The Church’s Mission in the Time of the Pandemic and Beyond
P. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, STD
We live in a period of uncertainty. We cannot predict the future. We can only take into consideration various scenarios - especially the worst-case and the best-case. What is certain is that many people all over the world are severely affected by the pandemic and we are facing a more catastrophic crisis - climate change. So how can the Church carry out her mission at present and in the decades to come? This is what every local Church and religious communities should answer based on their particular context. What follows are some general ideas and suggestions that might be helpful and can be taken into consideration. What is important is to think strategically, always assessing developments and trends - the external threats/opportunities and the internal strengths/weaknesses - being creative and coming up with fresh ideas and bold action. The Church can only survive and thrive when she is able to adapt to the changing situation.
Immediate and continuing task: caring for a wounded world
Caring for the victims of the pandemic and the consequent economic crisis is a priority for the Church in collaboration with civil society and government institutions. The Church must mobilize its resources in supporting relief and humanitarian efforts.
This requires supporting those in the frontlines - the medical workers who are engaged in caring for the sick and the dying. In concrete this will take the form of providing accommodation, food, transportation during lockdowns and quarantines.
This also means providing psycho-spiritual care for the bereaved and front-liners who may be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This can take the form of on-line counselling.
Since the poor are the most vulnerable especially under lock-down and beyond, the Church (especially at the parish and grassroots level) should respond to their basic needs both material and spiritual. The most immediate is providing food assistance and encouragement.
To avoid dependency and passivity everyone must actively be involved in the process of addressing their needs and problems. This can only be sustained through the spirit of communion - of sharing and participation.
Digital information/communication technology/social media should be used for this purpose - in identifying those in need, inviting volunteers and contributions, distribution centers, networks and delivery, etc.
New forms of communion and solidarity
The continuing threat of pandemic requires physical distancing - this will be the new normal. There will be restrictions on large gathering/assemblies. International and domestic travel will be limited. The trend is towards doing things locally - including economic production.
More time will be spent at home. Most of the face-to-face encounter takes place at home and in the community. The new mantra: work at home if you can, go to the office or workplace only if it is really necessary. The same is happening in education. There will be more on-line learning and home-schooling. This will be the opportunity for promoting the family and household as the domestic church. Parents will spend more time with their children. This is the time to experience the loving communion and sharing within the family.
However, the family should not be isolated from other families. They need to link up with other families and individuals within the immediate neighborhood and local community. Forming or revitalizing a network of small communities/Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), cells or family groupings becomes necessary. The parish must become truly a communion of BECs. The model of the Church as described in Acts (2:42-46, 4:32-35) must be experienced once again. The sense of belonging, sharing and the spirit of stewardship must be inculcated as the communitarian dimension is emphasized. This is the antidote to isolation and individualism.
The communion and solidarity of the parishes with the dioceses and wider levels (national, regional, universal) will take on a new form. This is also the case among religious institutes and communities.
In promoting communion and solidarity we should be aware that we are living in the digital era. We stay connected with one another. We can develop or join virtual communities and ecclesial movements that have local, national and global reach through the digital information and communication technology and social media. Online meetings and assemblies are now possible. With the development of more advanced and cheap technologies all these can be possible even in areas that are remote and distant.
Communion always includes participation in mission. This means synodality -journeying together. Synodality involves participation in the decision-making process -- in governance. It also means participation in mission - the prophetic-evangelizing mission, the priestly mission, and the kingly-servant mission. This synodality - communion and participation in mission - must be realized not only at the universal level but at the local level -at the diocese, down to the parish, Basic Ecclesial Communities and the Christian families.
In a world that is becoming decentralized and fragmented, those in pastoral leadership must employ new ways of exercising leadership and governance. The new digital technology and social media make it possible for regular and direct communication and consultation instantly overcoming physical distance. Leaders and members can be more interconnected. Church leaders should not be isolated but should continually be in touch with each other and the people they serve. Online meetings and assemblies are possible. The clergy should continue to communicate to the faithful and listen to them. A more participative style of leadership is possible avoiding a top-down model. This can be done at all levels - at the local, national, regional, universal level. Strategic thinking and acting is required - of seeing the big picture and the long view.
Evangelization and Christian education in the pandemic and the ecological crises
How can the Good News and the Christian message be proclaimed in the time of the pandemic and the ecological crises?
