This column is being written as we begin to be able to return to worship the Risen Lord as a real and not just a virtual community. What a shame the Government has flip-flopped so often on numbers.
Of course, not everybody will be able to or should return. People with medical conditions which render them particularly vulnerable to the dreaded Covid-19, or their carers, should continue to exercise prudence and caution.
However, the return is being marked by many with a profound Deo gratias and a new awareness of how precious the gift of the Eucharist really is, a gift which should never be taken for granted.
It is a moment of opportunity and challenge. Some parishes have developed a stronger sense of community during lockdown. It was exemplified by Fr Dominic Zwierzychowski OMI, a Polish priest serving in Inchicore.
He described how a “huge and very vocal group of community” had grown from online interactions. That is wonderful.
Some priests worried that the lockdown made parishioners more passive, watching ‘Father’ take centre stage. I suspect that many laypeople did not experience live-streamed Masses as focused on ‘Father’, but on the Eucharist.
While deeply apprec-iative of the ways in which priests and parishes adapted to the online world, it was being fed by the Word and feeling solidarity with others deprived of the Eucharist, which attracted many laypeople.
Much of that new expertise will be invaluable in building community after the return to worship in churches.
Recently, Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA) – a US organisation focused on leveraging Catholic philanthropy – brought out a report on parish vitality. It is called ‘Open Wide the Doors to Christ: A Study of Catholic Social Innovation for Parish Vitality’, by Marti R. Jewell And Mark Mogilka. Fadica studied successful parishes to see what makes them tick. It mentions eight key factors:
-an holistic, compelling vision;
-prioritising the Sunday worship experience;
-fostering spiritual growth and maturity;
-living the Faith in service and;
-utilising online communication tools.
For many people, the parish website is the first moment of encounter with a parish. If it is lively and attractive, giving testimony to the many activities going on in the parish, it can be a valuable tool of evangelisation.
The internet can also provide invaluable opportunities for adult education. People who cannot commit to six Tuesdays in-a-row could commit to clicking on educational material when it suits them. If such offerings are paired with regular, perhaps monthly, real-world interaction, they could really foster community.
Where would we have been in the pandemic without our immigrant nurses and doctors?”
In some ways, the Fadica report is frustrating, because it offers glimpses rather than a roadmap (a phrase admittedly over-used during the pandemic) as to how to become a vital parish.
For example, there are lots of tantalising sentences like this: “An example of this is a parish in Silicon Valley whose leaders ‘heard’ deep loneliness in the very young IT population of their town and responded with an outreach by young adults.” My immediate response was, what kind of outreach? How did they get in contact with these deeply lonely IT professionals?
There are other aspects which do not necessarily apply to Ireland, such as the necessity for acknowledging and including Hispanic communities. If, however, you substituted immigrant and asylum-seeking communities, it becomes much more relevant.
Where would we have been in the pandemic without our immigrant nurses and doctors? I always find it deeply moving when I visit a hospital which still has a chapel, and find healthcare personnel in prayer there. More often than not, the people praying there are either new Irish or immigrants.
Their Faith offers a tremendous witness.
There are many people who want to be audience members, coming to church for individualistic reasons rather than hoping to be involved”
Welcome and hospitality are words used again and again and, in fact, emerged as the most significant factor for parishes where parishioners feel that there is vitality. We will need volunteers for the next while to supervise numbers and social distancing. Could that be extended into a ministry where, rather than acting as quasi-bouncers, it is an opportunity to welcome newcomers and incorporate them into the life of the parish?
Of course, there are many people who want to be audience members, coming to church for individualistic reasons rather than hoping to be involved, much less involved in service. However, there are many others longing for a real commitment.
One really positive aspect of the report is the way it respects practices like Eucharistic adoration, which it says many young adults want, but also social justice outreach, which it also says is particularly attractive to young adults. So often we have unnecessary divisions and suspicions between factions in the Church. We need to cop on. The biggest threat is a secularising, homogenising culture, and we all need to support each other in providing a rich, varied and vital alternative to that.