In the beginning of what became the COVID-19 pandemic, as we experienced an increasing number of closures, cancellations and changed plans, people often expressed a desire for things to “get back to normal.” Now, two years later, situations, behaviors, daily life — at least in Cambodia — are still far from the normal we once knew.
At the end of 2019, our English Catholic Community of St. Joseph Church in Phnom Penh was the largest parish in Cambodia. We had more than 300 faithful for a Saturday evening Mass at the World Vision auditorium and more than 200 for a Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Church, and we were talking of a second Sunday Mass.
Then COVID-19 shut down all church services for almost a year and a half. We were able to resume Masses in November 2021, but World Vision is still not available and the hall we used at St. Joseph Church was torn down, so we moved into a chapel there.
The required masks and temperature checks were easily implemented but because the chapel is not large, social distancing limits us to 60 persons for each Saturday evening and Sunday morning Mass and people need to register in advance. And what we have found now is that we can’t fill those 120 seats at our weekend Masses. Our people are not coming.
There are a variety of reasons. St. Joseph Church is across town from our old big congregation at World Vision. People consider it far away, dislike the traffic and are concerned about the cost of a tuk-tuk ride back and forth. Some are waiting for us to return to World Vision (which probably isn’t going to happen).
We also know that many of our parishioners left Cambodia. A good number of our community were teachers and when schools were shut down for almost two years, they went back to their home countries. It is increasingly apparent that they are not going to return.
I suspect, though, that many people are not returning to Mass because they have discovered they don’t need it.
Our community comes from more than 50 countries (just 25 or so people from the United States), and for many of them their experience of Sunday liturgy was mainly “going to church” on Sunday. They had little sense of being part of a community of believers, strengthening and encouraging each other, little sense of the fellowship that I believe Jesus wishes us to have.
Now they have become accustomed to watching a televised Mass in their living room where they are not only not interacting with a community but where the community is not even present. And they don’t miss the community because they didn’t feel a strong connection with it before.
I believe in many ways the church has created a culture of merely attending a service rather than participating in a life-giving community worshiping together. Because too many people didn’t experience the life of a faith-filled community, they haven’t missed it and are not in a hurry to return.
We could have used the pandemic and the curtailment of church services as an opportunity to help people be the people of God together in new and creative ways with Bible sharing, prayer groups, basic Christian communities and other initiatives. But we didn’t do that, and unfortunately, the offering of televised Masses reduced even more the weak sense of community we had and made watching a Mass video the new norm and expectation.
I’m not too worried about diminished numbers. We will rebuild with those who come. But I am sad we missed an opportunity to create some new models of church.
Father Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at parish-without-borders.org.