The central message: God's love for the world - for humanity and all living creatures. We are called to be in communion with the Triune God - the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and with one another and the rest of creation. We are all interconnected. We all have the responsibility to love, share, care for each one and for all things. We are called to conversion - this means rooting out selfishness, greed, hatred and violence. This requires responding to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth and promote justice, peace and integral ecology. We are also called to live a simple and sustainable lifestyle. The social teachings of the Church as well as the papal documents (e.g. Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si) should be studied and propagated.
Christian formation and education should emphasize servant-leadership, participative ethos, creativity rather than submissiveness. Evangelization requires being prophetic - to speak out against social evils and proclaim the coming of a new world, a new reality. The local Church has to monitor, denounce and resist human rights violations and abuses - including totalitarian state control that diminishes freedom in the guise of containing the pandemic.
Since physical distancing is the new normal and large gathering is restricted, we have to use digital information and communication technology/social media for evangelization, catechesis and education. This means online evangelization seminars and catechesis (webinars). Bible-study/bible-sharing groups can meet online. Mass media communication should go digital and linked with social media. Each diocese and parish must develop their capabilities and come up with quality video-material that can be shared through social media in line with their respective evangelization and catechetical programs.
Face-to-face interaction should still be used but in a smaller scale observing physical distancing and appropriate safety measures. BEC/family-groupings can be the setting for evangelization and catechesis as well as Gospel-sharing. All these require a dialogical process as well as emphasizing story-telling.
Even with less face-to-face encounter, spiritual counselling and direction can be carried out using digital technology and social media (WhatsApp, FB Messenger, Zoom, etc).
Theologians should address the theological questions arising from the pandemic and the ecological crisis. They can share the fruits of their reflection online and engage in dialogue with other theologians, Church leaders and the faithful. They can also give on-line lectures or webinars.
Worship and Liturgy
Due to physical distancing, large gathering for liturgies and worship will not be possible for quite some time. Dioceses and parishes will have to think of how regular Sunday Masses in parish churches can be celebrated with these restrictions. It could mean limiting attendance for each Mass and adding more scheduled Masses. It could also mean celebrating small group Masses - BEC/neighborhood/family groupings, etc. This type of can be celebrated once every two or more months for each small group - depending on the availability of priests and the size of the parish. A Mass for a particular a family/small-groupings/cells can be broadcasted live so that other groups who are not physical present can still virtually participate and make spiritual communion.
Family liturgy/worship should be developed and promoted. The Christian family as domestic church is a worshipping and praying community. Following the Jewish practice, family-centered rituals around the table can be adopted. Family rosary, bible-service and sharing can also be practiced by each household.
Celebration of Sunday "priest-less liturgies" or liturgies in the absence of the priest with or without communion services should be promoted in BECs, cells and family groupings for communities that cannot have regular Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. These are usually led by lay liturgical leaders. The proliferation of permanent deacons to serve these communities should be considered especially for those who are already exercising leadership in these small communities. This can be the context for the ongoing study and consideration about the possibility of including women in the diaconal ministry by the commission created by Pope Francis.
We have to emphasize the Vatican II teaching on the priesthood of the faithful. This means not only active participation in the liturgy but also living a life of prayer and self-sacrifice, and active charity. We have to accept that there are situations when it is not possible to participate regularly in Sunday Eucharist. We must de-emphasize the mentality that it is mortal sin to miss Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation which unnecessarily create a sense of guilt and anxiety for those unable to do so due to unavoidable circumstances. There is more to sharing in Christ's priesthood than attending Mass.
While the Mass is the summit and fount of Christian life, its daily/weekly celebration is not the only expression of the priestly character of the Christian community. The real presence of Christ is not exclusively manifested in the Eucharist but also in other community prayer and worship when the faithful gather in Jesus' name and in the Word that is proclaimed and shared. What matters most is not the frequency of the celebration of the Eucharist but how it is celebrated with a community that truly lives a life of communion with Christ and with one another in their day to day life.
The role of the ordained minister is to lead and enable active participation of the lay faithful in the Church's priestly mission. But we have to avoid clericalism that posits that only the ordained minister alone can make the Church a truly priestly/worshipping community and that the Eucharist is the only form of prayer and worship. The Church will continue to survive without frequent/regular Sunday Mass in communities due to the shortage of priests or restrictions imposed by circumstance (e.g. pandemic, persecutions, etc.). A life of holiness among the members as well as the capacity for self-sacrifice and martyrdom that accompany participation in communal liturgy characterize the fullness of priesthood of the faithful.
