When the parable of the great church reopening is told, what will we learn from it?
A parable by nature is a teaching tool, and the rupture caused by the pandemic in the ability to participate in in-person liturgies, to receive the sacraments—even to gather for coffee in the church basement—has offered an extended period to reflect deeply on our participation in the life of the church and what it means.
Dioceses are now determining what the return to some iteration of normal will look like—not that all of us will return. For some, time away from church will be akin to the seed falling on rocky soil, withering away from lack of nourishment. More than a year of being able to roll over and hit the snooze button may mean a more relaxed approach to attendance for some. In no way is this a criticism of the roller-overs; they may simply never have received the nourishment they needed.
But for many, online masses and a whole church year behind us without physical connection to a place that should feel like home will have created a hunger to return—safely—and, importantly, to become more engaged. Unlike the seed on rocky soil, many will return with the faith of the flourishing mustard seed or the zeal of the prodigal son.
That flourishing, that eagerness to return, will speak to our understanding of what we have missed. But it will also reflect a spiritual maturing many have discovered in the last 12 months. We have had to rely in good measure on our own resources and I’ve heard many reflect with a kind of delighted wonderment that they have a richer interior life than they had realized. Time away, like absence making the heart grow fonder, has made them realize they really do believe what they profess.
With that ownership comes responsibility. We have all witnessed the tragic stories of families losing loved ones to COVID and being unable to hold a proper funeral, instead being relegated to a gathering of 10 with others watching online. We should create good from this suffering so it not be in vain, whether we double down on engaging in steps to end the pandemic, or promising to be more supportive to those bereaved, perhaps creating or supporting a parish ministry.
Similarly, coronavirus has shone a light on the elderly, so vulnerable to the twin threats of COVID-19 and isolation. If we talk about respect for life, it goes without saying that it should include the elderly. The church my family attends in Florida has a parish nurse. Each time I’ve seen the office door I’ve been struck by what a good idea it is. Imagine someone doing wellness checks, keeping seniors engaged and in their homes longer, offering practical and moral support to new mothers— the list is endless.
When we return, we come back to a church still divided over so many issues, the latest being the Vatican’s denial of blessings for same-sex relationships. While no one has ever pretended that the Church of Rome is a democracy, a recent Pew Research Survey indicated that six in 10 American Catholics support the idea of same-sex marriage. I cannot remember the last time I heard anyone discuss the concept of sensus fidelium, let alone the role the laity plays in how the church discerns questions of faith and morals, but this most recent decision has many Catholics shaking their heads, and some walking away, joining the others who have already left.
The church doors will reopen as one of the most momentous periods in our lives winds down. Historically, ecumenical councils have stemmed from social change or to answer great questions. We are, without question, in a period where we face both. Our church is riven by battles over orthodoxy and the insidious creep of culture and politics into matters of faith. At the same time, we must discuss the question of how laity—and especially women—can assume a larger role.
Vatican II offered recognition to the laity, allowing us to take our first tentative steps toward maturity. That maturity is now upon us. A new council could carry on the conversation that began almost 60 years ago.
We return, like Thomas, with our eyes opened. We come with the hope that our church will have the compassion of the Good Samaritan. We have witnessed great suffering and we want to affect change because of what we have come to understand in this strange and awful period.
We want to offer insights gained and share lessons learned on what a lived gospel looks like. If we can’t, as the old song says, “How you going to keep ‘em down on the farm? … or in the pews.
Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.