What will Catholic community look like after COVID?

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A penitent receives ashes at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City during Ash Wednesday Mass Feb. 17, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

Similar to a hurricane or tornado, the novel coronavirus pandemic has swept through the Catholic Church in the United States, upending nearly every aspect of Catholic life and leaving a devastated landscape in its wake.

“The storm causes lots of destruction in a few minutes, but then it takes years to rebuild the town. COVID-19 has been like that. It’s going to take a long time to rebuild,” said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island.

Father Javier Julio, associate pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Shrewsbury, Mass., blesses face masks made by a parish ministry of 30 people March 28, 2020. CNS

Even with the promise that mass vaccinations will push the country to herd immunity later this year, a post-COVID future remains difficult to imagine. Thousands of people every day are still being infected with the virus and are dying from COVID-19.

The pandemic still has its grip on everyday life. Most people continue to wear masks in public and keep more than 6 feet away from others. On Sundays, every other pew in most parishes are still blocked off to maintain social distancing at Mass.

“I don’t know what Mass attendance will be like post-COVID. I’m not sure what our funeral practices will be like, what our wedding practices will be like, our confirmation classes. They could all very well be somewhat different after the COVID pandemic is over,” Bishop Tobin told Our Sunday Visitor.

Read more from our COVID-19 one year anniversary special section here.

“I think it’s going to take a long time for people to recover in that sense and get back to normal, if we ever get back to normal,” Bishop Tobin added.

Other Catholic bishops, as well as pastors, lay ministers, scholars, theologians, financial analysts and experts who work in parish ministry told Our Sunday Visitor that they expect Catholic life will be different in various ways when the pandemic recedes and churches begin to fully reopen again.

Accelerated decline

Parish and diocesan staff in many places will be leaner because of layoffs and budget cuts. At Mass, handshakes during the sign of peace or drinking the Precious Blood from a common cup may not return for a while.

“Who knows, maybe the future sign of peace will be elbow to elbow instead of hand to hand,” Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, told Our Sunday Visitor.

Some ministries and programs that were curtailed or postponed may not be brought back as parishes and Catholic agencies assess their short-term needs and even begin to rethink old ways of doing things.

People pray at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Mich., Nov. 24, 2020. CNS

“There are going to be losses there, of course. But I think in a real way, an institution like a parish that is in huge need of renewal and revitalization, this provides an opportunity for them to say, ‘We can actually say no to some things in a way we’ve never done before.’ This opens us up to think about what kind of parish we want to be — not how it’s always been done, but what the parish actually needs to be in order to survive and thrive in the 21st century,” said Kevin Cotter, the executive director of Amazing Parish, a Colorado-based nonprofit that works with pastors and their leadership teams to revitalize parishes.

Cotter and other observers told Our Sunday Visitor that the pandemic accelerated declines in parish life that the Church was already experiencing pre-COVID, especially in the Northeast and Midwest.

Read our editorial on the year of the pandemic here.

“This has led some parish leadership teams elsewhere to say, ‘This is what’s going to happen to us in five to 10 years if we keep on the same track that we’re on now,'” Cotter said.

Other observers expect that many parishes that were struggling before the pandemic, especially those in the inner cities, may ultimately never recover from COVID-related losses in weekend collections and Mass attendance.

“The question is, how many of those parishes will not survive. All this is going to be part of the restructuring of the American Catholic Church,” said Massimo Faggioli, a theologian and expert in Church history at Villanova University.

Faggioli said the Catholic community in the United States could lose “a significant number of parishes” in the next few years unless a good percentage of the lay faithful returns to Mass and contributes to their local parishes. However, he said the pandemic has changed people’s expectations of church.

“I think it would be a mistake to assume that all people will come back to a pre-COVID situation,” Faggioli said. “That might be convincing for some, but I don’t think it will be for everyone.”

Will people return?

Indeed, a pressing concern for parish priests and bishops across the country is the very real possibility that a considerable percentage of Catholics who used to attend Mass on most Sundays before COVID-19 may not return.

“Catholicism has been described as a religion of habit, and what we’ve done for the past year is that in many people’s lives, we’ve broken that habit,” said Father Jeff Kirby, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Indian Land, South Carolina.

Bishop Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces, N.M., wears a mask and gloves while giving Communion to a passenger of a vehicle during the Easter Vigil in the parking lot of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Las Cruces April 11, 2020. CNS

“Now people are asking, ‘Is the Church that important to me? Do I need to go to worship? Does my faith in Jesus Christ mean that much to me?’ First we have to acknowledge that reality. There are no rose-colored glasses here,” Father Kirby said.

After more than a year of being dispensed from the Sunday Mass obligation, scholars who study Catholic life in the United States are also wondering if the pews will still be mostly empty when the pandemic passes.

“Whether there’s a group of Catholics who were loosely affiliated with a parish, who went to Mass almost out of habit or out of a sense that this was just the thing they did, whether this changes their ways, if they just won’t be compelled to come back, no one knows for sure,” said David Cloutier, a theology professor at The Catholic University of America.

“I think parish leaders need to think about how to reconnect people who might have been loosely affiliated but were showing up every week,” Cloutier told Our Sunday Visitor. “I think they’re going to have to do some active cultivation of those folks.”

