Dioceses have canceled Masses or dispensed the faithful from their Sunday obligation because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Parishes are empty, and they may be for some time to come.
This does not mean that parish life is suspended; in fact, parish life may be more important now than ever. If anything, our responsibility to each other and especially the most vulnerable among us is heightened. People are going to get sick, the elderly are particularly at risk, many will feel lonely and overwhelmed. We need parish life.
The parish is the stable community of the faithful (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2179). The parish is a place and a people of communion, formed by the Eucharist. Communion is the remedy to suffering and loneliness. It is the Lord sharing everything with us so we can learn to share everything with each other, to bear burdens together, to suffer and love together.
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But if we cannot gather together in our parishes during this pandemic, what can we do? How do we participate in and practice communion? I’ve got an idea. Our pastoral council is starting this at our parish, and I think is something for every other parish to do, too.
Here is the idea: Every parish household should receive a phone call offering a personal contact to the parish community. This call should include three things:
- Check in: “How are you doing? What is your situation going into this outbreak? Do you need anything right now?”
- Pledge of support: “Here is my phone number and email. I am your personal contact with the parish community. If something comes up, if you or someone in your household gets sick, if you need help with shopping or errands, if you need someone to talk to, if you just get lonely … you can call me. I will work with our parish community to get you what you need. We are in this together.”
- Further outreach: “If you know other people in our area who need help or support, let me know — neighbors, coworkers, friends … whoever. I will work with our parish community to try to find them what they need. Our parish is here to serve.”
You may end up calling people who have not been active in the parish for years, or who left because of some grievance. So be it. In fact, good. Because you, a real person, made contact from the parish.
Most people will probably say thanks and never ask for anything. OK. Because you, a real person, let them know they could depend on their parish community if they did need something.
But for some people, this might end up being their lifeline. When they don’t know what to do, they will call you. When they need a community when there is no community, they will call you. When they need hope, they will call you. And because they called you, a real person, the parish can be a source of life.
It is important to stress that this is a personal connection, not a program. Our parishes have enough programs. What we need are stronger personal connections. Communion is nourished through personal bonds. That is a fruit of the Eucharist.
It is also important to stress that this is not, not, not an outreach left to the pastor and the parish staff. This is an outreach led by parishioners, and the pastor and parish staff can help. It comes from parishioners, not professionals.
In our own parish in South Bend, Indiana, the pastoral council is initiating this outreach. There are 13 members on our pastoral council and 920 parish households. That is too many households for 13 people to call. The maximum number any of us could call would probably be 15 households. So the first step is getting other parishioners to join us in this outreach — 75 or 80 parishioners on the outreach team for a parish of 920 households is just about right. We are calling this our Parish Life Outreach Team. This is the personal connection to the Eucharistic charity of our parish during this time when we cannot be together in person. It takes work to build this team, but it is necessary work, and it should happen now. Right now.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that mercy has two dimensions. The first is the ability to perceive the needs and suffering of others, while the second is the willing action to respond to the needs and suffering you perceive. This parish outreach gets to the first part: It is a way to perceive what others are going through. Once you know that, then the work of the acting in response becomes the responsibility of the parish community, through the personal contact to that particular household.
Communion is a gift and a task. The stable community of the faithful is built upon the stable gift of the Lord’s communion with us. The task of the parish is to make that communion manifest both within and outside of its own community. A parish has a responsibility to a particular area — even a neighborhood or a few neighborhoods — within a particular diocese. The parish’s responsibility is to be a source of life and communion. People are going to need that now more than ever. Active parishioners need it. Fallen away parishioners need it. Neighbors need it, the forgotten need it, we all need it.
What if this is the evangelizing moment parishes have been waiting for? I am not implying that God sent this virus to renew our Catholic parishes. That’s nonsense. What I do mean is that we have long wanted our parishes to grow stronger in community. We have wanted to reach out to those on the margins. We have wanted to build cultures of belonging, where both the faithful and the drifting can find personal relationships and companionship. And here is our opportunity. Now. Right now.
Until everyone can meet again in our parishes for Sunday Mass, this is a concrete and personal way to become the communion we need. This is how we act as members of one body, where the suffering and joy of one becomes the suffering and joy of all.
And you might wonder: Why couldn’t this be the life and mission of a parish even when the pandemic is over? If so, you wonder correctly. Maybe this is how a time of crisis becomes a time of new birth.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D. works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the chair of the pastoral council at St. Joseph Parish, South Bend. If you need help getting a Parish Life Outreach going, contact him at email@example.com.