The Church continues her mission as a servant community in a situation where the majority suffer due to the effects of the pandemic and the creeping ecological crisis. How this is to be carried out concretely depends on the local situation where the Church is situated. The See-Judge-Act method is recommended. Concrete action should flow from analysis of the situation (the specific problems and issues that the local Church/community is facing), and the moral judgment.
The priority continues to be the promotion of integral development - working for justice, peace and the integrity of creation. In face of economic recession or depression, each local Church should address the problem of increasing poverty, unemployment and lack of food security which can lead to hunger and even starvation. Many will be driven to indebtedness.
Since government efforts to address these problems may not be enough, the Church in collaboration with civil society organizations has to promote sustainable development and initiate or support poverty-alleviation programs. Credit unions/cooperatives as well as micro-finance programs should be introduced or promoted to avoid loan-sharks.
During the pandemic "Kindness Centers" with feeding programs and food banks have proliferated in many parishes. This should be multiplied and expanded. This is difficult to sustain in most parishes with dwindling incomes and resources. Parishioners should be encouraged to share their time, talent and treasure. Besides giving food, what is more important is to promote local food production such as gardening and communal farms. Families and communities should be taught to engage in natural/organic farming or sustainable agriculture and link up with consumers through social media and e-commerce which bypass middle-men. Parishes and Basic Ecclesial Communities within dioceses with livelihood projects and income-generating programs can engage in alternative trade, organizing networks of production and marketing.
With the radical restructuring of the world economic order that is becoming de-globalized, a more localized and self-sufficient economic system is emerging. This is the effect of the decentralization and localization of supply chains in the aftermath of the pandemic crisis as well as the acceleration of the 4th industrial revolution with the proliferation of digital-based manufacturing, 3-D printing, robotics, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, etc. The trend is towards local manufacturing and production for domestic consumption rather than for exports. New skills and competencies will be required with new enterprises and jobs generated.
The social action program of the Church should be geared towards promoting and supporting the growth of cooperatives and of medium/small scale/cottage industries which are community-based or at the grassroots (parish and BEC levels). It should also focus on skills training, capability building and local capitalization. It should address the problem of unemployment and labor displacement due to the economic crisis as well as disruptive technologies brought about by the 4th industrial revolution. A program for enterprise building and job-placement can be initiated. There are parishes with pious wealthy members who are engaged in business or industries that can be tapped. The principles and best practices of the Economy of Communion (initiated by the Focolare movement) can be adopted and further developed. It should be an economy motivated not primarily by profit but by sharing with the needy and promoting a culture of giving while ensuring business to grow in a free market economy. It should be an economy based on solidarity and the principle of stewardship, living in practice the ecclesiology of communion and in particular the communion of goods where the members are of one heart and mind and no one in need (cf. Acts 4:32-35). It should emphasize sustainability and respect for the environment. This requires the advice and technical assistance of grassroots-oriented technocrats and entrepreneurs as well schools of business and management in Catholic Universities.
We should continue to promote integral ecology according to the spirit of Laudato Si. As a response to ecological crisis, emphasis should be given to the reduction of carbon foot-prints. This involves participation in the Greening movement, tree-planting, micro-gardening (family-community levels), adoption and promotion of alternative sources of energy (solar, wind), waste-management, biking, walking, etc. We should promote a healthy and simple lifestyle which besides reducing carbon footprints can strengthen the immune system against diseases and viruses (plant-based diet, caloric restrictions, intermittent fasting).
While acting locally we need to link-up with each other at various levels - national, regional, global. The Vatican Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Development in collaboration with Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM) as well as the Sowing Hope for the Planet Campaign are promoting a roll out plan for the years to come as a concrete response to Laudato Si.
To carry out our mission of promoting justice, peace and integrity of creation we need to make full use of digital technology and social media. This is a means for letting us see what is happening all around us - the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, the effects of the pandemic and the ecological crisis, the injustices and inequality, the violence. This allows us to analyze, reflect and make judgment on what is happening from the perspective of the Christian faith and the Church's moral and social teaching. This enables us to share our stories - of what we are doing and should be doing - and support each other and express solidarity as we act together to transform and heal the world.
Through the centuries the Church has found herself facing numerous crisis worst than we have now. This is not the time to be afraid and to panic. Our Lord Jesus Christ has promised us that He is always with us and will not abandon us. The Spirit-filled Christian Community has survived and thrived even in the worst situation and continued to fulfil her mission. What matters most is to believe and trust in the Triune God, to be filled with hope and give hope to others, and to be filled with love and express this concretely to others as we strive to heal this world.
Photo by Vatican News