A reflection on pastoral planning for a post-pandemic Church
Summary points of Easter Letter
- Covid-19 has radically changed our lives and Church.
- Familiar faith practices have been greatly disrupted.
- We look forward to returning to a more acceptable form of normal.
- Our Church is in a time of profound change.
- The Church to which we shall return will be very different.
- What sort of Church do you want that to be?
- How will that Church be resourced?
- Do you want to be part of shaping that new reality?
- I invite you to join me in the Diocese of Killaloe on that new journey.
- As Easter people we are people of joy and this gives us hope to live and share that joy with future generations.
I hope this finds you in good form and coping reasonably well at this challenging time. I am writing this Easter Letter to address diocesan planning for the future as our diocese and country emerge from the pandemic. We are all weary of the pandemic which has dominated the landscape of our lives for the past year and more. I am keenly aware of the suffering endured by those who contracted the virus, many of whom thankfully recovered, but sadly, many who died. As a family of believers we as a diocese remember all who have been touched in a personal way by the virus. As I write, there are tentative signs that we are coming to a good place on the road to controlling the virus and we are speaking of restoring life to a more acceptable form of normal.
A Profound Change
Covid-19 has changed everything. It brought us lockdowns which in all walks of life saw necessary stoppages, curtailments, restrictions and a series of actions to help our country survive and cope with the crisis of Covid-19. Overall, people responded generously even though it has tested all of us. The most visible area of Church life that was affected by this change and continues to be affected by the pandemic is Mass attendance. As people of faith we were shocked by the closure of our Churches for public worship in line with government guidelines of best practice in curbing the spread of the virus. Gradually we got over the shock once we got used to the broadcasting of Masses on webcams and over the radio.
It was a new experience for most church-going people but not surprisingly they adjusted to it and soon saw the benefits of having the Mass in the intimacy of their homes. Older people in particular have welcomed the convenience of this new type of participation in the Mass and some may choose to stay with it for the foreseeable future – if that is their choice I find it most acceptable, until we are in a much safer place.
I take the Mass as an example of how change affected us, but restrictions have applied to all the sacramental and worshipping life of the Church – Baptisms, First Holy Communions, Confirmations, Weddings, Funerals, Prayer Meetings etc. We have adapted reasonably well to the necessary restrictions, but at the same time many have felt hurt that they are not allowed meet in the manner that Christ suggested when he said; “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.” Lockdown has called on us to make sacrifices in this regard and I appreciate the willingness and generosity people have shown in doing so. However, there remains a natural longing to return to the communal aspect of Church worship.
A time of Change and Questions to be asked
Most people are of the view that our Church will be a very different place as we emerge from the global pandemic. Even prior to lockdown, numbers engaging with Church had declined dramatically and many are of the view that this decline will be greatly accelerated afterwards. It is very clear to me therefore that the Church of the future will be a very different place and we will need a new way of ministering as Church.
These changes will also extend to consideration of how our parishes and diocese are funded with the likelihood that parish income will decrease substantially in the coming years. This will have an effect on how each parish manages its own affairs and also on the services provided by the diocese which are currently funded from parish contributions. This will prompt us to ask, what are the priorities for using scarce resources?
With that in mind, and to stimulate urgent discussion on how this might come about a series of questions may help in your reflection.
I offer some such questions for your consideration:
- How has Covid-19 affected my personal faith?
- Has my view of Church changed as a result of the pandemic?
- Do I want to return to the way things were before Covid-19 struck?
- Am I open to accepting a new model of Church?
- Am I prepared to be a participant in planning for the future?
- Shouldn’t we also be exploring and developing other new forms of practice, online gatherings as an example, the online apostolate?
- How do we reenergise those who have fallen out of the habit of engaging with Church over the past year?
- Can we reach out to people outside our Church, people who have become disaffected or hurt by Church, recent scandals, reports of one type or another, marginalised groups?
These are just some of the many questions we should be asking and they will of themselves give a kick-start of sorts to a resumption of diocesan planning for the future. The hope will be to engage with pastoral areas in a structured way to present these questions and others, to engage, encourage dialogue, obtain feedback all of which will contribute to planning for the future.
The main findings as a result of meeting with pastoral area representatives during lockdown included the following observations and they might help with the discussion also:
- It was said that there has been a sea-change in culture during the pandemic which the Church must address in the light of the Gospel.
- People felt that there would be less people participating regularly in liturgy after Covid. We would have smaller communities. This would raise questions about the sustainability of some of our communities especially in rural areas.
