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Finding Church in the new normal

By Fr Robert Christo, Parish Priest, St Dominic’s RC, Penal and Vicar for Communications

The Lord’s presence dwells in real and concrete families, with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes (Amoris Laetitia, 315).

“Why does the neighbour’s eight-year-old attending RC school not know (unprompted) the ‘Our Father’? Why do the First Communion candidates not genuflect before entering the pew at Mass?”

These were questions asked of me by parents after a Zoom-enabled First Communion class.

It was asked with anger, as though having signed up one’s child for a First Communion  programme, parents’ role in their children’s  faith formation was done.

“Who should  take responsibility for this? Do you pray the Our Father with them at home?”

The parents’ example

I had asked the parents as politely as I could. “Do you pray before bedtime? Do your kids celebrate Mass with you? Do you pray before meals? Do you bless your kids as they leave home?” The answer to all those questions was: “Well, no … sometimes hmm…”

“Children can’t learn what they are not exposed to,” I reminded them.

Children learn what they live:

“If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those around them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.” —Dorothy Nolte, PhD.

I submit: If a child lives without God, do not expect a saint.

The parents are realising that they  needed to step up and do more—that the notion of a “domestic Church” wasn’t just an idea but real and necessary if their kids were to know the faith and lead actively fruitful lives.

The good news is, as COVID-19 lockdown period progressed, families began unknowingly, to build domestic Churches.

We encouraged them to pray before/after meals, tune in to our Facebook night prayers, and include the Our Father before bedtime. In short order, virtual Mass attendance increased on our Facebook livestreaming where altars were well-laid out and kids clad in their Sunday best in their living rooms.

Many made creative Stations of the Cross in their driveways and sumptuous Seder Meals at their dinner tables. The mature ones engaged in religious faith formation programmes on online mobile apps.

Children will only catch the flames of faith if their parents are on fire. They are their kids’ first and best teachers of the faith—not the priest nor the catechists.

That thought alone is enough to make me wonder whether our efforts to prepare kids for their sacraments shouldn’t require parental classes as well (or even in lieu of children’s classes) if we are to set the parents ablaze.

In these post-quarantine times, I have observed that parents are yearning for sound instruction and example—to show the world that the Church to which they have grown cold is still living, real, and relevant.

If our definition of ‘normal’ means crowded churches, dipping our fingers in holy water, dropping dollar notes in collection baskets,  animated sign of peace, cake/coffee sales after Mass, and physical reception of Holy Communion, we must be prepared for worship somewhat ‘abnormal’ until a safe and efficacious vaccine has been developed.

Offering the Eucharist in an Incarnate Church like ours while social distancing, mask-wearing, hand-sanitising  and glove-wearing are still required, will continue to be a wrestle for Church leaders.

The Church will not be the same

Might we have to content ourselves—as the faithful did in the Middle Ages—with a Liturgy of the Word at homes, Lectio Divina in small community prayer cells, adoration or benediction replacing the Mass as a matter of obligation? We may have to brace ourselves for that possibility.

This Washington priest set up a drive-thru confessional. Photograph by Evy Mages

Should we explore (drive-thru) confessions at a distance?

How does that ensure confidentiality within a Church setting?

Home baptisms? Drive-in (open-air) Masses?

More likely we may have to, for a time, set up confessional screens but with plexiglass barrier. We will adjust.

Some have suggested, should the bishops decree, can baptisms become something done at home, (by parents/lay ministers) themselves, if clergy are unavailable? I have heard of  such experiences in Latin America during this lockdown.

There is much to think about as the COVID-19 conversations continue to turn toward how we can live our faith beyond the livestream offerings of the internet: how we may worship as community while social distancing.

God, who creates, will gift His Church with creative answers that will help us feel like the Church is once again active and offering everything it can to the world, just as the early Church did: through creative sacramental worship and consolation, community witness and prayer, social outreach.

These activities can take many forms, of course—visual, interactive, and even boldly physical.

Visual

During the lockdown, Pope Francis’ magnificent and powerful Urbi et Orbi of March 27 could perhaps be replicated, inviting the faithful to pray and adore together online.

Church ministers must be encouraged to do regular livestreamed prayer events, because it is important for people to see their minister.

Interactive

Fr Kweisi Alleyne on the Feast of Corpus Christi in Trinidad and Tobago (2020)

Processions—socially distanced and masked, of course—might also be useful, here as a means of bringing Christ to the community, to the neighbourhoods in a visual and reverent way. I think of an old newspaper vendor forcing her way to her window to watch a Eucharistic procession pass by, and how it brought her, unexpectedly, to her knees and drew her into praise.

Any family can bring a statue of Mary, or a favourite saint, into their yard, and permit their neighbours to participate in prayers and hymns as they process around the house, or down the street.

Physical

In the early Church, the apostles served beyond the remit of their own church communities. They invented ‘social services’ long before the government.

Our ‘Let No One Go Hungry’ outreach in a time of physical risk, material need, and economic uncertainty will have to take many creative forms (centralised, decentralised or both) and will demand we see ourselves as the hands and feet of Christ in a new normal.

Perhaps empty/unused/underutilised parish spaces will need to be  converted  into temporary or emergency housing, ‘tent cities’, and soup kitchens through which we may feed and shelter others.

All of that, of course, will absolutely require conversion, transformation, retooling and sacrifice. The Church is gifted and resilient and always been a beacon of hope in a broken world. People seem to be itching to do something good for others.

And it is all, of course, powerful and fulfilling evangelical work of the Holy Spirit.

These times seem strange but stranger times seem to be looming in which ‘new normal’ is evolving. The Church as it has done through the centuries must assert itself again and position itself for recovery.

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