishes I have visited, in fact most parishes that have been brought to my attention, fall neatly within various categories.


Some have hired an evangelist or trained a team to spearhead evangelizing efforts in the community.


Some have hired a catechist or trained a team to teach those who have encountered the Lord.


And of course, every last parish or family of parishes has at least one priest to administer the sacraments.


It should come as no surprise to you that those struggling the most with the empty pew crisis are those that focus solely on the final stage of the faith tornado: only administering the sacraments. And those that are doing extremely well—those that are on fire, you might say—are those that have actively engaged the needs of the people at each stage.


Now comes the really neat part.


COVID hasn’t changed this in the least.


The parish that was reaching out to people in their brokenness before is still doing so via phone, email, video, and—I was most impressed to hear in some cases—even snail mail.


The parish that was teaching people before is still doing so via the latest video conferencing technology, through short texts, and so on.


You see, though wounded by the COVID pandemic, these parishes continue to grow and get stronger and engender a hunger for the Eucharist because they are not simply waiting for things to get back to normal. Instead, they are doing what we as the Church have always done—they are bringing Jesus to people. No matter the restrictions or frustrations, they are finding a way.


So no, COVID is not killing the Church. It will live on as it has through every century and disease and political movement. The question is, will it thrive through COVID? And only you and the leadership team of your parish can answer that.




in Christ,


patrick

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