- We have tended to judge success by the numbers coming to us, the numbers attending Mass, liturgy etc. The future will be more about communities finding ways of reaching out to those who are still open to connection with us. This may mean finding new approaches, new ways of celebrating faith. For some Mass is no longer attractive and we need to explore other creative ways of celebrating faith also.
- Embracing technology will help us to reach out. But two way communication is needed so that there is real engagement.
- Some felt that the issue of patronage of our schools needs to be explored. There would seem to be too many Catholic Schools for the numbers now participating in Church. Can we address the issue of diversity of patronage?
- The pandemic has raised questions about how we celebrate sacraments. Parishes will have to play a more active role in sacramental preparation. How do we prepare for this reality?
- Prophetic Leadership is needed if change is to happen. This is needed at diocesan level and at local level. Without leadership and direction confusion reigns.
- Lay leadership will be crucial at local level especially as priests become fewer. Without local leadership communities will not survive. How do we prepare leaders for the future?
A Missionary Option
One of the key themes of the pontificate of Pope Francis is our call to be a Church that spreads the Gospel and is alive with a desire to share the good news: “Go out to the whole world: proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark16:15). In many ways we have become so immersed in the business of maintaining our current structures that it may have drained us of our energy for mission. Have we the courage to make that transition to abandon some of our old structures in order to move from maintenance to mission? Pope Francis further speaks about being Church in a synodal way, moving ahead in a collaborative way, valuing the contribution, voice and talents of all. I look forward to participation and involvement with the exciting proposals of a national synod in the near future, which will re-energise the Church at local level also.
The Way Forward
There is no clear pathway to the future of our Church other than planning based on reflection, discussion, discernment, re-visioning as well as practical ideas regarding the needs of our Church. It is my hope that this planning will resume with a new impetus gained from our experiences of what it was to live under the restrictions imposed by the virus.
It is not enough to open our Church buildings and return to the way things were pre-Covid-19. This would simply postpone the necessary changes required for the Church of the future. Planning for the future will take time, creativity and an openness to change.
I look on this planning process as a time of new creation. It is as though we are beginning afresh and creating a new Church of the future. I think of the creation story in the Book of Genesis the first book of the Bible which begins with the confident statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) That was the first day of the creation story which lasted for six days before God rested on the seventh.
Let us envision as a diocese that as we emerge from the pandemic and plan for the future we are playing our part in God’s continuing creation. This is our “in the beginning” moment in time and as in the book of Genesis may it be said of our efforts: “And God saw that it was good.”
Emergence from the present lockdown is on the horizon even though we cannot be sure how distant that horizon is at this present time. It may be a while away and I think we all need to exercise our already tried patience that bit further in the weeks ahead.
The next step after that will be a return to what I have already called a more acceptable form of normal. For the Church this will entail implementing immediate plans to reopen our churches, re-establish all the events such as baptisms, first holy communions and confirmations that have been postponed for the past while. This will take time, involve exercising our patience again and following whatever public health guidelines that are given to ensure public health and safety. As a responsible caring Diocesan Church we cannot cut corners when it comes to safety.
No one knows when we will arrive at a time to fully resume future planning for the diocese. There will be an overlap between planning for the immediate future and long term planning. However, much of that can be done online and engaging with people in that way. In that sense we can say that planning is already underway.
There is joy in that we are slowly but surely controlling the virus. The joyous arrival of a vaccine plus our continued co-operation with guidelines will help us on our path to recovery and a return to a more acceptable form of normal.
I thank God for the modern technology that has assisted us during the pandemic and has helped open the eyes of many to its value in spreading God’s Word. It helped sustain our faith at a difficult time and it has a role to play in our future.
There is joy in the anticipation of the return of community and relationships which are so fundamental to our humanity.
There is a joy in anticipation of returning to public worship and gathering in a Church context, the assembled Body of Christ.
There is joy in our right relationship with the world and environment around us, realising that being the stewards of creation we have serious duties and responsibilities of care.
Most of all there is joy in internalising the good news of our faith and the great hope that being Easter people entails. For many this has been a beacon of hope through the recent dark days.
I look forward to a time when our only contact won’t be online alone but in a happy return to a Church whose faith is once more lived, experienced and expressed on the ground of everyday life.
I look forward to a new dawn, a new future when the Church of God’s people will be free from the threat of harmful viruses and able to live faith in God to the full.
I invite you to be part of that new dawn of an all-inclusive and vibrant Church in the Diocese of Killaloe.
Wishing you the joys and blessings of Easter.
✠ Fintan Monahan
- Bishop Fintan Monahan is Bishop of Killaloe.
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