by Bishop Jeffrey R. Haines
Some weeks ago, I had the privilege of sharing a Zoom conversation with the members of the Order of Catechists of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The Order of Catechists is a holy association of men and women, well-trained in Catholic Doctrine, who seek to promote the integration of the teaching of the Church throughout the pastoral ministry taking place in southeastern Wisconsin.
The diverse membership of the Order includes theologians, professors, principals, teachers, directors of religious education, religious, missionaries, pastoral associates and even a director of administrative services. The topic of the gathering was a discussion of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on ministry in the Church. While the participants were well aware of the ongoing nature of the pandemic and thus the preliminary character of such insights, there was a consensus that some general observations might be lifted up for further study and development. What follows is a sampling of some of the insights raised in the discussion.
1) Everyday Sainthood – The emergence of the category of “essential workers” in response to the pandemic cast a spotlight on the importance of laborers whose status in the workforce most certainly has not been given its proper value. Normally, society tends to place a higher priority and notoriety on employment which requires more refined and lengthy academic training. Yet, the importance of workers whose labor was focused more on providing of the necessities of everyday living clearly rose in estimation of worth. The awareness of such positions as store clerks, truck drivers, meat packers, caregivers, etc., were given elevated recognition. There was a new sense of the value of these everyday heroes. This insight would seem to suggest a new appreciation of lay Catholics who live their faith in the midst of the ebb and flow of daily life. Consideration should be given in the Church to a more widespread selection, promotion and emphasis given to what might be considered “Everyday Saints.”
2) The Communal Nature of Faith – In the culture of a nation like the United States, with its heavy emphasis upon personal rights, there always has been a tendency to favor spirituality which was more individual in nature. In common language, this sometimes is called the “Me and Jesus” phenomenon. Yet, the various forms of Stay-at-Home executive orders and the spatial-distancing mandating the prohibition or severe limitation of gatherings to prevent the spread of such a contagious virus seemed to nurture a heart-felt longing for the communal nature of the practice of the faith. Nowhere was the absence of such gathering more painful than in the 10-person limit placed upon such liturgical celebrations as the Rites of Funerals and Marriage. While broadcasting and live-streaming of such liturgies alleviated some of the hurt, the yearning for gathering prompted by the limitations instilled upon religious congregating suggest the potential of efforts to reclaim the power of communal prayer and worship.
3) The Domestic Church – In a society used to transportation to various specialized sites for business, education, recreation, etc., the shutdown of such free movement by executive orders relegated much of life to the common household. Suddenly, the home became an office, a classroom, a movie theater and a gymnasium. It also became a place of Catholic formation and worship. In recent times, much of the responsibility for formation and worship was assumed by the local parish, often with ample facilities and professional ministerial staff. New challenges arose with the restricted physical access to those resources. The Catholic Church long has lauded the importance of the family home as the primary place of faith formation and prayer in its theology of the Sacraments of Marriage and Baptism. The newfound situation precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic offered the opportunity to test the mettle of this teaching. A number of successful ventures were launched in response to this challenge. New computer technology and social media outlets offered the advent of virtual forms of retreats, engaged enrichment sessions, Stations of the Cross, spiritual book discussions, etc. Still, much of the content and delivery came from parish and archdiocesan sources. It would seem that further exploration will need to take place to train parents in the skills and create a culture in which the actual passing on of the faith takes place around the family dinner table. It would be wise for the Church to invest more heavily in the development of the Intergenerational Family Formation Programs, which some of the parishes of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have adopted.
4) Intentional Charity and Outreach – Many of the noble efforts of the Human Concerns Committees and Outreach Ministries follow a model that advertises a service or program of assistance, which invites those in need to come forward in response. It is a process of self-identification. However, the restrictive strategies needed to help combat the spread of the coronavirus tended to immobilize persons in place. In fact, the confinement even seemed to create an environment in which some people were hidden. Think, for example, of those frail in health, the elderly and people with disabilities. Of special concern would be the immigrant population, some of which have not been able yet to acquire the proper legal documentation. The conditions of the pandemic likely exacerbated the situation and even motivated some of the vulnerable populations to try to literally disappear. In such a climate, it would seem that the Church might need a new strategy to bring relief to the suffering. Rather than waiting for self-identification, it would seem wise to motivate Catholic neighbors and friends of the vulnerable to advocate on behalf of the disadvantaged, proactively contacting Human Concerns Committees and Outreach Ministries with invitations to contact and visit the needy. Such an effort might prove especially valuable in reaching out to those most in need of assistance, who often refuse to come forward for help due to their own reticence to take a hand-out or a humble attitude which assumes that others are worse off than they.
5) Eucharistic Theology – The limitations that executive orders placed upon sizeable gatherings resulted in a significant period of absence of the possibility of opening churches for the celebration of the Mass. One of the consequences of this closure was a dramatic expression of hunger for the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful. The sincerity of desire and passionate longing for the Body of Christ were truly beautiful. However, some of the remedies recommended by clergy and the faithful to alleviate this spiritual hunger were not always appropriate – one example being a drive-thru reminiscent of fast-food restaurants. A number of such remedies manifested procedures which disconnected the consecrated Host from the context of the Eucharistic action, particularly the Prayer of Thanksgiving and Sanctification. The revelation of this division suggests that there is a need for the teaching of a more comprehensive theology of the Eucharist – one which includes the breadth of elements such as memorial, sacrifice, communion, presence, sacred meal and participation in the cosmic liturgy of heaven.