Images of a priest-centered church have been on vivid display following the onset of COVID-19, when public health and government officials issued directives to shelter at home and severely limited public gatherings, including public worship. The reflex of many pastors was to livestream the eucharist from the splendid isolation of empty churches – some presiding over the strange specter of row upon row of cutout photos of their absent parishioners. Are they solitary heroes or tragic jesters? Did they not know that religious television networks already broadcast the Mass every day? Could they not envision another way of reaching out to their flock in a time of need?
Anyone watching might easily conclude that the church’s life and prayer is an entirely priest-centered event. The image of the lone celebrant betrays the real meaning of the liturgy, which is the action of a gathered people. While these priests may be acting with the best of intentions, their actions reveal an inadequate sense of the liturgy and of church. Inexplicably, their pastoral reflex is to focus inward, not outward to the daily struggles of a wider community. Rather than passively watching the prayer of a lone celebrant, might the present moment not be an occasion for communities to gather for online bible study, for the Liturgy of the Word, or the Liturgy of the Hours, for sharing our struggles and needs and bearing them together?
Even now, when some regions are experiencing a respite from the pandemic and limited gatherings in places of worship are once again permitted – in my home province of Ontario gatherings of up to 50 people are authorized indoors with obligatory masks, physical distancing, and hand hygiene – it remains impossible to gather as a whole community. The most vulnerable – in particular, the more senior members of the parish – continue advisedly to shelter at home. It will not be possible to gather as one for the foreseeable future.
What might these images and experiences teach us about what it means to be church? The most basic definition of church is ekklesia, the gathered assembly. That assembly is not an abstract idea but a concrete community of flesh and blood people. That we are unable to gather – even for the sake of a greater good: the health and safety of those same people – touches at the heart of who we are and what it means to be church. We are diminished when we cannot gather and no amount of virtual or “spiritual communion” can make up for that loss.
We are a sacramental people. Our faith tells us that God comes to meet us in the taste, touch and smell of quotidian material reality: in cleansing water, in a loaf and a cup that are shared, in the laying on of hands, in the fragrant balm of healing oil and in the kiss of peace. In a most sinister turn, these very things have now become potential “vectors of transmission,” threatening the life and health they were meant to signify and nourish. Could our self-imposed fast be teaching us their true worth, carving out in us a truer hunger and thirst? Might these same signs and gestures – as we perform them daily at home, alone or in family gatherings – yet become symbols of divine love and care? Following the logic of incarnation, our common life is to be a living sign of God’s design for humanity.
It is painfully ironic that, just at the moment when the global Catholic community is awakening to the urgent need to repair its structures and practices of communion, its ability to gather as one is sorely tested by external forces beyond its control. Even before he had fully grasped the systemic nature and extent of the abuse crisis across the global church, Pope Francis invited Catholics to embark on a project of pastoral conversion. To accomplish this, he sought to revive the practice of synodality in church governance, calling for the creation of indispensable spaces for all of God’s people to come together for free and open conversation at every level of ecclesial life as they discern the way forward in their common journey in faith. In the fall of 2018, responding to the emergence of the true extent of the crisis of abuse, Francis addressed a letter to the people of God and observed: “Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.” Without structures that gather together all the baptized, the life of the church is diminished. These structures of participation are essential not only to the healing of the church in the present moment, but to its continuing vitality and mission.
The ability to mobilize the many gifts of the baptized is being severely challenged by the pandemic. As we hunker down and practice physical distancing, the danger of falling back into a priest-centered paradigm of church hangs over Pope Francis’ project of renewal. This was confirmed by the Instruction for the Pastoral Conversion of the Parish Community emanating from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy in July. Thankfully, the bishops of Germany did not let it go by unchecked. They did not hesitate to call out the inadequacies of the document’s outmoded image of the parish community centered on the priest, one that disvalues the real contributions of the many gifted and qualified co-workers in ministry and the co-responsibility of the baptized. The German bishops have been actively walking with their people, discerning and harnessing their creative energies.
The pandemic has exposed in no uncertain terms the fault lines and gaping inequities of human societies, including the failure to protect and care for the elderly, refugees, migrant workers, the precariously employed, the poor and the vulnerable – all with a deeply destabilizing effect. At a time when the global structures of human community are faltering and in serious decline, the world needs more than ever the witness of a community united in its effort to honor the dignity and worth of every human person no matter their race, color or social condition, to serve the common good and live as one with God’s creation. It will no doubt require great ingenuity to overcome the challenges raised by COVID-19, but let us not be thrown off course as we discern together the shape of the church to come.
Catherine E. Clifford, is a professor at Saint Paul University, Ontario.