Bishop Tobin said he believes the pandemic has effectively quelled the “lingering sense of obligation” that many Catholics, pre-COVID, still felt to attend Mass.

“I think it’s become very subjective and very arbitrary, that sense of canonical or moral obligation, because we bishops have given the dispensation for the obligation during COVID, and rightfully so,” Bishop Tobin said. “But I could reimpose the obligation to re-attend Mass this week and I don’t think it would make a difference for more than two people throughout the state of Rhode Island.”

Bishop Stika is optimistic that the lay faithful will return if they were attending Mass before the pandemic.

“The way I look at it is if people were faithful to the Church before, they’ll come back because they realize the beauty of the community, the beauty of the public liturgy and the beauty of the sacraments,” Bishop Stika said.

New emphasis on outreach

Timothy P. O’Malley, director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, told Our Sunday Visitor that he believes the next 10 years will be “an extremely challenging” period for parish life in the United States.

Anne O’Malley, a volunteer with the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, N.Y., gathers food and other necessities for distribution to people in need at the apostolate’s outreach center May 21, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

“There are many people who are just not going to come back,” O’Malley said. “A lot of them are saying, ‘I actually didn’t miss (Mass), and I’m not going to come back.’ And I do not think that’s going to be small. I think it’s going to be a large number of people.

“Concurrently, at the very moment when outreach is going to have to be the most essential need of parishes, many of them are going to be broke,” said O’Malley, who added that while many parishes have figured out ways to remain afloat financially, “there are going to be a lot of parishes that are going to shut down.”

To ultimately rebound from COVID-19, O’Malley said the Catholic Church in the United States must conduct “a huge outreach,” especially to young people. He added that parishes will need to reach out into their surrounding neighborhoods and discern new ways to invite people back to church.

“It can’t just be like, ‘Oh we miss you, Mass is important,'” O’Malley said. “It has to meet the deep abiding questions that people have in their lives. COVID has raised all sorts of existential questions: What is friendship? What is loneliness? Where do I find a community? What about racial justice? These questions are not accidental. These are realities that must be attended to by these parishes. We have to actually proclaim the Gospel rather than a tepid religiosity of pleasant thoughts.”

Kevin Ahern, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College in New York City, told Our Sunday Visitor that he believes people will generally find it difficult to return to Mass unless they felt that Church was present with them during the pandemic and expressed sincere concern for their well-being.

“For some people, it’s not so much that they’ve left the Church, but that they feel the Church has left them,” Ahern said. “We need to make sure in this transition back to a new normal that we don’t leave people behind.”

To foster those connections, Ahern encourages the creation of small faith-sharing groups and cultivating a culture that echoes Pope Francis’ call for a Church that listens and actively goes out to meet people where they are to accompany them on their faith journey.

“We can’t just wait for people to come to us. We have to go to them,” Ahern said. “When people look back at this year, they’re going to ask the questions, ‘Was the Church with us when we lost a family member? Was the Church with us when we lost a job? Was the Church with us when we were struggling to figure out whether or not to have a wedding or a baptism?”

Said Ahern, “I think there’s still time for those in Church leadership to go out to people virtually, and in-person if possible, to accompany them, to be with them and to journey with them.”

Continued virtual presence

Technology, especially the kind that enabled priests to livestream Masses during the pandemic and conduct parish council meetings over Zoom, will continue to be used post-pandemic. Parish adult faith formation and children’s religious education programs will likely have virtual components.

“In many respects, one of the benefits of the pandemic is that it made us have a presence on the digital continent,” said Father Kirby, who added that nearly two-thirds of his registered parishioners participate in his parish’s livestream events, which include not only Sunday Mass but also weekday devotions, Bible Study and a parish book club.

Pope Francis speaks during his general audience as it is livestreamed from the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican April 1, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“It took a pandemic to push us to a place where, in many respects, we should have already been,” Father Kirby said. “When I look at it, I ask myself, ‘Why didn’t we have livestream before, for people who are homebound, for people who couldn’t get to Mass, for people who couldn’t make it to a Bible study but wanted to participate?”

In addition to livestreamed Masses, parishes during the pandemic also began using social media and apps like Flocknote to communicate remotely with parishioners. In some parishes, Flocknote messages, YouTube videos and Facebook posts may even permanently replace the traditional parish Sunday bulletin.

“We probably will never have a printed bulletin again,” Father Kirby said.

While Zoom and Facebook Live can be effective tools to extend the Church’s reach and make it easier for a local parish to relay information, several observers emphasized that technology cannot be a substitute for the communitarian aspect of Catholic life.

“I do think that there will be a hunger for being present to other people,” said Cloutier of Catholic University. “So even if say a Bible study group, a faith-sharing group, or even something like coffee and donuts, has to be set up with some kind of social distancing, there will still be that desire for people to be in a space with other people.”

To reawaken that sense of community and belonging and to bring Catholics back together, Ahern of Manhattan College suggested that the Church could provide “spaces for celebrations” such as parish or diocesan-wide festivals to celebrate the return of some kind of normalcy. Those gatherings could also be used to commemorate everything that has been lost during the pandemic.

“Catholics do memory really well. Catholics do death well. Catholics do memorials well. Catholics do celebrations well,” Ahern said. “We have resources that we can draw upon to mark this experience that we’ve all lived through, to not only look backwards, but to go forward together as well.”

Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor

Brian Fraga

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.