As our church buildings move closer to reopening their doors, a sister in Cork says the Covid-19 crisis has presented an opportunity for us to “be Church” beyond physical structures.
Sr Karen Kent, coordinator of pastoral development for the Diocese of Cork and Ross, tells The Irish Catholic about her background, taking a “leap of Faith” and preparing parishes for the “new normal”.
“I was born and grew up in England,” she says, “my mother is from Wexford, she married a man from Cheshire in England who was a part of the Church of England and they got married in a Catholic church.
“My father never became a Catholic, but my brother and I were both brought up Catholic. We had both traditions in our house, my father would have gone to early service in his own church and then come to Mass with us. It was quite unique and unusual.
“I got involved in youth and music ministry in my parish and worked in pastoral care in school and I always had this thinking there was something nagging at me to look at the possibility of religious life.
“I went to visit several religious congregations and I had an aunt who was an Ursuline nun in Waterford,” she explains.
“I read about the Ursuline founding story and it spoke to me because it wasn’t about what you did; they weren’t founded for ministry – they were founded to make a difference in their local parish communities.
“There was something in that where ‘if you can’t see it then you can’t be it’, so there was something about being an example. I started to explore that further and I spoke to the vocation’s director there at the time who said to me ‘you have to make a decision at some stage, if you never try it you’ll never know if it’s for you’.
“So it was a ‘leap of Faith’ in asking myself ‘is this life for you?’ and those questions stayed with me, so I prayed and decided to take the ‘leap’, see where it would take me and that’s what led me to come to Ireland.”
Sr Kent came to Ireland in 1997 and entered the Ursuline order. She did two years as a novitiate, making her first profession in 1999 and her final profession in 2006.
She completed a Masters in Theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth in 2004 and then took up her current occupation in the Diocese of Cork and Ross in 2005.
“I try to stay connected with people,” Sr Kent says of her position, “show support, offer ideas, send out regular updates to clergy and parishes – seeing how can we be Church in a new space and a new time.
“It is going to take time for people to move to that new space, people are looking at dates from government guidelines to see when churches can reopen, but it’s important to understand that opening the churches to have public celebrations and Mass isn’t going to be what it was. It’s going to have to be and look different, and it will feel different.
“It’s about finding new ways,” she continues, “it’s a time to keep the flame of Faith alive and the spirit of prayer at home, while becoming Church beyond the church building.
“Although our church buildings might be closed, it’s also about being and living Church and that the church buildings exist to be a place for Church to gather.
“That is the message we need to build with people; that we are Church wherever we are and Christ is present wherever we are, we can pray in different spaces and places.”
In the current climate, Sr Kent feels the impact of Covid-19 has prompted parishes to “regenerate” in order to adapt to changing and challenging times.
“It’s very different now,” she says. “When I came (to Ireland), it was to give expression to the pastoral plan, bring it to life, more pastoral councils to parishes and offer support and resources to bring people into ministry in their parishes.
“So that’s been developing over the last 15 years and when we come to now, it’s very different.
“At the moment we are pondering over how we can gather people so that they can make collective decisions together and move towards collective action.
“Lots of people are talking about going into recovery,” continues Sr Kent, “but recovery is going back to what you were and perhaps this is giving us an opportunity to look at what we can become in the sense of what a regenerated parish might look like going forward.
“The ‘new normal’ is going to be social distancing,” she continues, “taking more care of how we act responsibly around each other and rethink how we are doing Eucharistic celebrations.
“It also means how we are outside of churches in terms of adult Faith development, sacramental preparation and all those things that go on in our parishes, which will have to look and be different.”